Architecture School designs teen center in Grundy

Each year, Architecture School students draft plans for buildings in locations they have never visited — the designs of which will only ever be seen by a few members of the faculty. These exercises which take place in studio classes give students a helpful opportunity to practice their skills, but lend few real-world consequences. Until that all changed.

Yet when third-year Architecture student Asher McGlothlin saw students designing buildings in Uganda and Nicaragua, he thought, “Why not [a building] in Grundy?”

With an economy centered around the declining coal industry, McGlothin’s hometown of Grundy, Va. — population 1,010 — has fallen on hard times of late. As part of an ongoing $200 million flood-proofing project, the Virginia Department of Transportation is expanding the highway through the center of Grundy, tearing down about 80 percent of the downtown area in the process.

Grundy’s teen center is one victim of this project. McGlothlin grew up hearing stories about the center from his two older brothers.

“The teen center was torn down when I was really young,” McGlothlin said. “There was a lot of nostalgia for it.”

He said one of Grundy’s problems is that, besides sports, there is little for teenagers to do. Between his generation and his brothers’, McGlothin noticed higher rates of drug use and teen pregnancies, as well as fewer students going on to four-year colleges.

McGlothlin said with the loss of the teen center and the historic downtown, there was also a loss of local identity. Revamping the teen center, he thought, might help restore some of the town’s sense of community.

McGlothlin approached Architecture Prof. Peter Waldman about designing a new center for a studio project. In fall of 2012, Waldman and McGlothlin visited Grundy to look at sites, when Waldman ultimately decided the Architecture School would take on the project.

Throughout the next few months, Waldman and McGlothlin sent out surveys to Grundy locals about what they wanted the center to look like and started drumming up excitement among the University’s student body. Meanwhile, Suzanne Moomaw, associate urban and environmental planning professor and academic lead of the Appalachian Prosperity Project, also got involved with the project.

According to its website, the APP is a “university-community-industry project that uses a systems approach to integrate education, health and business development.”

As academic lead of APP, Moomaw was able to help McGlothlin secure a grant from the organization which facilitated site visits. The project also received a Jefferson Public Citizens grant and money from the town of Grundy itself. They are still in the process of applying for more grants to help fund construction.

Moomaw, whose primary area of interest is communities — especially small town revitalization in areas hit hard by structural economic changes — is familiar with the problems facing Grundy. Young people in towns with few jobs and a loss of the sense of community often leave and never come back, according to Moomaw.

“It’s really about reconnecting the community again,” she said of the center.

This type of project, Moomaw said, offers a new model of teaching and learning.

“Our students get the opportunity to see how their ideas play out in a real situation,” she said.

To integrate the project into a class, Moomaw, Waldman and Assoc. Architecture Prof. Seth McDowell designed a seminar for the fall 2013 semester. McDowell said the seminar was mostly about surveying and doing research about Grundy and the site to prepare for a spring semester studio class where students would actually begin to make designs.

Students in the seminar worked to gather community feedback on the center’s construction, visiting five different high schools and holding conversation with groups like the Boy Scouts, the Boys and Girls Club, and the town council. The class also attended a church service. Both McGlothlin and McDowell said it is important to involve the community in projects like this.

“I see the people of Grundy as the real designers,” McGlothlin says. “We’re just facilitating what they want.”

Using the information collected in the fall, McDowell currently leads a small studio class where students work in teams of two or three to come up with possible designs for the teen center. Designing for a real project has taught students a new set of skills, he said.

“In the A-School you develop a language of talking about your work that’s very internal,” McDowell said. “You’re usually only presenting to other architects. Students had to develop the ability to talk about their work to a variety of ages and backgrounds.”

McDowell said this kind of work also makes students consider constraints not always present in theoretical exercises, like budgets, constructability and the feasibility of certain building materials.

“It limits how much experimenting you can do,” he said, “Because there are real aspirations for the project.”

One of the goals of the project is to create a building whose design and materials reflect the region while employing local contractors.

“We want the building to emerge from the context and the people [who] are there,” McDowell said, encouraging his students to become “citizen architects” who design projects which will ultimately become catalysts for a community.

To this end, McGlothlin said the center will not only be a place for teens to go after school, but will also provide a variety of educational opportunities. One such opportunity will be Playing Instruments Changes Kids, an after school program that teaches kids to play traditional bluegrass music.

At the end of the semester, students’ designs will be evaluated by faculty and by outside architects, as well as by the town of Grundy. McDowell said it’s most likely that no single design will be selected.

“We’ll probably end up taking all that feedback and taking aspects of every project to make a proposal that incorporates the best aspects of all the projects,” he said.

McGlothlin and four other students plan to put the proposal together during the summer, and students will begin working on construction documents in a small seminar next year. The group hopes the project will be ready for construction by summer 2015.

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