Story by Scott Stowell
Photos by John Ratzloff
Architects don’t view the world like everyone else. Somehow, they have an expanded perspective of relationships, whether with places or people. They’re fascinating and were especially welcome at the Steger Wilderness Center in 2016.
Fourteen architecture students from the Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis participated in a week-long “studio” at the Center last September. They had designs on—and for—constructing the Center’s new dining hall.
According to Dunwoody architecture instructor Molly Reichert, a studio is to architecture what a lab is to science. Students work on one project over the course of a semester and they move through several phases of design. This in-depth process involves site analysis, schematic design, and design development. Their week-long study at the Wilderness Center was an extended site analysis component of a studio project. They also got to camp in tents on the site where the hall will be built.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for the students to be in contact with their site for an entire week and really look at it under a microscope in so many different ways,” Reichert said.
Their learning objectives were to develop an understanding of site and precedent, i.e. the relationship between the site and its existing buildings, so they could make informed decisions about their architectural designs. At the Wilderness Center, that meant considering the relationship of the wilderness to buildings, the land to buildings, and conversing with the staff for their take on how the current design works, doesn’t work or could be improved.
Students observed the site throughout the days, noticing how light passed overhead at various times. They began determining how a building might best function in relationship to the site. They took note of pedestrian circulation.
As for documentation, each student had separate assignments. One student photographed window and door frames from inside each building to understand framed views, that visual relationship of building-to-building and building-to-nature. Another student documented how structures met the ground by photographing and diagramming foundation conditions, noting whether it was on slabs or pilings, and the grade of the landscape. Further individual documentation included geology and masonry on the site, roof lines and architectural details made by a router, among others.
“All of these different documentation strategies are feeding into the ‘hive mind’ of the studio and understanding of the context for [the dining hall],” Reichert said.
Having the Center’s original designer beside them didn’t hurt. She said Will Steger spent close time with the students. “They’re so impressed by Will, his work, his vision and his philosophy. He’s given a lot of wonderful advice that young people today need to hear.”
Kyle Huberty, 25, photographed multiple structures at the Wilderness Center and compiled profiles of their various functions. He later created a site map with a description of each building and its corresponding images. But he said he became immersed in more than the physical place. He described Steger as fully present when engaging people and “a force of nature that keeps building.” The experience motivated him to change the way he lives life.
“I’ve always wanted to model myself after someone or something that values what I value in terms of nature and the environment,” Huberty said. “The quality of life and the ways [Will] has chosen to be wealthy, in terms of skills and freedom, show in his demeanor… He’s kind of like a friend to all and I really aspire to be that.”
Architecture student Aaron McCauley, 32, said he found the community effort involved with bringing the Center into reality as particularly humbling.
“Regardless of the dream you set out to do… you can’t do that without other people. And you wouldn’t want to do it without honest intentions, without humility. I think that this place in general highlights that,” he said.
Three groups of students worked on three different schematic or preliminary designs for the dining hall throughout the semester. In December, they presented their designs at the “Dining Wild Final Review” at Dunwoody College. The event included critique and comments from building industry professionals, architects, architecture professors and Steger Wilderness Center board members.
For this project, Steger is a unique blend of client, designer and teacher. He now has a smorgasbord of choices to consolidate into the final hall. He explained it will be modeled after the current lodge that has served since 1976. It was where he planned all of his expeditions, developed educational programs and tens-of-thousands of people have passed through.
“It has worked so well over the years. Having the architecture students meet, eat and hang out in the lodge, did more than I could have said in any words. They caught on right away,” he said.
As the Center expands, it needs a more formal gathering place. The versatility of the new dining hall will encompass five modules. One will be the utility area, an insulated building within a building that’s heated year-round to house plumbing and running water. The other modules include: a kitchen; a side nook/library; a three-season room to accommodate overflow; and the dining/gathering area which will double as a classroom.
“We tripled the space, modernized it all on one level so it’s handicapped accessible and has bathroom and washing facilities,” Steger said.
He added that the next steps involve technical drawings and structural materials through Dunwoody. Plans also include building a team of partners to oversee construction of the new hall.
Dunwoody College of Technology offers a 5-year Bachelor of Architecture degree. For more information, visit dunwoody.edu/architecture.