University of Vermont

Students Create International Design Competition, Rebrand a Learning Community

Walter Poleman
Walter Poleman, GreenHouse faculty director, is surrounded by entries for the student-created Living Place design competition, which attracted applicants from around the world. The competition, and the course behind it, are helping catalyze GreenHouse's rebranding as a locus for ecological design at UVM. (Photo: Sally McCay)

With dozens of easels arranged on adjoining tables displaying a parade of striking architectural renderings, a gala city event appeared to be under way at Union Station on the Burlington waterfront last Saturday afternoon.

The event was an important one, but it wasn’t organized by city officials seeking public comment on a new development project. Its impetus came from a group of University of Vermont undergraduates who took a course last fall called Catalyzing Ecological Design.

In it they created, designed, branded, brilliantly marketed and organized logistics for a real design competition, called Living Place, that focused on three design-challenged sites in Burlington: an eroding slope near the main entrance to Burlington High School, a patch of grass on the southwest corner of Lake and College Streets and the underutilized courtyard at the GreenHouse residential learning community at UVM.

When all was said and done, 52 entries – from architecture classes and student groups at the University of Texas, Arlington, the University of British Columbia, Dartmouth, and a landscape architecture school in Bogata, Colombia; from professional architects in Portugal, South Africa, and New York City; and from 30 UVM students organized into several teams, among many others – all brimming with ideas for improving the sites, arrived at the university. Half, including the winning entries chosen the night before, were on public display at Union Station Saturday.

Scanning the thicket of easels, Emma Costello, a senior environmental studies major from Sudbury, Mass. who took the course and attended the Saturday event, seemed almost humbled by the class’s achievement. “I’m very proud. It looks awesome,” she says.

Brand new brand?

As the Living Place competition was accomplishing one goal – bringing fresh design thinking into the Burlington community and inspiring a class of undergraduates – it was also advancing another equally as important: helping rebrand the GreenHouse, UVM’s residential learning community devoted to place-based studies and sustainability, as a locus for ecological design at the university.

Ecological design, a branch of design that incorporates living processes to minimize negative environmental impacts (the Eco-Machine in UVM’s Aiken Center is an example), came into its own at UVM when John Todd, perhaps its leading practitioner, arrived at the university in 1999. Thanks to Todd’s influence, student interest in ecological design skyrocketed in the last decade.

But despite burgeoning enrollments and UVM’s growing expertise in the field, ecological design was homeless at UVM, unfocused and spread across campus in a number of academic units.

Todd’s impact was felt perhaps most strongly at GreenHouse.

After the building opened in 2006, says Walter Poleman, a senior lecturer at the Rubenstein School and faculty director at GreenHouse, “All these ecological design courses” – taught by a variety of people, including Todd and the instructors for the Catalyzing Ecological Design course, Tyler Kobick and Diane Gayer – “just started taking place in the building.”

GreenHouse’s central focus had always been to help students understand the importance of place to a life well lived – to give them a visceral sense and appreciation that, in the case of UVM, the campus was part of the larger ecology of the Vermont landscape, particularly the Winooski River watershed.

But given the rise of ecological design at UVM and GreenHouse, Poleman and others thought, perhaps the residential learning community should broaden its focus.

The extension into design was a logical one for Poleman, less a re-branding effort than an evolution of the learning community's mission.

“As an ecologist I would love the students to really get into this place,” he says of greater Burlington. “What's the geology of the soils, the vegetation, the habitat? The next step is linking that to how we come up with solutions to the environmental issues. That's where the design fits in.” “Place-based ecological design” is the catch-phrase Poleman has coined to capture the twin missions of the new GreenHouse.

Will and way

While Poleman and his faculty colleagues had the will and vision to expand GreenHouse’s focus, the Concord, Mass.-based Thoreau Foundation helped provide the way. The foundation, which had funded UVM in the past, invited the university to apply for a new grant specifying innovative ways faculty might engage undergraduates in environmental issues. 

In a grant application submitted in the fall of 2012, Poleman and his colleagues proposed the creation of a “collaboratory” at GreenHouse that would function as a design-build laboratory for students across the university interested in collaborating on design projects. UVM won the $35,000 award, which Rubenstein School interim dean Jon Erickson, who coined the term collaboratory during a brainstorming session for the grant, matched.        

While the build-out of the collaboratory is just under way, GreenHouse will be transformed over the next six months, its current collection of classrooms, meeting spaces and open areas radically repurposed to become a prototype lab, library, design studio and gallery-exhibit space, with student-designed and built chairs, tables, environment art and other artifacts spread throughout. 

By next fall, the building “will reek of ecological design,” Poleman smiles.   

Course as catalyst

The Catalyzing Ecological Design course was created in part to build just the awareness of the collaboratory and GreenHouse as hotbeds of design the re-branding effort called for, says faculty member Tyler Kobick, who conceived of the course with co-instructor Gayer, in addition to teaching it. Kobick is a Vermont-based architect and design-build expert with a national client base. Gayer, a fellow at UVM’s Gund Institute, is also an accomplished Vermont-based architect. Both were also instrumental in writing the Thoreau Foundation grant proposal.

“We thought an event that was year-long design competition was a good way of orienting people,” says Kobick. The Catalyzing Ecological Design course and other events GreenHouse scheduled during the fall and winter were designed to “capture this new language of GreenHouse as collaboratory,” Kobick says.

The three-credit course took place over four intense three-day weekends in the fall that mixed a crash course in design thinking with field trips to Vermont design meccas YesterMorrow and Burton Snowboards with a flat out stint of production work. Students created not just the name of the competition but its branding and graphic design elements. They also developed and executed a marketing plan (the chief element was advertising on a site called Bustler, which architects around the world regularly scan), planned and organized events, reached out to potential judges and contacted community members who might host events.

Students also created the competition's seven design criteria, requring entries to address issues ranging from storm water to community engagement to sustainable food production.  

The winning entry, from a student team at the University of British Columbia, was an innovative design for the eroding slope at Burlington High featuring a cornucopia of elements, from a "multi-functional wave-form bench and long table" to a perennial food forest to a series of red canoes raised on stilts that would act as demonstration projects for nutrient cycling. See images of the first-place design, the second-place design (Burlington waterfront, submitted by New York artist Maria Torrified) and the third-place design (GreenHouse courtyard, submiteed by Carlos Cutting from the University of Texas, Arlington).

Kobick hopes to teach a follow-up class next summer or fall where students will build out the winning design, or a hybrid of several of the top designs.

If the success of the class is any indication, GreenHouse’s evolution as a center for design on campus has a rosy future – and the class may just the sort of practical second act Kobick envisions. 

“It was probably my favorite class last fall,” says Lucy Labadie, a first year student and GreenHouse resident from Stockbridge, Vt. “I’d like to see some of these projects implemented and really worked with. I really hope that we make a lasting impression with the work that we can do out of this, not in just the ideas that we can produce.”

The class and competition were dedicated to class member Ben Mohla, who passed away November 23.