Your Projects from Architecture School are Silly

September 2, 2014 — 59 Comments

Today is a first – I am doing something that I told myself that I would never do … show you one of my projects from architecture school. Why the change of heart? I’m not entirely sure, maybe it’s the presentation I am putting together for a group of freshman architecture students … or maybe it’s because I found some of this stuff during my recent move and I got a good laugh after looking through my work. Anybody who has successfully gone through architectural school and had a little bit of time pass since graduation will tell you; all those awesome projects that you did while you were in school … they’re kind of silly.

Just realize that at some point in the early future, you will be embarrassed that you thought your work was so great when it clearly sucks.
#4 Design Studio: Top Ten Things you Should Know

Since I haven’t completely lost my mind, I am only going to show you one of my school projects and believe it or not – it’s a house. I only designed two houses in all my college years – the first house was done in my freshman year and the last one (the one I am showing here today) was in my last studio. The premise was pretty simple: design a house on a real cliff-side lot that has sat empty due to it’s difficulty to build upon. Another caveat we were given (or at least I was given through my conversations with my professor) was to use this – my final architecture school project – to be a commentary on my overall education.

Just your ordinary house project … so I decided to make a house based on a 3-dimensional tartan grid, full of cubes as the individual rooms, and where all interior walls and cubes were wrapped in mirrors.

That’s right, I said mirrors.


Floor Plan - The Cube House by Bob BorsonI’m not going to spend a whole lot of time going over this now 22 year old masterpiece, but when I told everyone about the mirrors they thought I was crazy. I believed then, just as I do now, that if you have an amazing view, you don’t orient each room towards that same view. This will diminish the impact of the view  – making it commonplace – and over time you will stop noticing the view all together.

This house was basically a giant concrete cube that was opened on one corner with floor to ceiling windows (upper right-hand quadrant of the plans above). On the ground floor level plan there are spots designated for 9 squares – only 8 of which would actually be occupied. The 9th spot, which is located on the ground floor level in the quadrant closest to the windowed corner – would be left open so that the mirrors in the other locations could do their job.

The point of having the other 8 cubes (which contain bathrooms, bedrooms, office, etc.) and the surrounding ground floor perimeter walls wrapped in mirrors is that no matter where you would look, the mirrors would reflect your view back towards the only spot that doesn’t have a reflective surface … the 9th location and the glass window wall. The only way you could now avoid the view is to go inside one of the boxes.

It worked too – I built a mock-up of the mirrored cubes and their layout to prove it to the jurors and the professor. Pretty clever, right? Of course it’s clever, but this would be the worst house ever to live in. Super bad-ass project in theory but ludicrous as an actual project.

Site Plan - The Cube House by Bob Borson

My apologies for the crummy scans – these are all 20+ year-old pencil drawings. They look pretty good in person but scanning and reducing them down here for your amusement isn’t doing them any favors. You can click on any of these images and they will open up in a new window at a much larger size.

The Cube House by Bob Borson - Exterior Elevations

The grade of the project site fell off very rapidly – part of the reason that this very real site had never been built upon. The two exterior elevations I am showing here illustrate the extremes between the entry side off the street – low profile and unassuming – as compared to the lake-side view where the full height of the project is on display. It should be more evident where the window wall is located in this lakeside elevation drawing.

The Cube House by Bob Borson - Section Elevation


Check out that section! Each room had it’s own clerestory, the air distribution was located around the perimeter (don’t worry about how that one cube in the middle would have been cooled – it is a student project). I also had skylights that ran above the circulation (shown angled between the cubes above) with rain and debris channeled to a guttering “system”, AND there were sliding fabric shades that would allow the owner to mask off the skylights should they choose to do so (shown horizontally brow the angled skylights).

Let’s take a closer look at one of the cubes …

The Cube House by Bob Borson - Enlarged Section

BOOM!! Can you feel the magic? I should also point out that there is a lower level. I mentioned previously that there was a 3-dimensional tartan grid at work here, but let me try and explain how that actually works …

The rooms on the ground floor level were on a 9 quadrant grid but the main house was on a 4 quadrant grid system oriented vertically. (Has your head exploded yet?) On the 4 quadrant system, two were up on the ground floor, the third quadrant was a half-level down (accessed using the stairs between two cubes), and the fourth quadrant was a full level down access through a series of switchback ramps.

