Roundtable: Architects and academics discuss reality of design after graduation

The best way to make design students aware of the reality of the workplace came under the spotlight at a roundtable held in Dubai earlier this month.

Participants from business and academia all agreed that greater co-operation between the design and build industry, faculty deans, professors and lecturers, and the students themselves are hugely important in developing talent.

Architect firm Lacasa was instrumental in making the event happen and the company has been at the forefront of inspiring young people and giving them the opportunity to develop their skills.

Most recently the business launched a competition to find the best design for a school in Palestine submitted by a student architect in the UAE – with the prize of the chance to oversee the project and see their design achieve reality.

Interior design is a part of the project and the students will lay out their ideas for fittings and furnishings in the final stages.

The debate continually came around to the point that practical considerations should be given far more weight – and the best people to instruct on this subject would be those in the business.

Jessica Mondo of New York Institute of Technology says: “I teach interiors, so things like slip resistance, how big the stairwell should be and the science of materials is important. But whether students get that in the four years … we can only make them aware of these things.”

The discussion group first considered how well prepared students in the GCC are to start work.
Mondo says: “It depends on what school and what sort of students, but the quality can vary – sometimes there is a huge gap.”

Heriot-Watt University associate head Wael Mualla says his class was the first the faculty had put through a design course: “It remains to be seen if they are adequate for the market – but we have done all we can with methods such as work placement, summer training and professional workshops from companies.”

Recent graduate Imad Haddad, who is now at Lacasa adds a glaring lack in his education had been an awareness of the regulations which govern the business, and he was now having to learn them while on the job.

Marco Sosa of Zayed University was the first to state the lack of co-operation between many practices and the students they were hoping will be their designers of the future.

He says: “We haven’t had an architect company come to us – everyone says time is money and out here in the
Middle East that is multiplied by five.”

Lacasa has taken on architects from universities across the region, Emad Jaber the company’s managing partner explained.

“We want new blood, new talent and new creativity,” he says. “But we are not a small boutique practice. We do not have the time to teach new people. We are working on real projects in a tight programme.

“A civil engineer – after three months you can depend on them. But an architect no. They do not understand what is practical in terms of a building’s efficiency. How do columns work, how does electricity function? What is the floor-to-floor height and how will fire-fighting and draining be incorporated?

“When you give them a job, the students start sketching and this is not what is required.”

Mualla posed to Jaber: “So what is needed is very much different from what we teach?” To which, Jaber replied:
“No – what you teach is what they need, but they need more on the practical side.” Mondo agreed saying the definition of the subject needs to be refined.

She explains: “This is a constant conversation throughout both education and in practices. People keep saying the word ‘design’ and through my work as well as being an academic, as I am now, I think there is a complete lack of knowledge of the word. Engineers design, architects design, people design phones, people design pens.

“People design how many toilets should go in a building by studying the building codes. I like to teach my students in a practical manner.

“From an undergraduates point of view, it’s probably the first time they have ever become aware that someone counts the toilets in a project. Maybe at the internship level they should be given more practical knowledge. If I could, I would drag them through a codes office or something.”

Haddad adds he wished the course he had had been “more integrated” and included all aspects of a project which Salem Abdalla, professor at Sharjah University also agreed was important.

But the panel said sometimes it was up to the individual students themselves to take action to redeem gaps in their knowledge.

Sosa says: “I remember my first job – I earned just 500 pounds a month and that was after five years of university. But what I learnt at that practice was worth more than 500 pounds.”

Referring back to the Lacasa competition, Jaber explains: “We are committed to the overall community, in architecture and design.

“We are proud to be a pioneer in the field of co-operation and other companies will surely follow. Students entering our competition can have brainstorming sessions with our architects to develop ideas and we will create a time for them to work alongside universities.”

He said the company took on between 10 and 12 interns a year and most then ended up getting full time jobs. Mualla stated his intention of approaching his department to work with Lacasa.

Abdalla reinforced the need for an academia-industry partnership and Mualla and Mondo agreed this was always beneficial. “The exposure of students to the professional world always generates a great deal of enthusiasm,” says Mualla.

“You are bridging the gap – but there will always be a gap, it will never be zero,” adds Jaber, who also noted he would be glad to make himself available as a guest lecturer to the UAE’s universities.

Asked what they would like to see in the future for young architects, Mualla agreed closer collaboration with the industry was vital while Abdalla emphasised investment from companies would help to improve standards of training. Mondo bought up the issue of providing greater opportunities.

“Some sort of scholarship could be set up to allow those who cannot afford to study or are not eligible for free schools to learn – and that could be in collaboration with the industry,” she says. “Also, there are not enough events like this where issues are addressed.”

The panel all agreed with Jaber’s suggestion that advice and information should be made available to academia from business.

“We can let them know what it is we need, both in the curriculum and practically,” he says.

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