Student Research: A 3,000-Mile Architectural Journey Through the Desert Southwest

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In June, senior architecture major Keith Stipe joined 27 other Norwich University undergraduate Summer Research Fellows who undertook in-depth research projects across the arts, sciences or professional fields. Awarded by the university’s Office of Academic Research, the competitive, six- and ten-week fellowships are funded by university endowments dedicated to supporting student academic investigation.
Norwich University Office of Communications

August 24, 2015

This summer, senior architecture major Keith Stipe toured the desert southwest to explore ancient and modern examples of earthen and rammed earth architecture and to speak to leading architects in the field.
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Beginning in Denver, Colo., Stipe drove some 3,000 miles over the course of three weeks, exploring sites in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.

Building styles ranged from thousand-year-old kivas built by the Pueblo peoples at Chaco National Historic Park in Chaco, New Mexico, to modern sculptor Paolo Soleri’s Cosanti home and studio in Paradise Valley, Arizona.

“One of the reasons this research is relevant and important is that even in our current day, a third to half of the world’s population lives in earthen buildings,” Stipe says.

“There’s a huge population of the world that relies on the availability and the easy use of earthen building materials. So it’s something that’s worth continuing to explore and develop in the future.”

His first stop was the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., designed by I.M. Pei, a concrete structure that uses soil and pigment to make a visual connection to the surrounding Colorado landscape.

Other sites included the 30,000-square-foot PERA office building in Sante Fe, the largest rammed earth building in the southwest; Georgia O’Keefe’s Abiquiu, NM, home and studio; and the Lemuria Earthship, an off-the-grid rammed earth home near Taos, New Mexico.

At each site, Stipe studied the architecture’s technical and aesthetic qualities. He sketched site layouts, photographed architectural elements, and measured wall thicknesses to estimate thermal mass and passive heating and cooling abilities.

The aspiring architect also observed the buildings’ relationships to place and landscape, noting how the structures earthen building materials provided a poetic connection to the landscape.

In Arizona, Stipe interviewed influential rammed earth architect Eddie Jones.

Danny Sagan, an associate professor of architecture and program director for NU’s School of Architecture + Art, served as Stipe’s research advisor. “Architecture is uniquely difficult to study in that many of the examples we use to teach the principles of the subject are not located in Vermont,” he says.

He adds that architecture of place must be derived from regionally appropriate building technologies. Stipe’s trip into the arid Southwest allowed him to explore architecture informed by different influences.

“By traveling into an new environment, Keith was able to see the subject of architecture with new eyes,” Sagan says. “Every architecture student should travel to see architecture in a place very different than the places they know. It makes their studies much broader and therefore much more relevant.”

Stipe documented his trip via social media and photography. He plans to produce a book as his final research product, one that synthesizes his visual impressions with research findings and analysis.

Stipe’s research budget of $3,940, which covered food, lodging, travel expenses, and a new digital SLR camera, were covered by his Summer Research Fellowship stipend.

“Architecture is an art which arises not only from an instinctual need for warmth or shelter, but also from a human desire to synthesize and create at a level which is in harmony with landscape and environment,” Stipe notes.

Modern building approaches often involve demolishing a landscape, building suburbs, then replanting trees—a process that doesn’t acknowledge place, he says. “We try to change the environment to fit our perceptions or needs, rather than using the environment as a tool [for] showing us how to live in an area.”

His fellowship now complete, Stipe will spend the fall semester studying architecture and design in Berlin, Germany, at Norwich University’s City Lab: Berlin micro campus.

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