The Cube House - tartan grid

Structurally, the first 3 cubes (01 through 03) sat on the ground floor level (quadrants A and B). Cubes 04 through 06 sat halfway on quadrants A and B and cantilevered into Quadrants C and D. Finally, cubes 07and 08 sat on a single column and was held above quadrants C and D. Square 09 is a viewing platform and not technically a cube.

Did you forget that this was a house yet?

The Cube House by Bob Borson - model photo

I thought I would include one of the photos I found of my model. There is something particularly cool about how I placed my house model into my site model. I basically built a cube out of particle board and cut at the line of the topography where the grade touched the house. Cube house with a cube site model … genius!

– but –

I only came up with this idea in the last few minutes because I had run out of time to build a proper site model. I needed to have this site model done, I only had about 20 minutes left before we had to have all of our work out for presentation, and a friend of mine had some leftover particle board that he had under his desk. This was the easiest thing I could think of and this is the first time I have EVER publicly admitted that before, not that it matters. Maybe it was because I had limited time that I had to find something particularly creative to solve my problem … if I had more time, I probably would have built a more typical site model. That brings us back to today’s actual topic:

Your Projects from Architecture School are Silly

I can look back on the project and to this day think I prepared an interesting and engaging project. Was it a good house? Hell no! Who would ever want to live in a concrete house in the shape of a cube whose interiors are covered in mirrors? But that wasn’t really the point of this project or what I took away from this creative process. College architectural projects are about ideas and concepts, not execution and practicality. I got an A in this design studio and during my final jury review, not one single person asked me about bathrooms or closets. Nobody told me that my garage doors were too narrow to actually work properly. And nobody told me that living in a concrete house in the shape of a cube whose interiors were lined with mirrors was a terrible idea. We talked about the concept, my thoughts on how to properly frame a view, how the light would work in each space – and most everybody played with my mirror cube model because few people believed my concept worked … which it only kind of worked. But that didn’t matter.

Your college projects will be silly because they are designed to make you think outside what you already know. They are also supposed to force you to evaluate your own belief system, your own understanding of how spaces work, and the things that shape your ideas. So if you get a chance to design a house while you are in school, designing one that is practical and livable probably isn’t on your professor’s mind.

Good luck,

Bob AIA signature

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  • Jay Corder

    Having just unearthed a tube full of my school projects I can confirm two things: 1) my projects from architecture school are silly 2) I miss hand drafting as masochistic as that sounds.

  • Graet article, I love the quantity of this work.

  • Valerie

    So quick (might be silly as well) question: does it happen that you, architecture students, get a real offer from a private person and work on a real-life project? we are considering buying a piece of land in a “desertic” (remote) area and build our own (small) house there. Not tons of money but if it could help a student to graduate with a real project, could be interesting to work like this. kind of win-win situation: we provide you with a real project and we get a not-too expensive output which we can afford and learn a lot at the same time from your experience.

  • Brandon Koots

    I don’t exactly know why, but this post is definitely my favorite. I started reading your blog last year, and I’m so in love with this place! The way you write your posts and your content. This blog made me even more excited to start studying architecture. I decided to start school in March next year in Argentina. Me myself am from Curaçao, small island in the Caribbean. But seriously, keep up this amazing work. It really inspires me every time!

    • I am very glad to hear it – you’ll have to let me know how things are going for you as you move through your education.

      Best of luck,

      • Brandon Koots

        I definitely will! Things changed.. I’m starting this August!

  • Melinda Alvey

    I am applying to a M Arch program right now, but my background is in electrical engineering so I definitely know what it is like to have all of the creativity wrung out of you in college! I feel like I second guess some of my more “right-brained” problem solving skills because my training was not allowed to be as theoretical; however, too much theory and nothing gets done! I’m excited about all of these design/build programs that are popping up. I think it helps bridge the gap between crazy ideas and making sure the structure stands up.

