William Jelen, director of The Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning's CUAdc program, agrees. “There's a certain kind of maturity in being able to follow through on a real project, because you have to be responsible and self-motivated; these are real people's money and lives you're dealing with.” He's noticed that students are energized by those dynamics and the deeper understanding that comes from exposure to neighborhoods they never would have visited as an outsider. That's why, for Jelen, an integral part of architecture education is its relationship to clients and the community.

“I always felt that you have all these talents and skills in school that are underutilized in terms of harnessing that creativity and applying it to real-world problems,” Jelen says. “In school I wondered why we had to tackle some theoretical problem in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, instead of dealing with issues in Philadelphia.” He adds that there is strong ongoing interest in the university's design/build program; some alumni even jump in on local projects. “A lot of times, young people in architecture firms have little responsibility; this is something they do have responsibility for,” he explains. “And there's a desire to do something for the common good.”

public-spirited entrepreneurship

There's no doubt that for many young, idealistic architects-in-training, designing and building for the disenfranchised is a powerful experience. But does it change their career aspirations? David Buege, one of Rural Studio's first participants, doesn't think so. “If there were a kind of methodological study of what has happened with people who've gone through such programs, I'd say the impact would be pretty subtle,” says Buege, director of the architecture program at Philadelphia University. “Even in good times, survival strategies take over.”

And in a tough job market, it's even harder for debt-strapped graduates to act on their newfound passions. Just ask Wes Janz, Ph.D., RA, associate professor of architecture at Ball State University and co-director of CapAsia, which takes students to South Asia for 11 weeks every other spring. He's also led field trips to border towns in Northern Texas and Skid Row in East Los Angeles, as well as Midwest distress tours to Rust Belt cities that have been failing for years. He says he gets too many e-mails from former students saying they're dissatisfied with their jobs or altogether disillusioned with the profession, like the graduate in Fort Wayne, Ind., who was working on construction documents for a Holiday Inn.

“I say, Just calm down, keep paying off debts, try to be patient, and do some volunteer work,” Janz says. But he feels their angst. “As educators we need to have a better answer to the question, What is this bridge after graduation? If I could, I'd probably bring a social entrepreneurship curriculum to the architecture school, because in the end I think becoming aware of entrepreneurship at an early age might be the foundation piece students need to create roles for themselves.”

Ted Smith thinks so too. That's why he created the master's in residential development program for architects at Woodbury University in San Diego. With its focus on affordability, it's one way for socially conscious designers to invent their own opportunities. The premise is simple: Instead of trying to work within the limits imposed by cash-starved community development corporations, architects are taught how to conceive, finance, and sell a project, often leveraging affordability by taking advantage of zoning loopholes. Smith says it creates a different kind of dynamic than simply designing something cool.

“The nonprofit sector puts huge constraints on building by specifying minimum bedroom size and a certain number of closets, so that by the time you're done, you're stuck with a cookie-cutter project to get the tax credit,” Smith says. “It's about not letting the client make the wrong decision, which is so often the case. Very often the goal of affordable housing is to make it look like every other house, but every other house is 50 percent too big. My son grew up with his crib in a closet with the doors removed; it's those sorts of crazy solutions that are efficient.”

Working with Mockbee's former partner, Coleman Coker, in a practice that serves both mainstream and marginalized clients, Tate says Rural Studio had a profound personal impact. It's taken a good 10 years, he says, to begin to structure his practice nontraditionally, but he sees more young graduates finding ways to do so immediately.

And there's another, perhaps unintended, outcome of community-based university studios: Architects are doing a better job of designing forward-thinking homes that aren't prohibitively expensive. “More and more people are beginning to realize that custom progressive homes are, in fact, accessible,” Mouton says. “We're not just training architects to make cool houses; in a culture where most houses are designed by builders, we're showing people that there are affordable options.”

Hands-on skills surely give affordability a boost. The Yale School of Architecture's community-based Building Project studio, for example, teaches students to challenge the prevailing notion that architects should not build. “We have quite a few students who've tried to address larger social issues through design/build in their practice,” says director Adam Hopfner, who launched his own design/build firm after participating in the program.