Students and faculty from the Virginia Tech College of Architecture, Arts, and Design; Hampton University; and Howard University collaborated at the Branch Museum for Architecture and Design in Richmond on Sept. 8 in a workshop titled “Democratizing Design Robotics.”

Participants worked with software and industrial robotic arms to produce prototypical sculptures. The sculptures are extensions of an existing research project developed by the Center for Design Research in the School of Architecture: an Eco-Park Learning Center for Prince William County, Virginia. The towers were robotically fabricated in plastic foam and served as potential landmarks for a trail system connecting schools to the new learning center.

“'Democratizing Design Robotics' is helping us find collaborative opportunities that put the students first,” said Nathan King, co-director for the Center for Design Research and primary organizer for the workshop. “From there, we hope to find ways to expand collaboration. Hampton, Howard, and Virginia Tech have faculty in respective design programs doing amazing work.”

The workshop was the final programed event of the “Modeling a Vision” exhibition at the Branch Museum. The collective endeavors reflect the center's commitment to the Beyond Boundaries vision established by President Tim Sands.   

“The workshop is a significant example of collaboration between universities, an initiative for inclusion and diversity, a model of experiential learning, and a unique Beyond Boundaries educational protocol integrating research and teaching,” said Robert Dunay, director of the center.

Students gather around robotic arm.
Alonzo Colon (at front left), a Virginia Tech senior in architecture, demonstrates robotic operation. Photo courtesy of Robert Dunay.

Robert Easter, former president of the American Institute of Architects in Virginia and recent recipient of the American Institute of Architects Whitney M. Young Jr. Award, led a discussion about technology and its impact on the future of practice.

His message? “Embrace and control it.”

“Technology will change the practice and profession of architecture, and you have to stay ahead of the trends,” said Easter. “It isn’t enough to just learn the use of these tools. You must learn how to integrate them into your creative process.”

Power outages in the afternoon offered  participants the opportunity to conclude their day at the middle Of broad studio. The experimental design lab unites design departments of Virginia Commonwealth University. Camden Whitehead, local architect and Virginia Tech alumnus who graduated with a degree in architecture degree 1980, is a former Virginia Commonwealth University faculty member and a studio co-founder. He was visiting the workshop and arranged access to the space.

“The robotic model building workshop demystified the process for students of Hampton and Howard universities,” Whitehead said. “When you do not have access to a tool or proper instruction for using that tool, the entire process can be intimidating. Seeing their peers from the Center for Design Research confidently operating and guiding them through the operation of the machines gave students the confidence that they could tackle this technology. The peer-to-peer interaction was terrific.”

“The event itself was a wonderful lesson in the challenges of technology,” said Easter. “The students and their faculty leaders, however, created new and meaningful connections that will, hopefully, lead to new opportunities for collaboration between the three participating institutions.”

Female and male look at their fabricated column.
(From left) Madison Summers, a faculty member at Howard University, and Derrick Dow, a student from Hampton University, assess recent work. Photo courtesy of Robert Dunay.

Faculty from both Hampton University and Howard University enjoyed the collaborative experience and look forward to future projects.

“We had a wonderful time in the short time that we were together,” said Marci Turner, assistant professor in the School of Engineering, Architecture and Aviation at Hampton University. “The students and I learned quite a bit about the new ways architects can work with new technologies and the roles and opportunities technology provides to the profession. Thank you for allowing us to collaborate in this journey.”

"Bringing our universities together to use robotic aided building technology has been a huge success. Students are very interested and looking forward to possibly collaborating on a larger project in the future,” said Madison Summers, architectural designer with Ashley McGraw Architects and adjunct professor in the architecture department at Howard University.

The “Democratizing Design Robotics” workshop was part of a series developed by the Virginia Tech Center for Design Research to foster inclusive research by building partnerships between faculty at Virginia Tech and faculty at historically Black colleges and universities while also serving as an experiential learning opportunity for students.

“Digital design and fabrication, including robotics, have facilitated innovative applied research, coursework, and outreach within the design disciplines,” said Dunay. “In industry, these tools are aiding in the realization for future practice. However, their full potential cannot be realized until access is expanded beyond the wealthiest of areas on the most expensive projects.”

Funding was provided by an Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology Diversity and Inclusion Seed Investment Grant.

Some of the workshop students and their robotically fabricated columns. Photo courtesy of Robert Dunay.

Students standing behind their fabricated columns.
Some of the workshop students and their robotically fabricated columns. Photo courtesy of Robert Dunay.
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