    • I am torn as to how I should respond to your comment. On one hand, I think it’s imperative that the academic experience be focused on the “what if’s” and not the “how to’s” – there is plenty of time afterwards for working the creativity out of people. I am more than okay with the idea that grounding design into a more rigorous process – but if I were the teacher, how you build something should be a part of the design experience. Walking the line between the two is where the challenge lies.

      Good luck applying for your MArch!

  • Brian D. Meeks

    You are so ready to build a shipping container castle/evil lair.

    • castle/lair = yes
      shipping container/evil = we’ll have to talk about it

  • ksh

    I actually love this house and think it is an amazing idea! So inspiring. This is why I love being an architecture critic at universities – it is so refreshing, just like this post. Thanks for sharing!

    • ksh

      PS. A couple of my architecture projects: turning a dry dock into a commune, turning a missile silo into a twos-story crematorium and chapel, a house made of asphalt. Ah fun times:)

  • Glenn Waguespack

    Bob, was this from Benedikt’s studio–house on Mt. Bonnell? I always remembered this project because that cubes diagram is so NOT a house diagram–you were able to suspend your preconceptions about what a house is supposed to be. It stuck with me. Meanwhile, my original house design in that studio was a spiraling form cascading over the edge, but I lost my nerve and course-corrected to do a more normative design–boring! It would’ve been a beautiful failure if I had stuck to my guns!

    Fun post!
    Glenn Waguespack

    • That is this project – good memory for you! Regardless of what we did or didn’t do in college (if I’m not mistaken) you were credited with the Fallen Firefighters Memorial in St. Paul, right? That’s a nice project so I don’t think your more normative designed house in 1992 held you back.

  • pandix

    You are so right! school projects are silly, but they need to be. There was a lot of thought into your project, I enjoyed reading about it. I specially like your sections. I am glad my school was very design and concept oriented. I do wish I had a better idea of how to actually put things together after graduating, but I keep learning about that in every project. It is important to learn how to develop concepts. Thank you for sharing! I decided to share a pic of the only house I designed in school, in my third semester. This is also a hillside house (with views to volcanoes that I replicated with roofs), it is good I’ve learned a few things since 1994 . There is a lot of wrongs (That nobody is interested in), but there was a concept behind it. Fun to look at school projects, I am glad I have photos of most of mine (we didn’t have digital cameras then). Fun fact: I took the model to a friend’s house that lived in a hillside with the nice views and took the photo with one hand by holding the model with the other hand. Today I would use photoshop.

    • there are so many things about your comment that I can relate to – and I can easily imagine you holding your model in one hand and taking a picture with the other (that sort of thing happened a lot back in the early 90’s for me).

      I’m glad that you still have records of your work; it’s fun to look them over and see what sort of things have stuck with you and what things you’ve evolved beyond. Nice work.

    • Brian D. Meeks

      I’m a novelist so I don’t have any idea what’s good design or not, but I think you’re house is really cool.

  • Vinnie

    Bob – the trick is to pull off the conceptual as well as maintain correct garage door widths. see for me, the whole architectural education is ass to front. The garage door width should be drilled into the kids from day 1 so that after 1 year they are then able to apply themselves to work, put in a DP be themselves etc. The conceptual stuff can come after and to be honest, will be more grounded

  • aMa Architecture Inc

    At the University of Michigan in 90′-92′, the professors were like yours, although when one fellow student threw together a blob of folded paper at the last minute, pitched the concept and received a practical standing ovation from the jurors, while the rest of us had spent oodles of time/days thinking, drawing and building our presentation models to meet what we were told was required of us, well lets just say, that student was lucky no one snapped. None of this is that student’s fault, she did what she had to survive and pulled it off, which in and of it’s self is a valuable skill.

  • Student

    Well good luck for you that your professors are nothing like mine. From the outside it looked cool, don’t take me wrong, but If I would do a design that has problems with cooling, and size of garage door the professors here would probably kick my ass and I would fail! Now imagine if I made a house where most of the space was circulation and was done in mirrors! OMG they would rip me apart! You were lucky you were in a more conceptual school.

    • Thanks – I think things have worked out pretty well.

      Luck had nothing to with the school I went to – it’s one of the highest rated programs here in the states (currently rated as the 6th best undergraduate program 2015) so if you think conceptual meant easy, you are mistaken.

