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UTenSAils: A Design-Develop-Build Project Students at UTSA learn about managing, funding, and building tensile membrane projects by Mahesh B. Senagala

In my design-develop-build studio at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the cross-disciplinary notions of collaboration, leadership, and entrepreneurialism take center stage. In the spring 2005 semester, aided by $102,490 in sponsorships, four full-scale permanent tensile membrane structures were successfully designed, engineered, and erected within a five-month period. Named collectively as UTenSAils, the work was realized through collaborations with 24 industry partners from Asia, Europe, Australia, and North America. Given the lack any local resources or knowledge of these structures, the initial goal was to design, develop, and build a modest 200square-foot temporary tensile membrane structure. The intention was noble, but the challenge was daunting. It is one thing for an experienced firm with professional staff to go confidently into designing, teaming, scheduling, engineering, and building these special structures. It is a different thing for students with full course loads, curricular framework, international suppliers, and engineering-intense technical challenges. To accomplish this unique set of challenges, the traditional studio structure of teaching had to be jettisoned in favor of a self-organizing, entrepreneurial, leadership-oriented, and collaborative model. Typically, students in an architectural studio competitively respond to a design challenge as individuals or in small groups. The professor usually serves as the master, in what I call the “Howard Roark model.” By contrast, in the “firm model,” all parties – the professor, the students, the professionals, the suppliers, and the fabricators – form a collaborative and entrepreneurial collective where everyone learns and benefits from the partnership. As a key partner, the professor facilitates learning and provides leadership. In this case, students were asked to form a hypothetical architectural firm. An administrative layer of positions (office director, graphic designers, PR specialists, etc.) was established, with students invited to apply for positions based on experience and interest. A Web-based forum allowed project partners to communicate among each other at all hours. On top of the administrative layer, a professional layer of positions was created in which the students took on different roles to accomplish different project-specific tasks. These layers enabled a sense of ownership

One set of ‘sails’ was permanently installed at the main entrance to the UTSA College of Architecture. The realized project of tensile membrane structure closely resembles

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the design as envisioned by the class. All images are courtesy of the author.

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