If you’ve never heard of the Stevens Institute of Technology, don’t worry—I hadn’t either before I moved to New York. Based in Hoboken, N.J., Stevens isn’t as renowned as other design schools in the region, such as Columbia University, Pratt Institute, Cooper Union, or Princeton University. In fact, it doesn’t even have a school of architecture. Yet somehow Stevens continues to capture the attention and interest of the architecture community.
A few weeks ago, Stevens made headlines when it beat 16 prominent universities to win the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, a biennial competition to make the most affordable, aesthetic, and energy-efficient house. But well before this victory, the school had been garnering a reputation in the building industry for producing technologically adept graduates. Both of these achievements stand out against the prevailing struggle of educational institutions to integrate digital technologies, such as parametric modeling and BIM, into their curricula.
At the core of Stevens’ recent success is the Product-Architecture Laboratory (PAL), which is a two-year master of engineering (in product-architecture and engineering) program housed in its School of Engineering and Science. Founded in 2004 by architect and educator John Nastasi, AIA, the program has had a modest enrollment of around 10 students each year.
Alexandra Pollock, AIA, the director of design technology at FXFowle, in New York, was in the inaugural graduating class of PAL. During her tenure there, she says, the subject matters she and her contemporaries were exploring—object-oriented programming, parametric modeling, and physical computing—were well ahead of the profession. “The work produced at Stevens wasn’t being done in the industry, and it was three years before other schools started teaching those topics,” she says.
PAL students worked on actual design projects from architecture and engineering firms, including SHoP Architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merill (SOM), Gehry Partners, and BuroHappold Engineering. Much of this access came from connections that Nastasi had forged in the profession. At the time, giving students access to real buildings contrasted sharply with the modus operandi of the typical architecture school, which taught computational design as if it was only a theoretical exercise.
Whether intentional or not, Nastasi had set up an environment where the graduate students essentially became technology consultants on projects. Their enrollment serendipitously coincided with a time when many architecture firms began developing their own internal technology consultancies and research and development (R&D) departments. Thus, when it became time to find talent, they turned to the students they had been working with through PAL. The industry partners had gotten “to know us and they saw the benefit of the program,” says Pollock, who was snatched up by SOM to join its digital design group after graduating in 2006.
The program’s early trailblazing years in digital design were short lived, however.
When the global financial crisis began in late 2007, the program had to shift
focuses. “When the recession hit, the focus on formal complexity came into
question,” Nastasi says. Like many programs and firms in the industry, PAL had
to adjust to new pressures to survive and, as a result it, began to focus more on building
performance, which he says is “less sexy but way more gratifying.”
As technology continues to redefine how architects work, many schools are grappling with how to prepare graduates for the new realities of the industry. Adding to the pressure are sharply increasing tuition costs, which can deter enrollment, and low employment rates for architecture graduates.
Yet PAL continues to stand out against this backdrop as a place that has figured out how to teach technology. Its alumni includes a disproportionately high number of technology leaders from prominent architecture firms: Cory Brugger, director of Design Technology at Morphosis Architects; Steve Sanderson, who co-founded Case, Inc., and is now the head of building intelligence at WeWork (my current employer); and Jonatan Schumacher, a member of the program’s third graduating class who started CORE Studio, a computational R&D group within Thornton Tomasetti. (Four of his first six hires, he says with a note of pride, were also PAL graduates.)
To continue chalking PAL’s success to good timing—as it so happened regarding the provenance of computational design—is to undersell the program’s ongoing innovations. Perhaps the most radical aspect of PAL is the way in which it dismisses much of the contemporary wisdom about teaching technology. As other universities try to shoehorn computational design into the Beaux-Arts tradition of lone students sketching out theoretical follies, Stevens continues to encourage its students to work collaboratively on multidisciplinary, real-world projects. It understands that the increasing shift to a digital work environment must be balanced with more time in the physical world working with people and materials firsthand.
The Solar Decathlon
The teaching traditions of PAL have culminated in the continued success of Stevens in the Solar Decathlon. Students from Stevens have been contenders in each of the past three contests, placing 13th in 2011, fourth in 2013, and, of course, first in this year’s event with a team led by PAL students.
The Solar Decathlon’s two-year cycle of construction share many similarities to the projects PAL students worked on prior to the Great Recession, the most obvious being that the design and construction of a house requires collaboration by a small cohort on everything from engineering and computational design to manufacturing.
For this year’s Solar Decathlon, PAL students created the SURE House (SUstainable + REsilient), a
one-story prototypical residence designed for coastal regions vulnerable to
hurricanes. When a storm approaches, occupants can fold down glass-fiber and
resin shutters to protect building fenestration. The waterproofing system allows
the house to withstand 5 feet of floodwater and hurricane-force winds. As the
storm subsides and the sun emerges, rooftop-mounted solar panels begin
generating energy to power the house as well as any neighboring houses,
providing immediate relief to the community before municipal infrastructure is
Stevens’ victory in the Solar Decathlon was the most definitive in the event’s 14- year history. Of the 10 categories in which judges evaluate the projects, the SURE House took first in an unprecedented seven categories, including market appeal, appliance efficiency, and home life. Perhaps most impressive for a university without an architecture school, the jury ranked Stevens first in both the architecture and engineering categories.