Craig Stott on Project Office and live projects as a pedagogic tool

Image: Project Office Axonometric. Credit: Project Office.
Image: Design development of New Wortley Community Centre. Students were paid by the client to carry out community consultation, a requirement of the grant application. Credit: Project Office.
Image: Student Engagement with Morley Newlands Primary School, Leeds, UK. Credit: Project Office.

Project Office is a design and research collaboration of staff and students at the Leeds School of Architecture. Founded by Craig Stott and Simon Warren in 2013, it is an RIBA Chartered architecture practice making ethical, social and resilient architecture. Having undertaken over 40 projects, most within Leeds City region, Project Office offers a full architectural service that includes feasibility studies, design guides, design advocacy, research, fabrication, construction, and contract administration.

Project Office was formed to support the architecture live project programme at Leeds Beckett University, UK. A form of Participatory Design, architecture live projects break the binary relationship between student and tutor through the introduction of an external collaborator/user group, forming a tripartite relationship. That arrangement is known as a Situated Learning Environment, meaning everybody involved is learning through their participation in the co-design process. It is this aspect which makes live projects such a valid pedagogic tool. Project Office cites its mission as harnessing academic endeavour as ‘a force for good’ through participatory co-design. It does so by providing architectural feasibility studies for local non-profit organisations who challenge societal inequality, whilst simultaneously offering students development of their tacit skills.

Societal inequality sees many non-profit organisations, whose primary objective is social well-being, desperately needing professional design input but without a means of paying for those services. It was this realisation that formed Project Office’s ethical and collaborative pedagogic approach to architectural education, which sees students embedded within in a non-profit organisations’ community-of-place with a brief to deliver architectural solutions meeting the collaborator’s needs. That is informed through a series of community engagements and co-design workshops which generates a sense of pride, interest and value for everyone involved, subsequently generating learning, skill derivation, and ultimately empowerment of this diverse collective. The lack of available resources often requires students to develop innovative strategies for adapting and reusing as found buildings or materials, becoming one of the most influential elements to the design narrative. This experience, over time and multiple projects, has led to the development of Surplus Reappropriation as a methodology for reducing cost and construction waste by reusing existing materials and products.

Whilst Project’s Office’s position to both education and practice is purposefully philanthropic, it is not pro-bono or a loss-leader. A key component to the practice philosophy is that students are always ‘paid’ to undertake work, either through credits toward their degree, or financially if extra-curricular. The approach is one of an Anchor Institution, where universities seek to promote economic, social and cultural regeneration by working with regional partners to bridge the pedagogic gap between practice and academia. Thus, the role of universities becomes one intent on advancing society for the greater good through the productive output of student endeavour, in addition to the classic creation and dispersion of knowledge.

The end goal is using student design work to gain capital funding such that Project Office can build for collaborating organisations the facilities they need to address societal inequalities. In so doing, the process provides valuable learning experiences for students and collaborators by viewing academic endeavour as a resource for community empowerment. It has proved a successful approach, delivering a number of constructed projects and winning numerous awards including; the Live Projects Network Category of Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) Award, RIBA Journal MacEwen Award for Social Architecture, and Universities UK MadeAtUni Campaign Winner.

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