Architecture students get concrete lesson in how buildings are made

By Cynthia Yoder

Princeton NJ -- Princeton University mason Bernie Thomas can make "buttering a brick" look as easy as toast.

In a masonry demonstration for architecture students at the Architectural Laboratory last month, he noted that a professional mason lays some 800 bricks in a day. This brought chuckles from the students, who were facing the challenge of laying just a few that day.

University mason Bernie Thomas instructs junior Gillian Bostock in setting and leveling bricks for exterior walls.
 
  
Future architects and designers are working alongside a master craftsman from the Department of Grounds and Building Maintenance as part of the course, "Building Science and Technology: Building Systems." The one-semester course -- co-led by lecturer Terry Smith of Richardson/Smith Architects of Princeton and Senior Laboratory Technician John Hunter -- is part of the core curriculum for most undergraduate and graduate architecture students.

Senior architecture major Andrew Ballard, who was eager to try his hand at slapping mortar, said the lab section of the course is "just fun."

"Bernie lays down the mortar with one flick of a wrist," he observed with a grin of incredulity. "It's going to take us weeks to learn just that one motion."

By actually building what will become a 12-by-18-foot brick-and-wood structure reaching 30 feet in height, students are learning first-hand how structures are put together from drawings. The lab work so far has included cutting wood, laying concrete blocks and red brick, and installing termite shields.

"The students have a wonderful chance to work with experienced tradespeople," said Hunter. He added that it's a special opportunity for students to be able to work "almost one-on-one" with a craftsman like Thomas, whose instruction spans over several weeks of the course.

The laboratory component of the class began in the post-World War II period as an expression of the University's commitment to help students understand the construction process. Students now work in the same building as students did then -- in the 5,000-square-foot Architectural Laboratory, nestled between the Armory and Jadwin Gymnasium.

Building such a large structure -- indoors, no less -- involves an unusual level of cooperation between faculty, students and staff. The class of 40 students is divided into two lab groups of 20 that meet weekly at separate times. Hunter and Smith co-lead the group projects, guiding students through each new step of construction.

To streamline student work, Hunter and a lab colleague prep the site before students arrive. This includes, among other things, hauling in some 130 cinder blocks and 460 red bricks with the assistance of University technician Lester Fleming, a mason's helper.

"It's poetry in motion, making sure that everything is ready and that, when students arrive, they each have a task to do," Hunter said.

   Architecture lecturer Terry Smith (center), co-leader of the "Building Systems" course, works with juniors Sloan Fisher (left) and Vail Bloom on an arch.
 
 
Healthy competition

Each lab group is responsible for completing one-half of the structure, which they will join with roofing toward the end of the semester. Once the structure is built, Dennis Pennant, foreman for the grounds and building maintenance, will instruct the students in applying synthetic stucco.

Each group also is responsible for creating a set of four-way arches that will be used as a civil engineering lesson in load capacity -- essentially, how many cement blocks the arch can support. Because all of the work is in duplicate for the two lab groups, Hunter said there's a "healthy competition" that adds an extra edge to the tasks at hand.

Students have had only a few weeks in the lab, but they are already seeing the benefits for their work on paper. Ballard noted that the experience is challenging his conceptual design work.

"Up until now," he remarked, "I haven't dealt with the nitty-gritty aspects of getting something built." He said most of his work so far has been built out of paper, wire and string, and his designs have been for structures that "wouldn't hold up in the real world."

"Now I'll be able to take my designs so much further," he said.

"It's good to be humbled," remarked Jennifer Leung, a second-year graduate student. "We often forget that building requires a great deal of craft. Through these simple exercises, you can get an understanding of how things actually go together -- and it's not easy."

The architecture program at Princeton often is regarded as highly theoretical, with courses focusing on design, history, theory and criticism. A class in which students are required to lay brick connects students to their work on a more practical level. Smith noted that the hands-on work also fosters in students an appreciation for the craft and craftspeople involved in building in a way that no other learning method could provide.

"Most Princeton students who have been here for four years have seen the building and maintenance personnel in their trucks or doing projects -- and they've never met," said Smith, who holds his master's degree in architecture from Princeton. "Here students get to find out who some of the craftspeople are, what they're doing and what they know. It's unique to get this contact."

Last year, under Thomas' tutelage in masonry, architecture student Allison Toy enjoyed the work so much that she got a job as an assistant in the mason shop for the summer.

Enjoying the work

Thomas, who has been teaching the masonry component of the course for the past 10 years, puts students at ease with his good-natured approach. As students slopped cement where it wasn't supposed to be slopped, or had to remove a brick and scrape off the mortar to start over, levity abounded. Laughter was common.

"I get satisfaction in showing them the work and seeing the students enjoy themselves," said Thomas. "They like it, and I notice that."

What Hunter calls a "ballet of construction" is over when the semester ends and students get busy with their exams. At that point, Hunter "deconstructs" the building.

After years of disassembling the same structure, he said, he has the system down: most of the masonry is junked, but the wood is salvaged and recycled for the many other projects in the Architectural Laboratory. Mainly, it is used for the building of graduate students' architectural models -- models, presumably, that have been enhanced by students' hands-on work with mortar and spade in their building science and technology class.

 
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March 10, 2003
Vol. 92, No. 19
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Contents

Page one
Architecture students get concrete lesson in how buildings are made
Study: High-density storage of nuclear waste increases risk

Inside
George talks bioethics with Chirac amid U.S.-French tensions
Seniors embark on service projects with funding from ReachOut 56
Visitors section added to home page
Grant supports scientific analysis of security issues

People
Spotlight, briefs
Staff members and supervisors encouraged to conduct 'informal conversations' by end of month

Sections
Calendar of events
Nassau Notes
By the numbers: Early endowment


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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Steven Schultz
Contributing writers: Karin Dienst, Eric Quinones, Evelyn Tu
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor, Margaret Westergaard
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett