National association honors ISU architecture professor for creative achievement

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Architecture students in Rob Whitehead's structural technology course observe the performance of their long span truss structure under the weight of a heavy load.

AMES, Iowa --The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture awarded a top honor to an Iowa State University assistant professor of architecture. Rob Whitehead was recognized with a 2012-13 Creative Achievement Award.

The award recognizes a specific creative achievement in teaching, design, scholarship, research or service that advances architectural education. It was presented March 22 at the 101st ACSA Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

ACSA cited Whitehead for his "positive and stimulating influence" on students by creating and teaching five semester-long structural design courses in the architecture department’s integrated undergraduate building technology sequence, "STP: Structural Technology in Practice."

The courses reject the traditional method of teaching structural technology to architects, which is based on formulas, abstract diagrams and right/wrong calculation-based assessment.

"Instead it presents structural design as an integral part of an architectural exploration," Whitehead said.

"Lecture topics become the basis for design-centric lab 'problems' that the students set out to solve — typically through the design and construction of structural solutions. These creations are tested, often to failure, as a means of effectively assessing their performance,” he said.

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Whitehead's “Think, Make, Break + Evaluate” methodology emphasizes understanding structural behavior, developing responsive forms, establishing a relationship between materials and constructability and learning how structures can be discussed and designed in a sustainable manner.

"For the last three years, an intrepid crew of 75 fourth-year architecture students have participated in more than 40 different labs — nearly all of which were made up just for them," Whitehead said.

The labs required the students to apply structural concepts to a wide variety of constructions, with a set of learning objectives and criteria that are unique in an architectural curriculum.

"They have made structures with their bodies, studied frame behavior with sticks and Skittles and built bridges, trusses, beams, towers, slabs and columns with all manner of materials. They have selected, documented, analyzed and calculated full structural systems, even attempting to incorporate this work into their studio projects," Whitehead said.

"I hope the objects they have made and broken throughout the years have given them insight well beyond a textbook and set of calculations," he said. "I know they have reinforced for me how important this level of engagement in learning is for young architects."

Whitehead received a bachelor of architecture degree at Iowa State, and a post-professional master of architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2011, he won the Building Technology Educators’ Society's Building Technology Teaching Award for Emerging Faculty.

ACSA is a nonprofit, membership association founded in 1912 to advance the quality of architectural education. More than 250 schools are members.