As an undergraduate at Auburn University in 1994, Jonathan Tate, a white suburban kid from Huntsville, Ala., signed up for Rural Studio, where he helped to design one-of-a-kind “charity houses” on a shoestring budget. The university-affiliated program was only in its second year, but director Samuel Mockbee was a compelling figure who offered two things Tate wanted: exposure to the poverty-stricken rural South and a chance to build something unique. As it turned out, he got more than he expected. “It's not how to hang a door in a frame that I carry with me,” says Tate, a partner at New Orleans-based building studio and an adjunct assistant professor of architecture at Tulane University. “It's the strong confidence in who I am as an architect and the role I can play to affect people in this world.”

On the West Coast, Geoff Piper chose the University of Washington's architecture program because of the design/build studio offered through BaSiC Initiative. As he worked alongside community folks to build a library in Mexico in 2000, he, too, became less focused on the pragmatics of building and more attuned to architecture's social power. During the course of his studies, Piper worked with BaSiC Initiative founder and director Sergio Palleroni on several low-income projects, including a straw bale house in South Dakota. Today, he divides his Seattle practice, Fivedot Design/Build, between traditional design/build/development and nonprofit international projects.

Just 10 years ago, community-based design/build studios were a novelty in architecture schools. But now they're commonplace. When Fivedot organizes a project and looks for students to participate, “we're competing against 30 design/build programs happening over the summer, as opposed to about two when I was going to school,” Piper says. It's as though the profession is rediscovering social agendas after a long hiatus following the failed public housing experiments of the 1960s. It's not that architects didn't care about social issues, Tate says. But in Mockbee's hands, Rural Studio may have marked a point where they could once again be involved, by raising the idea that it was time to get over the stigma and back into the discussion. “For a few decades, architects were afraid to step out and say something about these things, not to mention that there was a period of heavy intellectualizing about what architecture was,” he says.

As Mockbee brilliantly illustrated, doing good and doing good architecture can be the same thing. And when students are involved, everyone wins. They get to experience the thrill of building their ideas while also leaving a legacy. But it's not just the hands-on time that's ultimately of value. Community-based design trains budding professionals to work as a team rather than as a single genius architect, to take control over complex real-world conditions, and perhaps most important, to have a greater sense of agency in the world. In short, it exposes them to the side of architecture that schools tend to miss.

mixing altruism and ego

Back in 1995, another designer observed the disconnect between classroom conjecture and real-world design—and decided to do something about it. But The University of Kansas' award-winning Studio 804 was born almost by accident. As professor Dan Rockhill tells it, his firm, Rockhill and Associates, needed help on a project out in the country. He enlisted his students, who were wildly enthusiastic. In 1999, Studio 804 was incorporated as a 503(c) organization, and the model evolved over the years. After stick-building five affordable houses, the group began designing prefab structures that could be transported to sites farther away. And unlike many school studios, this one is run as a business, without university subsidies. Rockhill borrows money from the community development corporation that sponsors each speculative project. When the house is sold, he pays back the loan with interest and plows any profits back into Studio 804. Meanwhile, he gets a salary from The University of Kansas and students get credit for the course.

Although participation isn't mandatory, Rockhill truly believes that having their hands in the concrete makes his students better architects. And by working in poor communities where there are few English speakers, students see a side of life they never knew existed nearby. “Helping them be accountable to sustainable practices is another thing I feel good about,” Rockhill says. “Students are anxious to produce buildings that are responsible to the environment. They're the ones who will bring about change.”

Accountability is the big bonus at Tulane's URBANbuild program, too, according to director Byron Mouton, AIA. In this case, he says, it's about helping each other maintain energy, stay on schedule, and practice diplomacy with colleagues and city agencies. Unlike design studios in which students work on a project at their desk and stand up alone to defend it to jurors, fieldwork is all about collaborating. “I like watching these guys figure out how to control their anger and deal with disappointments, but most of all how to come together in support of each other,” says Mouton, who became semi-famous when a 12-week URBANbuild class was filmed for the reality TV series Architecture School, which aired last year on the Sundance Channel.

Occupying the gap between theory and practice can be painful. The documentary-style Architecture School series drew some criticism—mainly that the finished house didn't blend with the Central City neighborhood and that no locals could afford to buy it. Mouton admits that encouraging innovation within nonprofit parameters can be a tricky balance to achieve. The agency with whom URBANbuild works asks for a 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath home because it's the easiest model for matching low-income buyers with government subsidies. So size and function are non-negotiable. And to keep things interesting, URBAN-build experiments with different building systems each year. The first house, built in summer 2006, used familiar wood framing to ensure that the project could be completed in 12 weeks with unskilled labor. The second project featured prefab metal panels, the Architecture School house was made with SIPs, and LEED Silver certification is the current project's goal.

But Mouton is unapologetic about giving students a long design rope. “We won't ask a group of 12 students to work for free on a tight schedule and then just produce a Habitat for Humanity house,” he says. “What we give them is design opportunity.” Sometimes that means allowing students to design special components that aren't cheap but that can be eliminated without compromising the basic scheme if the house is reproduced with paid labor. As hard as URBANbuild works to keep costs low, finding qualified buyers in down-and-out neighborhoods is daunting. “They have to find people who have a perfect credit score and have had the same employer for three years,” he says. What's more, “we're trying to resurrect old neighborhoods that are often dangerous, and it's difficult to find buyers who want to take that plunge. It will take a decade of just dropping the seeds into the neighborhoods, and it's a slow, agonizing process.”

Indeed, a project's location has a huge influence on how funding, construction, and legal terms are structured. Programs located in places with no building codes or officials have very different educational opportunities than those in red tape-entangled urban environments. All, however, share the belief that the logistics can't be handed off as though they were the responsibility of other entities. Students learn to work with trade contractors, understand the process by which a piece of equipment or building material arrives at the site, and the environmental impacts of construction. If they're cutting a material, they need to know the ordering lead time and how and where it's made. “All of those things are abstract until the moment it's your obligation to deliver it to someone,” says David Lewis, director of The Design Workshop at Parsons The New School for Design, where nine of the design/build projects in the New York City-based studio's 11-year history have been urban. “More important, your design won't be erected if you don't understand how those things operate and control them.”