New design-build class weaves nature into rural Cambodian school

Students take part in “Design for a Sustainable Future”

Lori Fortig MITEI

Rebecca Gould was intrigued by an e-mail describing a new class where she could work with graduate students outside her discipline and do something that could affect people. “We were to design a classroom in rural Cambodia with natural lighting, no air conditioning, natural ventilation, no glass, and low noise level between classrooms,” says Gould, a junior in civil engineering. She jumped at the opportunity and signed up for “Design for a Sustainable Future.”

“Our class was primarily grad students and people in the architecture depart­ment or building technology, so I was working with people who had been out in the field and worked before,” adds Gould. “I didn’t know how to create a master plan before the class.”

During the fall semester, she learned how to analyze a building and design a campus. Then, during Independent Activities Period (IAP) in January, she and her classmates traveled to Cambodia for 15 days to see how well their building plans would work on location and how a structure can be built from scratch—a valuable experience for the undergraduate and graduate students alike.

“Physical building on site is incredible,” says Lisa Pauli, a third-year master’s student in architecture who had worked for three years in New York as a designer. “In school, we tend to be limited to learning about construction in one or two dimensions. But working on site offers an entirely new understand­ing of how to pour a concrete slab or level a site.”

Andrea Love, a first-year graduate student in architecture who had worked at a sustainable architecture firm for seven years, says she learns better by seeing and doing than by reading. “There’s a lot you can learn in the field. When you actually try a design in the field to see if it works, it gives you a lot of experience.” She adds that since the students were working with local unskilled laborers, they modified their designs to adapt to local skill sets.

During the project, the 15 students in the class and their three instructors collaborated with a Cambodian archi­tecture firm and people from the local school. The MIT group also got some unexpected help on site. The local school kids watching them wet bricks in a small pond soon joined in. “The kids did it, too, in their cute school uni­forms,” says Pauli.

Project-based learning

The design-build project started as a class run in fall 2009 by Marilyne Andersen, associate professor of building technology and a physics engineer; John Ochsendorf, associate professor of building technology and a structural engineer; and J. Meejin Yoon, associate professor in architectural design and a licensed architect. The class was divided into three teams, each tasked with designing a K–12 green school in the province of Siem Reap, home to the famous Angkor Wat temple com­plex. They also were asked to suggest improvements to an existing school and to build a kitchen for a government-run school nearby.

In the classroom, the students learned to use Lightsolve, MIT’s home-grown daylighting simulation program, and Rhinoceros, a commercial 3D modeling program, to help guide their project development. One team also used a computational fluid dynamics pro­gram to model and analyze airflows around the buildings in its proposed campus design. “The undergraduates’ enthusiasm was through the roof,” Pauli says. “They jumped into learning the new software programs.” Every design went through many iterations before the teams headed to Cambodia.

“This class illustrates the extraordinary impact that project-based learning has on students at every level,” says Donald Lessard, the Epoch Foundation Profes­sor of International Management and co-chair of the Energy Education Task Force. “It’s very different from a lecture in room 10-250 and has a positive influence on their motivation and how they learn in the future. They get to know real-world stakeholders and challenges, giving their learning experience new relevance.”

The Cambodian school, known as the Jay Pritzker Academy, is funded by Dan Pritzker, an entrepreneur who is building English K–12 college prepara­tory schools in the country. The schools are free and look for bright students from low-income families in Siem Reap. The aim is to graduate students who could eventually attend MIT or other colleges overseas. Cambodia’s educated class was decimated by the ruling Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, leaving behind a largely agricultural and uneducated population.

“The Pritzker Foundation is looking at how to get from humble agriculture to taking SATs,” explains Ochsendorf. The Pritzkers reviewed designs prepared by each of the three MIT teams, plus one by a local design company in Cambo­dia, and may ultimately pick elements from each design for the new school.

Using what nature offers

Ochsendorf says students and the general public know a lot about the performance of cars, but do not think of buildings as having performance in the way they use energy as well. “One of the primary things we hopefully conveyed to [the architecture] students is the notion that building performance should be part of the way they do things,” he says.

In Cambodia, the students had to consider the humid, hot climate where temperatures often climb to 100°F, regional taste in design, and the orientation of buildings for cooling. “They had to look at how the environ­ment and limited resources dictate the design of a building,” he says.

Using available materials also led to some creative solutions, according to Ochsendorf. In the kitchen built in the government school, the students replaced 30 percent of the concrete with local ash from burning rice husks to make the floor slab. This is similar to Roman concrete, which is made with volcanic ash, he says. The mixture recycles the ash and makes for a strong concrete, with lower greenhouse gas emissions. Another material innovation was adding a 5 percent cement binder to soil to make rammed-earth benches.

Ochsendorf hopes the students will carry on with such creative thinking within a given environmental setting because design considerations in a developed, colder area like Massachusetts are much different than in Cambodia’s tropical, low-infrastructure environment.

Multidisciplines are key

Yoon says that while there are design-build projects at MIT all the time, they typically don’t have the diversity of faculty as well as public service and sustainability aspects of this new class. “I learned so much from my colleagues,” she says. “At MIT we teach in side-by-side classrooms, but we don’t teach all three disciplines [engineering, building physics, and architecture] at the same time in the same classroom.”

Andersen says she noticed how hard it is to work in an interdisciplinary way. “There are language differences. It was a success only because the three professors worked together very well,” she says.

“Working across disciplines was so important, as was working with the people who work and live there,” adds Pauli. “We went through the full cycle of a design.” One example was the roof for the new school. “We used digital modeling software to analyze the building and then adjusted our roof overhangs and window openings to create an ideal indoor temperature for the students,” says Pauli. To ventilate the clay-tiled roof, the MIT team came up with a layered design of clay tiles, a vapor barrier, corrugated metal, insulation board, an air gap, and more insulation board.

Andersen says she had hoped the class, which was competitive—there were 40 applicants—would have attracted more engineers. “We would have liked to have reached out to a broader range of engineering students by advertising the class earlier, but the very large number of applicants from architecture itself shows that this was the kind of class students were eager to see offered,” she says. She judges the class a success because it forced all of the students—the graduate students, who were primarily in architecture, and the undergraduates in civil engi­neering—to think outside their usual comfort zone. “It was a rich learning experience for both them and us. They had to think cross-boundary and had to incorporate new kinds of design objectives. Ultimately, it enhances creativity,” she says. “The hope is they will now see design in a more holistic way.”

This class was supported in part by the Dirk (SB 1975) and Charlene (SB 1979) Kabcenell Foundation.

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.

EducationIndependent Activities Period

Press inquiries:

We're hiring! Learn more and apply