  • Dyuthi

    Hi Bob. I would like to say that the advice you give us certainly helps us student through school.
    I have a query. I am in my third year of architecture school and we had our prefinal crit yesterday. I didn’t score very well inspite of putting all my effort into the project through out the semester. Would you say marks is important later in life, or would it be the knowledge we receive?

  • Jess Hopkin

    I’m doing my final project for my Bachelors degree which is an Art and Design Ark, on the worst site they could find, its urban infill with lots of little corners. I don’t think anyone outside of university would ever think of using my concept of deception and rooms that appear one way and are different inside in a real building, but it’s working here and that’s all that matters

    • that sounds like a terrifically wonderful + terrible project … perfect for architecture school!

    • Oh how I love this article…it couldn’t be truer. Even when I was attending school I knew the projects were ridiculous. People would always say that my ideas were crazy and unrealistic, to which I would always retort,”we’re in graduate school not the “real” world. This is the place to get nuts because once you hit the streets and you start taking money from paying clients, we won’t get to do what we want to do…it will be what the client wants to do!” I couldn’t understand why they took school so serious when it was obvious how it was all for show…just to get my grubby hands on that diploma!

      I wanted to become an architect my whole life. Started out great: full scholarship to a great architectural school (it was at the time anyway – University of Florida). After a year I lost my scholarship – 20% because of beer and 80% because I just couldn’t get past the fact that the way architecture is taught in school is just laughable. I couldn’t get past the idea that it was subjective. Who the hell is anybody to say something is “good” or “bad”? It wasn’t until years later, AFTER going the pre-med route (long story) I chose to hunker down and get through architecture
      school no matter how foolish I thought it might be. I’m glad I did because once you get through it, you can do whatever you want. You can show the world your views on architecture.

      My advice to you Jess: get through it. Work hard…drink a
      lot of beer/martinis/wine coolers…etc. and just get through it. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.

      • Jess Hopkin

        I have managed to get through it, I’m waiting on marks for my furniture prototype and my architectural theory essay. My final design submission wasn’t the best I’ve done in terms of pulling off my concept, but I got some great comments for planning and how my building functioned. Still got me a pass.

  • Jonathan R. Card

    i regret not spending more time along this line of thinking during college. i did and do still get too bogged down in the practicalities of things like keeping a building dry. unfortunately many of my professors and critics did as well. I once spent half of a presentation for a sub teranean museum defending the ability of the design to shed water. I refered the guest critic / architect to Sweets and skylight/gutter ‘systems’. That didn’t fly with him. I did have several of those groovy ‘rotondi’ boomerang kitchen island designs in my projects at various scales. today i would actually like that middle bedroom.

  • Vesna hercegovac-pasic

    pleased to review your site and find a lot of similarities in thinking and a
    lot of love for the work you do. I delight sketches handmade despite the
    digital age, and this post ‘Your Projects from Architecture School are Silly’
    reminded me of my student project (from ’72?), Where I went a similar logic –
    place into place, forming functional ‘groups’ one cafe-restaurant, in a very
    large part of the street passage, in the form of boxes, set at different
    levels. If I find some parts of the project, for which I received a student
    award I will be happy to show it …

  • Jwkathol

    In the spirit of one of my favorite older posts, you new atelier should have been called:

    “Cube 9ine Architects – We focus on what’s important”

    • Soon to be “Cube Asi9ine Architects”

      being a male, my first inclination was to start thinking of how I could make fun of the name … like calling someone named Bart “Fart”

      I am a child.

      • Jwkathol

        I think that project was interesting. Like something you would see in Domus Magazine or Experimental design journal. Maybe not for a house meant to last a hundred years but cool enough to be a pavilion of some sort. Also the record I would loved to have seen “Golden Borson Architecture Express” as your new firm name.

  • Jes Stafford

    For SHAME Bob… No helpful information about real world design and construction. No code compliance report. No budget figures. No tips on running a successful practice. In other words, exactly what education in architecture should be. Just kidding about the ‘shame’ part. These conceptual explorations are so important. I look back on the years at Mississippi State after I started working construction, and that practicality and reality I experienced during those summer jobs kind of tempered my sense of exploration and conceptual gaming on projects.

