Do I have the skills and knowledge that I will require to take the course?
The MSc Degrees Suite involves both technology and design. Ideally a student should be an all-rounder, good at both, but the programmes steer a path between high demands in either. The following discussion relates principally to the Environmental Design of Buildings programme. There is rather less design in the Building Energy and Environmental Performance Modelling programme, and rather less technology in the Theory and Practice of Sustainable Design programme, but in as far as it is involved the following applies.
It regards technology as a means to the end of designing buildings. The environmental science needed for this end is taught in principle, without a detailed mathematical treatment. The need for complex mathematical analysis has been eroded in practice by the availability of computer programs that carry out performance analysis more accurately and faster than would be possible by manual methods. However, because this software can give misleading results, it is of the greatest importance to be able to check its output manually. Fortunately the calculations needed to make sure that the results are realistic require only simple linear algebra, and this determines the level of mathematical ability required of students. The same techniques are also sufficient for them to gain an early indication that their design proposals are proceeding in the right direction before resorting to computer models. This makes life easier for students without a strong technical background.
Equally, we recognise that students without the several years of studio experience that architectural students have had will not gain the same design skills during the course. Only some of the projects involve the students in design. For these, the project briefs encourage simple design problems that do not demand difficult spatial planning, construction detailing, or aesthetic choice. The students are guided by their tutors in selecting problems that are within their capability. Most importantly, non-architects are invited to see themselves in the role of an advisor to the design team, not producing the designs themselves, but proposing to the team the approach that they should take to the environmental problem and suggesting to them how this might influence the building design.
The technical and design abilities required of students when they embark on the course are thus low key. Most students will exceed these requirements in one aspect or another, but are likely to be at a lower level in others. There is thus an imbalance in their abilities to which they will need to adjust in the early months. At the beginning we run a two week induction course in which, among other things, we introduce students to the common level that the course assumes, tell them what they should know and should be able to do, and guide them in how to bring themselves up to standard.
Subsequently, students are presented with project briefs that are flexible, in that they involve a high degree of self-choice in the subject and the problem. This allows the students, within the overall objectives, to shape the project to suit their areas of skill. Nevertheless, to meet the overall objectives of the projects, students are still sometimes obliged to work outside their area of skill. What we have found is that it is possible for students to find an approach in these more challenging areas by bending their own particular interests.
Perhaps one of the most obvious signs of differences in background disciplines is in the drawing skills that students bring to their project work. Many students from non-design backgrounds are unable to produce drawings at the level of presentation that is generally seen in an architectural school at postgraduate level. Students over the years have found several techniques that that they can use to overcome this. The most important is not to try to imitate architectural drawings, but to present simple sketches with conviction. This fits in with the idea of presenting advice to the design team without presuming to design the building beyond the boundaries of this advice. Physical models can be used to present ideas that would be difficult to draw. Computer-aided drawing is increasingly used by non-architects, particularly as it is now relatively easy to learn as an adjunct to environmental modelling software. Presentation software is being used by all students to paste up drawings and text into posters or slides. In fact, the use of computers for graphic presentation and for calculation helps to create a more even playing field between architects and non-architects.
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