Experiential learning opportunities benefit the Austin community and advance the missions of local non-profits
AREA-ER: Alternative Real Estate Action-Experiential Research is a design-build community service course, taught by Senior Lecturer Stephen Ross. Through the course, The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture partners with non-profit organizations in Austin to create projects that assist people and communities put at risk by gentrification and the real estate modus operandi of maximizing exchange value. The course challenges this status quo practice of “highest and best use” by working with and for partner clients. Students are encouraged to center work on the questions, “Highest and best use, according to who and for whose benefit?” and, “How can we nuance the immediately inevitable?”
Ross described the course, “We actively engage, via real-world projects, with and for people and places which are challenged and suffer resulting from the status quo enactment of real estate conventions." He continued, “We identify possible negative externalities and proceed to articulate, publicly advocate, and produce alternatives. And, in collaboration with our partner-clients, consider how to be more comprehensively sustainable and just.”
Students at the School of Architecture and majoring in a number of disciplines across campus have completed community-oriented projects for partners such as Mobile Loaves and Fishes Community First! Village, Sustainable Food Center (SFC), City of Austin Cultural Arts Division, City of Austin Parks and Recreation, Alma de Mujer Indigenous Women’s Center for Social Change, Backland Community Development Corporation, Interfaith Action of Central Texas, and others, over the past nine years. Their work has ranged from finding the land and creating a micro-house prototype for the Community First! Village, a 27-acre master planned community that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas, to a pedestrian bridge for Alma de Mujer Indigenous Women’s Center for Social Change, to a wheelchair-accessible herb garden, teaching apiary, and outdoor kitchen for the SFC.
Although the course involves hands-on design and build projects, Ross thinks of AREA-ER as a theory class. He hopes students walk away from the class inspired to become active citizens, genuinely concerned with the root causes of social issues and incorporating an understanding and responsibility to serve community in their core values and practices. He cites Paulo Freire’s book, Pedagogy of the Opressed, as inspiration, “Reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.”
“I think all students, while enrolled at The University of Texas at Austin, need to risk what they think they know,” Ross remarked, “To live the experience of realizing that what we learn in the classroom is most often an instance of the reification fallacy: A mistaking of abstractions for concrete actuality. Thus, in this class, we strive to cultivate our sensibilities such that we overcome these preconceptions by working with and for actual clients on projects they choose in order to help achieve their mission. We ask, ‘How can we be of service?’ and, from there, work to design a process where all involved become equal, active, and reciprocal recipient participants.
This process helps to overcome the Modernist Hangover: A persistent phenomena, especially in academia, where we convince ourselves, that we, as so-called professional experts, know what is best for others, even in advance of ever encountering them or their needs and contexts.
From this, emerges my definition of ‘design-build’: Creating a world you wish to live in out of the world you have to live in. And this is available to all, regardless of background, major, or profession.
To me, this is the greatest and most important experience a student can have is to be able to apply their thinking and practice around the question, ‘How can we create good and evolve the world we have to live in by addressing problems that have yet to be solved; questions that have yet to be answered?’ And this, in essence, embraces the university’s motto, What Starts Here Changes the World.”
Most recently, AREA-ER students worked with Festival Beach Community Garden to create ADA- compliant picnic table, helping fulfill a Neighborhood Partnering Program grant from the City of Austin.
Update: Stephen Ross retired at the end of the Fall 2017 semester. He continues to advance community-oriented projects through his non-profit organization, Design Build Alliance.
Learn more about some of the student projects from AREA-ER via the images above and links below:
Mobile Loaves and Fishes Community First! Village
- Located land for acquisition
- Designed and built prototype micro-house
- Tammy’s Porch
- Sarah’s Benches
Alma de Mujer Indigenous Women’s Center for Social Change:
- Pedestrian Bridge over Cypress Creek
Sustainable Food Center (SFC)
- Teaching Apiary
- Outdoor kitchen
- Wheelchair-accessible raised bed herb garden
Festival Beach Community Garden
- Wheelchair Accessible Picnic Table
- Pedestrian Bridge
- Teaching Garden (Outdoor Classroom): Herb Garden + Blackboard and Bench
- Herb Garden with ADA accessible raised gabion herb garden
Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT):
Backland Community Development Corporation:
- Wrap-around porch at Stewart Conservancy
- Stage mural
- Wicking bed gardens
- Intersection street mural
Art on the Green
- Designed and built all wayfinding, signage, and hole markers
- Received first place Austin Critic’s Circle Visual Art, Museum Exhibition award 2012