    Students should embrace the learning environment like this to the best and most boundary pushing levels possible. This is a great way to illustrate that opportunity. Thanks for the post!

    • Hi Jes,

      You bring up an interesting point and something for further discussion. I am an advocate for architect in training to spend some time working construction BUT it should happen later in their education for the very reason you mention in your comment. Working on the construction side of things can temper your sense of exploration and conceptual “gaming”. “Drew” left a comment down below that summed it up well:

      “Studio projects are for dreaming up the impossible and finding a way to make them work”

      Construction experience can ground this sort of impossible (impractical) thinking.

  • Michael Stephens

    Been there, done that. Your model base idea demonstrates that desperation is in fact the true mother of great invention. Great idea, hilarious house idea. We all have them (hilarious school projects, that is).

    • you mean hilariously bad ass right?


      • Whales David

        Lol. Mine, was a Dairy Processing Factory. After years, when I look at the head-room, granted the production processing hall- 14mtrs! I can’t help but to just laugh out. The administrative wing’s approach elevation was…wow! Too medieval in look. Lots of stuff to laugh about it. You did a great job, then. Interesting and challenging design. What a modular concept.

  • AlmostJane

    Hey, we have ALL been there. My Dad had a line I didn’t appreciate too awful much at the time. “Only young people are smart enough to have everything figured out…” I didn’t begin to know how right he was until I entered my 40s. Wish I could apologize now for having been Completely Insufferable in my college years. I hope some of my pontificating at least gave my parents some good laughs. Your mirrors did that for me today!

    • there is a time in our life when not knowing what we don’t know moves from an asset to a liability, your time in school should be the former.

      Glad my mirror project provided you with a laugh, it sort of makes my head hurt but I’m proud of it all the same.

  • Drew

    Hahaha, this project is EPIC! I only wish I could have the model in front of me. As a current student in studio, I can completely relate to this article. Last semester I designed a 18 foot wide and 400 foot long windy bridge over Boulder Creek (think Millennium Bridge over a drainage ditch). It was completely ridiculous. But, like you said, its about the process…the site analysis, considering user constraints, the program, your organizing principles and, most importantly, seeing what you’re capable of. It doesn’t matter that my bridge would get laughed at by city planners or that it would cost twice the annual income of Boulder County. I’d like to think that there is something to be said about the student that doesn’t play it safe. Studio projects aren’t about sticking with the quickest solution. Studio projects are for dreaming up the impossible and finding a way to make them work.

    Thanks for the article, I really enjoyed this one. It would be interesting to see how many of those freshman students do a project this year with cubes or on a tartan grid…or with lots of mirrors!

    • I like your description better – “Studio projects are for dreaming up the impossible and finding a way to make them work.”

      That’s really good,

  • Adriana Payares Luzio

    I really loved this article. MAde me think back to my projects and the learning process; and why some of my professors would approve a project that wasn’t so good only for the learning curve…I miss that kind of discussions, were ideas and concepts were the important thing, and you wouldn’t spend most of your time solving menial/unispiring details like the inclination of the basement ramp…
    Great concept on that project, by the way!

    • Thanks Adriana – this is the sort of process that should take lace in an academic environment. Ideas and concepts are to be explored and I think if you are spending time reinventing old ideas, you are wasting your time. I think the good design professors know where their students should be focusing their efforts.

  • Carolyn Chaiko

    Bob, Great to see your studio project… very thoughtful.. excellent project. I’m also just pretty impressed that you still have your school projects! Having graduated from architecture school during the stone ages, any trace of my projects are long gone. I do however remember designing a house with a strong lineal concept with the “adult” space at one end and the “kids” space at the other.. now that I’m the parent of teenagers that concept is looking better and better.
    Cheers.. great blog

    • Thanks Carolyn.
      I think the only reason I still have part of this design was that it was rolled up into some other drawings. It was only during our recent office move that I discovered that it still existed.

