Heading into my second semester of grad school, I knew next to nothing about buildings. I assumed that I would learn everything I needed to about materials, about connections, about programming a building of any scale. I assumed that, once graduated, I would be ready to break out into the world and throw some buildings together.
Heading away from my seventh semester this past spring (with only a couple of classes left before I get a piece of paper that I’ll spend decades paying for) I still felt like I knew little about buildings. I stressed that I hadn’t learned enough in my classes, or that I hadn’t pushed myself enough to learn more outside of them in the laughably few spare hours I had. I was embarrassed, for one example, that I couldn’t rattle off all of the different possible heating systems for a house and describe each in detail.
A few weeks ago, I left for Maine to stay at a camp my family has had on a lake up there ever since my childhood. Not a ‘summer camp’, but rather a distinct typology in New England – a property deep in the woods and often on the waterfront. Camps normally don’t evidence the best construction or materials, they’re generally unfinished in various ways, and they often require a lot of tinkering over the years.
Lying in bed, I stared at the ugly exposed joists above my head, at the window installed without any trim, at the flimsy grayed wood paneled walls. I thought about how I would refinish the room, which materials I would use to complement (but not mimic) the living room next to me that we had recently refinished in pine and heavy timber.
Building an outside deck extension with my dad, throwing everything together with a nailgun, I daydreamed about how I might build the deck if the project was mine. Would I use other connections instead, to avoid splintering the decking and allow for easier removal? Would I improve the overall aesthetic, to avoid the clunky look of the railings and corner ‘posts’?
Hours before my return flight to Denver a few days ago, I sipped on an IPA while gazing around at the expansive hanger-style terminal around me. White paint bubbled down the entire height of every strut supporting the ceiling 2 or 3 stories overhead – was that a sign of water infiltration, or some other type of damage?
I started feeling that maybe, just maybe, I’ve learned a lot more than I give myself credit for.
And I started thinking that grad school might, just might, be a little less about acquiring knowledge and more about developing our eyes for buildings – for their materials and connections, for their systems, for the qualities of their spaces – and that our real educations would begin in our internships afterward and even continue throughout our careers.
I still wonder whether my expectations for school had been unrealistic or if my knowledge really is lacking. How can we even gauge the extent of our knowledge, though?
And what is ultimately expected of new graduates?