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When ‘You’re Benched’ is a Good Thing

benches 007

Say you’re about to have surgery. You would likely draw comfort knowing your surgeon had prior experience with real patients. Med students who have worked with professionals — observing them plan, prep and perform in actual situations — glean a level of understanding that cannot be duplicated outside a real operating room.

Finding solutions to an existing problem in the community.

In the same educational vein, future architects at the University of Utah are gaining a real-world experience by working on projects with professional Salt Lake architects. Working with real clients, understanding their needs, budgets and timelines helps build practical knowledge that will benefit students and their future clients alike.

An example of that kind of collaborative learning was on display on the U campus recently—to design outdoor benches.

Professors Haslam, Henry-Benham and Yee test a bench of recycled packing crates.

Working with three architecture faculty members, 41 senior students were charged with finding solutions to an actual problem at The Fourth Street Homeless Clinic in downtown Salt Lake City. The clinic opens each day at 8:30 a.m. and non-emergency patients are seen on a first-come, first-served basis. The problem: there is no seating or cover, so people queuing up outside before the clinic opens are exposed to the variable Utah weather.

A design with seating and landscaping.

The students worked up a variety of solutions: benches built from recycled cardboard packing crates, a “grassy knoll” shaped to invite lounging while adding some landscaping, and a modular wood and concrete structure that could be morphed into seating, a table or a planter.

The work products were not hypothetical designs. All were based on data gathered from client meetings, visiting the site, and learning about the issues pertinent to public clinics.

Designed and built with a bit of philosophy, too.

In one bench system, the design combined concrete and wood, “stitched” together with metal bars. “The construction represented bringing two very different worlds together. The combination is stronger than the parts alone,” said Kevin, one of the three students who worked on the design.

The students completed their projects in just three weeks. “They had one week each for research to understand the problem, one week to design and one week to build,” said Professor Lisa Henry-Benham.

“This was not a dry run,” said one student, Theodore, who worked on the modular piece. “It was a real project with a real purpose.”

Libby Haslam, an adjunct professor at the U. who also works at GSBS Architects, described the value of the work this way: “We develop a lot of theoretical projects in the academic year, and this has been a great opportunity for the students to have a real client and site, and deal with social issues of homelessness and ADA accessibility.”

CA+P dean Brenda Scheer tries out a modular design.

“These are all full-scale models,” noted Dwight Yee, instructor of architecture. “If the client likes a design, it will move to a fully realized project.”

It may not be surgery, but it’s the kind of practice that makes for more perfect outcomes— and a better future for our communities.