This semester 10 students from undergraduate and graduate programs at the School of Architecture + Design at Virginia Tech are in residence at Payette in Boston as part of experiential learning program, OpenLab, developed by the Center for Design Research. The integrated program provides students an opportunity to work side-by-side in one of the nation’s top architecture firms, experiencing practice as pedagogy while they complete course work toward their professional degrees. The students are focusing their efforts on a large speculative development proposal in downtown Boston adjacent to the transportation hub of South Station and at the gateway to the major development in the Seaport District. Nexus is a complex of five buildings along the Fort Point channel that support the thriving innovation economy in Boston and includes facilities for biomedical research, startup incubation, and a variety of mixed-use programs.

During the first phase of the program, students developed three master plans that addressed the programmatic intent of the buildings, site conditions—past, present, and future as the city responds to sea-level rise and the complex urban adjacencies, circulation, and delineation of public and private spaces. Working in groups, the students developed three proposals and as a culmination of the master-planning phase, presented their work to a jury of professionals and faculty. From this body of work, a single master plan will be chosen as the students move into building-design for the remainder of the semester.

In addition to the studio, the integrated OpenLab program includes courses in professional practice and digital building technologies. These courses are woven into the day-to-day practice of the students. This week the student reached a milestone in their digital technologies course when they were joined by Virginia Tech alumni Gabby Perry (BArch 2020- Currently studying robotics at the Harvard GSD) and Michelle Pannone (BArch 2017 - Assistant Professor at Marywood University) along with Peter Atwood from the Boston Architectural College, and Killon Mokwete from Northeastern University to discuss their response to a computationally driven exercise led by Payette’s Parke MacDowell. The project empowered the students as digital decision makers by linking a computational design methodology to three digital fabrication processes. In addition to helping the students build core digital competencies, the resulting quilt-like artifacts led to a rich discussion around agency and digital practice. As the semester progresses students will draw from their digital fabrication expertise to construct building-scale mockups and prototypes. 

The OpenLab Boston is a collaboration between the Center for Design Research at the VT School of Architecture + Design and Payette. Program faculty include Kevin Sullivan, Parke MacDowell, Laurie Booth, Denise Dea, Robert Dunay, Nathan King, and others from Payette, Virginia Tech, and the surrounding design community.