      And the concept of parents at one end, children at the other is still a very strong parti – you were definitely on to something.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Mark Broyles

    Hi Bob-
    You are too modest- it’s a very fine project. You can always tell when a project is succeeding in its aims when you find yourself drawn into mentally improving whatever is less resolved! Really nice drawings, too.

    • Thanks Mark – this project definitely fell into the “concept” area, and I have no doubt it’s part of the reason the jurors responded favorably to it. But feel free to improve upon it 🙂

  • My very first project in my very first studio was to design my ‘dream space’. I was so proud of my pristine, white chipboard model of a classic Greek Revival. The corners of my walk-in pantry were so clean and sharp. The guy next to me brought in a twig glued to recycled cardboard with a string hanging from it.
    Guess who got the A?

    • not surprising. There was a guy I was in studio with one time that did his drawings on discarded blueline paper (he drew beautiful nighttime perspectives which is crazy difficult to do) and built his model on the back of one of the drawers from the drafting table. He was sort of crazy and got admonished for marking on school property but everybody thought he was a savant after that presentation. Truth was, he didn’t have any money to buy supplies and used whatever he could find. I thought he was a mad genius … but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he lives in abandoned train cars these days.

  • Tina Ryan

    You incorporated RAMPS in the design! Fabulous alternative to stairs – especially when moving heavy furniture. I can see why your professors were impressed with the project conceptual objectives.

    • marvinmcconoughey

      The house we live in has only a ramp access. Over a 27 year period it has been very pleasurable to use, and becomes increasingly so as we become less agile. And, yes, moving heavy appliances in and out is easier.

      • a well designed and placed ramp is a terrific thing. Ones that are added after the fact ALWAYS look like they were added after the fact. That’s why we added a ramp into the design of the KHouse Modern project from the very beginning.

  • I’d give you an A- in my studio simply because there are no scale figures in section. Thanks for sharing what the intent of school is. Too many forget about that.

    • well … none of these drawings had scale figures, but this is only about 1/10th of the total work produced. Then again, I don’t know how difficult you are as a professor so maybe I should take my A- and walk away.

      Your post on the purpose of education and college is a good one (I forget the title) but I think we are on the same page. I’ve said it here many times, you go to school to learn how to think, not solve a particular problem.

      • Quantity of work is good, so maybe I’ll bump you up. I like the simplicity of the reading of the drawings. Today most students spend hours on Rhino creating average digital images of work that is also…average. A simple line drawings speaks volumes when done well.

  • Kerry Hogue

    you have it right. I got a sense of entertaining nausea a few years ago when I looked at my college portfolio. egads! Why did I do that?
    while in school I only designed one house. I guess the professors realized that most architects did other building types so there you go. After college I designed one house, and it was actually built… by my parents. they actually built it. no contractor. it was an exercise in no waste, or very little. everything pretty much had to course out to take advantage of full sheets of drywall, sheathing, stud lengths, etc. it is not as easy as it sounds.
    great post Bob. and thanks for dredging up the old memories. I will NOT go back and look and my school projects. Some things are best left hidden.

    • Hah! Funny that your first and only house was for your parents (and I agree with you on how difficult it is to minimize waste to that level). I don’t actually remember all my projects from school but there are a few that are particularly painful to recall … it’s best to leave that stuff where it is, in the past.

  • Tim Barber

    Isn’t it amazing that while we are in college we have no idea what we are doing or how to do it. Years later you reflect and then you understand what they were trying to teach you. My first project in freshman design lab was given at 8 AM and it was “Design a beautiful cube” bring it back here tonight at 8 PM. Hell I came to design buildings, a cube, really? And a beautiful one at that! Am I going to tell you what I did? Of course not, it is to embarrassing! 🙂

    • It was about 5 years after I graduated that I thought “I need to burn all of these projects” and while that might have been a bit reactive and unnecessary, I haven’t had need to refer to them ever once I had some real work to replace my school work.

      Looking back, it is interesting to see what what information stuck with you and what you can’t remember – just as in all things, some studios had more lasting value to them.

      • Nikita-Destie

        I am still in grade 12 and I would like to do architecture. I want to know what you study in University like which kind of work you do just designing, calculating geometrical figures or else? Is it easy in university and then hard after university?! I want to know please.