Preventing or inventing? Understanding the effects of non-prescriptive design briefs

Oliveira, Sonja and Marco, Elena (2017) Preventing or inventing? Understanding the effects of non-prescriptive design briefs. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 27 (4). pp. 549-561. ISSN 0957-7572 (

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This paper discusses observations of an architecture and environmental engineering undergraduate design studio project assigned to 4th year students at a UK university. In the UK, most architecture courses are characterised by a high proportion of design studio teaching supported by varying amount of technical modules that include environmental and construction learning. Recent scholarship on sustainability education in architecture, discusses the necessity for new approaches that enhance transdisciplinarity, autonomy and independent decision-making. However, despite increasing importance to both practice and policy, few empirical or theoretical examples account for the implications or experiences of such an approach. This study presents the experiences of an architecture and environmental engineering design studio whereby studio activities are closely interlinked with technical engineering enquiry and experiment. Specifically, the research examines the challenges and opportunities students face when assigned a design project that attempts to translate independently derived briefs into novel architectural environmentally engineered interpretations. The analysis draws on a series of ethnographic narrative and visual observations carried over a period of 6 months. The implications of the findings are threefold. First, the analysis shows the opportunities an integrated cross-disciplinary approach can offer, where the gap between creative and technical domains is narrowed. Second, the study presents some of the challenges faced by increased autonomy and lack of prescription that students encounter. Third, the paper contributes to an emerging agenda of sustainability education in the built environment by offering valuable insights into the benefits and difficulties cross-disciplinary approaches pose to architectural education.