UH Architects Taking On Real-World Projects

Students Addressing Needs of Community Near Menil Collection, UH Coastal Center

Patrick Peters is no stranger to guiding his students on studio projects with real-world potential. The University of Houston architecture professor frequently leads class projects that focus on designing amenities and structures for Houston-area communities.

This semester, he led two groups of students from UH’s Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture down dissimilar geographical paths. Peters and instructor Zui Ng worked with graduate students as they designed housing for a city neighborhood anchored by a renowned museum.Menil Meanwhile, his undergraduate students focused their energies on a research center based in the region’s wetlands. Both places couldn’t be more different. Still, the goals of these students were the same – to deliver viable plans and designs that spark ideas or uses for these respective areas.

Students in Peters’ and Ng’s graduate design studio explored the master plan – created by David Chipperfield –  for the community surrounding Houston’s Menil Collection. They particularly focused on creating ideas for multi-family housing (including apartments that ranged from three to eight story units) along Colquit Street and Richmond Avenue.

Student Cara Murray focused her designs (for 6-story living spaces at the north side of Richmond Ave. between Mandel Street and Richmond Hall) to complement the community’s creative culture. She aimed at creating artist lofts.

Murray, who earned a bachelor’s degree in studio art, was particularly motivated by the scope of the project.

“As a native Houstonian with a background in art, I am very familiar with the Menil and this neighborhood,” she said. “Being sensitive to the aesthetics of the community is very important, and I think it’s a great opportunity for us to work on a project that isn’t just theoretical. It can very well inspire ideas for living spaces in this part of Houston.”

While graduate students’ work is based in the heart of Houston, Peters’ undergrads turned their attentions to the UH Coastal Center in LaMarque, Texas. The 925-acre property once was the site of military facility Camp Wallace. It now hosts UH biological, geological and atmospheric science research activities. Working with UH researchers Steven Pennings and Barry Lefer, students helped develop 12 separate master plans for the center, as well as generate individual building designs for the site.

Student designs included rehabilitating a structure that once housed an officer’s club, renovating laboratory spaces and creating a green airport that would accommodate biofuel-powered aircraft.

Fourth year student Alejandra Cervantes took into consideration researchers’ needs for the site and created a master plan that addressed concerns of research space and accessibility. She also researched nearby airports to observe runway designs.

This project offered Cervantes her first opportunity to interact with clients. The experience, she said, was very helpful in her development as an architect.

“The class needed to be prepared,” she said. “We had to make sure to listen to their needs and make sure we asked the right questions. Then, we had to use their feedback to drive the project.”

Classmate Robert Roman agrees and is intrigued by the possibility of seeing his plans applied to the Coastal Center’s prospective renovations. His plan for the site includes a new learning center and converting an existing building into a shaded outdoor pavilion.

“It would be interesting to see any of our ideas come to life,” he said. “We worked to create master plans and designs that not only met the clients’ needs but also could function within coastal prairies.”

Both graduate and undergraduate students recently delivered separate presentations for their respective clients. According to Peters, both client groups (which included UH’s Pennings and deputy director Sheryl Kolasinski) and Patricia Oliver, dean of the College of Architecture, were receptive to students’ ideas.

“They’ve given us a lot of starting points and insight for things we can do at the Coastal Center,” Pennings said. “Across the board, we were impressed at how they assimilated all of their ideas for the center. They didn’t just arrive with suggestions for attractive buildings. They brought ideas that were functional from a technical point of views, and we were impressed by that.”

This semester’s projects complement other real-world endeavors led by Peters. Previously, he oversaw students’ designs for Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts, and each year, he oversees the UH Graduate Design/Build Studio (GDBS). Studio students not only design community projects, they are engaged in their construction and completion. Previous GDBS projects include an education portal for Paul Revere Middle School; ReFRAME x FRAME, a pavilion constructed from recycled office cubicles at Hermann Park; a solar-powered classroom for Alief Community Garden; a solar shade tree for McReynolds Middle School; and an amphitheater for T.H. Rogers School. This year, Peters will temporarily turn over the studio’s reins to Ng and instructor Steven Gist.

 “We always look for projects that are based in the real world and have real-world constraints,” Peters said. “The issues that they face during these projects are faced by real world architects. At the same time, they can have a professional dialogue with stakeholders and constituents about their visions and try to implement them in their designs.”

Coastal Center