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Designs for Living
Students in Art 3391: Sustainability Studio design innovative living spaces that generate as much power as they consume

By Lynn Gosnell

July 2009

A vacant lot at the corner of Carson and North Pine streets in San Antonio’s Government Hill neighborhood is waiting for its next incarnation. A concrete slab and a dilapidated sign (“Ricardo’s Restaurant – menudo, carnitas, barbacoa”) are all that remain of the site’s former tenant. A red-and-white “For Sale” sign advertises availability – but for what purpose?

This spring, 1718 N. Pine St. served as a laboratory of sorts for the imaginations of Trinity students enrolled in Topics in Art: Sustainability Studio (ART 3391). Visiting faculty member Kimberly Drennan ’92, an architect, builder, and sustainability expert, created the course to introduce students to the principles, practices and challenges of sustainable design.

“This was Trinity’s first design studio, so we were charged up about it,” said Ms. Drennan, who radiates enthusiasm for both the topic of sustainability and her students’ work.

And what better way to introduce students to the emerging world of sustainable design than to give them an assignment that reads like a Zen koan — research and design a living space that generates as much energy as is consumed. In the architectural world, this is what’s known as a “zero-energy home.”

To add some verisimilitude to the assignment, Ms. Drennan found a real parcel of land to serve as a theoretical site. By the end of the semester, her students’ research and hard work had paid off in four unique interpretations of a zero-energy home.

A community in flux meets a class with imagination

The corner in Government Hill was an ideal student project site. It is, in Ms. Drennan’s words, “on the fringe of being disenfranchised,” but also midway between the historic Fort Sam Houston and new mixed-use Pearl Brewery development. The student projects would respond to the pressures of historic identity and redevelopment.

Between visits to the site, guest lectures by local experts in sustainable design, and field trips to see examples of sustainable building, landscaping, and water collection, the students began to develop their ideas.

By the time spring break rolled around, most of the lectures were over and the class was pure studio: discussing, sketching, modeling, calculating energy use, and seeking feedback on work in progress. A key component of the design process was, as one student put it, “brainstorming and seeing if crazy ideas will actually work.”

Cost did not matter. Bottom-line calculations measured energy in and energy out only, not dollars.

The students divided themselves into four teams based on their interests. The class projects resulted in four complex architectural and virtual models for sustainable living in various experimental contexts.

Each team created both an architectural model and virtual model, and each project was supported by reams of data. The virtual 3D modeling was created using Google SketchUp, a free software which the students mastered over the semester.

“The students far exceeded my expectations in every way,” Ms. Drennan said. And it’s likely that these Trinity students will never view a vacant lot again without envisioning the possibility of a new and sustainable purpose.

Class Projects

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© 2009 Trinity University

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