Students face challenge of home design

Fourth-grade class at Orchard Hill Elementary School in Montgomery receives some early professional training.

By: Steve Rauscher
   Students from Laurie Winer’s fourth-grade class at Orchard Hill Elementary School in Montgomery Township received some early professional training this past month.
   The children were asked to break into pairs and design a 2,000-square-foot ranch-style home as part of a unit on area and volume. On Wednesday, they traveled to Princeton University’s School of Architecture to have their work reviewed by a group of Ph.D. candidates.
   "I learned that architecture is too hard for me," said one crew-cutted 10-year-old, when asked what he took away from the project.
   Indeed, most of the students — and their teacher — seemed surprised at how difficult designing a house could be.
   "At first they thought, ‘Hey, cool idea. It’ll be so much fun,’ " Ms. Winer said. "But when you start doing it, you see that that 2-foot closet in the corner just isn’t functional."
   Each house was required to have two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining room, a kitchen and an outdoor pool. Each pair of students tacked a large floor plan onto the white corkboard walls in the lobby of the architecture school along with a series of drafts on loose-leaf paper and stood by their designs as parents, teachers and architecture students filed past.
   "We made the bedroom really big," 10-year-old Veronica Kirk said of the house, called Alligator Alley, she designed with partner Amanda Ribiero. "It’s for senior citizens, so you have to have a big bedroom in case they have grandchildren and the whole family has to sleep there."
   Veronica and Amanda, like most of the other pairs, said they had to depart radically from their original design in order to accommodate practical considerations, such as placing the bathrooms where everyone could get to them.
   "It was frustrating and hard, because you make a mistake and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God. I have to start all over again,’ " Veronica said. "But I like math."
   Nine-year-old Joseph Mankowski, co-creator of Millionaire Mansions, agreed.
   "We thought we could just slap down any shaped room anywhere," he said, pointing to a first draft that showed bedrooms shaped like Tetris blocks. "But then we realized, well, somebody’s going to have to live in these things."
   Architecture student Emanuel Petit grilled the children about their designs, but came away impressed.
   "Tell me about the flow," he said. "Why did you name this that? Where do I park my car?" He was surprised at the quality of the designs the 9- and 10-year-olds produced.
   "It’s amazing to see kids draw relatively abstract drawings like this," he said. "It’s pretty close to what real architects would do."
   Ms. Winer said the project was a definite success in terms of attracting the students’ interests. But even she didn’t realize how much time it would consume.
   "We probably worked on it for a total of six hours over a period of a month," she said. "It’s hard for fourth-graders to stay focused for that long.
   "But it was neat, you know. Some of them realized, ‘This is not for me.’ But some of them seemed really attracted to the precision of it."
   And all of them seemed to understand they’d had some serious misunderstandings about the fundamentals of architecture.
   "Yeah, it was weird," Joseph said. " I never realized you had to do math."