Gibbs College Design+Build Program Featured in Cleveland County Lifestyle Magazine

Original article was written by Jerri Culpepper for Cleveland County City Lifestyle Magazine under the title “Design + Build: OU Architecture Students Get Real-World Experience Building Houses and More.”

As we head into the second decade of the 21st century, prior definitions of a house, as well as other structures intended for work, play, health care, large-scale storage and other purposes, are changing, here and worldwide. There are tiny houses, mobile houses and smart houses, just to name a few. Likewise, new tools (like 3D printers) and construction materials are constantly being introduced to help make the structures stronger, more durable, more eco-friendly, and more energy-efficient—as well as elevating their aesthetic in many instances.

Students in a design/build class in the Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma are getting a chance not only to learn about these exciting new designs and approaches, they’re getting a chance to build them. As a bonus, the projects accepted for the class meet a societal need and the students get the satisfaction of helping out families and others with their special needs.

Gibbs College has a history of offering design-build opportunities, including those led by architecture professors Bruce Goff and Herb Greene in the 1950s and ’60s. For example, students helped build the Bavinger and Prairie houses in Norman.

In 2018, the college recruited Bryan Bloom, assistant professor of construction science, to oversee an elevated Design + Build program targeting the college’s construction science students.

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Bloom speaks with great enthusiasm about the Design + Build program, both what it has accomplished thus far and its future.

The first project was four affordable duplex units for the Norman Housing Authority, a public housing agency that is committed to providing affordable housing opportunities, community improvement and family support programs in the communities and neighborhoods of the City of Norman. 

A property on Hughbert Street in east Norman was acquired in the winter of 2017. Hans E. and Torrey Butzer of Butzer Architects and Urbanism designed the units. Hans Butzer also serves as dean of the college.

The first duplex was constructed by subcontractors, who helped guide students on the second. While the junior and senior construction science majors had some classroom experience under their belts and some had limited work experience from working on construction sites or as part of a family business—none had the requisite range of experience—drywalling, pouring concrete, carpentry, etc.—required to build an entire house.

The one-bedroom duplexes met a need in the community for smaller units designed for singles or couples without children. And while the duplexes were built with an eye to making them affordable, along with a clean and simple design, the students were mindful of meeting as many of the needs of their target audience as possible. Among other things, that meant making both the kitchen and bathroom ADA-accessible.

Because the design work couldn’t start until late in the fall semester when the property was acquired, that meant an expedited design schedule at the start of the spring semester. After two weeks of discussions, the class started work on the project immediately after spring break.

Although no cutting-edge techniques were used on this project—affordability was the key takeaway here—Bloom says students learned many valuable lessons. For example, after research, they chose cedar siding—a material selected for its water-repellant nature as well as its aesthetic appeal. On the side of the structures facing the railroad tracks, they didn’t include windows and the walls were built with double insulation and double walls with a gap in between, which Bloom said reduced the noise level surprisingly well.

Many of the construction science students, including now-alum Patrick Strubel, cited “experiencing all aspects of a new construction build” as their favorite part of the Hughbert Street project. Another student (also now an alum) said that her favorite part of the Hughbert project was being able to “fully understand and connect the dots” regarding a full-scale construction project. 

The second project, in 2019, was to build a tiny house on a trailer platform, aka an accessory dwelling unit (ADU), a concept that is growing in popularity in many communities across the nation. ADAs are small houses, generally placed in the back yard of an existing home; they are often used to house aging parents or other family members who desire some degree of autonomy and privacy. After raising funds from a private investor (later refunded), research was conducted to determine the market for mobile prefab buildings (the structure would have to be mobile since it would be built on campus and then moved to its permanent home). After building the 8×20’, 160-square-foot tiny home, they auctioned it on the internet, and it was purchased by a family in Santa Monica.

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The third project was launched in spring 2020—in full pandemic mode. Despite numerous challenges, Bloom said, the class built a climate-controlled prefab building for a nonprofit called the Osage Forest of Peace, an interfaith contemplative retreat center with which the college had been collaborating on creating a master plan for their growing facility in Osage County near Sand Springs. “Like any organization that handles hospitality, they needed climate-controlled storage,” Bloom said. “So, we ended up building it here—the wall assemblies, roof, etc.—in our shop, and over spring break, we put it on a trailer and set it up. This marked the first time that students did a job from start to finish without the help of subcontractors.”

Last year, looking for a job that was more progressive and cutting edge, the class tackled a mobile medical clinic for the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes in Anadarko. The mobile medical unit enables Indian Health Services to take services to rural tribal members who have a difficult time getting to and from the health clinic.

Manufactured plywood sheets were used for the framing, the reasoning being that the class could envision a future where large pieces of wood lumber will be hard to come by. They also used multiple pre-cut, prepared materials designed to allow for “ease-of-construction” for those who may not have all the tools or experience for a traditional build.

To design the clinic, the students used a medical unit conceptualized and designed by OU architecture assistant professor Ken Marold, who also created a fabrication strategy for building the unit quickly.

Construction science student Asael Herrara, who served on the student team, said, “I wanted to take this class to have the opportunity to give back to the community. I didn’t know it would be a medical mobile unit, but it’s amazing to give back to our community in this way. This is a great experience because there are people learning and teaching across a variety of construction backgrounds.”

Now in its fifth year, Bloom has expanded the Design+Build program to accommodate all the college’s students—architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, and regional and city planning—in addition to construction science. He hopes soon to expand the program into a two-semester rather than one-semester program.

This year’s project is a self-sustaining greenhouse for Mark Twain Elementary School in Oklahoma City. The class is working on the project with Engage Learning, a Norman-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit that has worked with dozens of schools, hundreds of teachers and thousands of Oklahoma K-12 students since 2017 with the aim of empowering students to shape their world through project-based, maker-focused and STEM-intensive programs.

Ben Bigelow, director of the Haskell and Irene Lemon Division of Construction Science, has high praise for the enthusiasm and dedication Bloom has displayed as head of the Design + Build class.

“The program combines interdisciplinary collaboration and service learning as a vehicle for truly impactful community engagement,” he said “Each year, the program selects a different project. Though it is a spring course, the projects actually require a full year to procure, plan, design and execute.   

Since joining the OU faculty,” Bigelow added, “Professor Bloom has dedicated over four full academic years (and summers, too!) to developing what is now known as Gibbs College’s Design + Build program. Despite the significant amount of time required in the summer and fall to coordinate these projects and the considerable time required to execute the projects in his class, Professor Bloom eagerly looks forward to the class and its project each year.

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“This class may be the smallest he is assigned to teach but it requires more of his time than his largest class,” Bigelow continued. “His passion for providing students with an experience serving something bigger than themselves through the built environment drives him.  So rather than considering options that make the class and projects easier for him, Professor Bloom focuses on ensuring students get the best possible experience.”   

Bloom says it’s been “a joy to see these lightbulbs go off for these juniors and seniors” as they gain real-world experience, especially at a time when opportunities are limited.

“We are living with the pandemic, like everyone else,” he said. “We try to be as safe and conscious as we can, in compliance with university guidelines—though it can get overwhelming both for them and the other faculty. It’s a privilege to get to work with community members to help them achieve their goal.”

Bloom encourages persons with an identified need that can be filled through the design and construction of a capital project to share the details with him for the consideration via email at bloom@ou.edu.

Reprinted with permission of Cleveland County Lifestyle Magazine. To read the full issue scroll below or click here.