College of Architecture Students Build One-Room Schoolhouse in a Recovering Puerto Rico

October 14, 2019

In September 2017 Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico. Loiza—a small beach town on the northern coast, about a half hour outside of San Juan—was hit especially hard, with electricity knocked out for months afterward and the roofs still absent from many of its homes over a year later, replaced with blue tarps.

For the second year in a row, College of Architecture Associate Professor Frank Flury and a group of undergraduate students traveled to Loiza to aid in the rebuilding effort. In the summer of 2018, Flury and his students built a small community center. This year the project was a one-room schoolhouse.

“When we went last year, we formed a very good relationship with the mayor of Loiza,” says Flury. “Puerto Rico needs a lot of help, so it made sense to do more projects there. This year it turned out the community needed a space for an after-school program where they can teach students computer classes.”

During the spring 2019 semester, students fulfilled the design half of the DesignBuild program, by drafting proposed designs for the schoolhouse and producing permit and construction documents. Though the designs were considerably more modest than the designs that students typically create in studio courses, the design project came with its own challenges. 

“In our studios typically you go in and design a hypothetical project, which is great because it helps you learn the design process, but here there are all these other facets that you have to figure out how they work together,” says Jamie Borden (B.Arch. 5th Year). “This was the first ever project where I had to keep cost in mind. I have a set cost, a set site, and set amount of time that I have to consider. It was a very different experience.”

Because the crew had little to no construction experience prior to the class, the students practiced construction skills such as welding and concrete pouring before leaving for Puerto Rico in the summer. While this helped prepare students to go through the physical rigors of construction, it did not prepare them for the shakeup that would await them when they got to the construction site to execute the build portion of the project.

“When we got there, there was a surprise detail that threw everything out the window,” says Rachel Starr (B.Arch. 5th Year). “We had planned for this to be built on the ground level, but it turned out the site had flooded very heavily last year, so we had to raise the building by three or four feet. That changed how we had to manage our budget and how big we could make the building. Since the very first day we had to change everything.”

According to Starr, the original design had to shrink to accommodate the bigger allocation of resources to raise the building. Though this was frustrating, she maintains it was a vital lesson in learning to be adaptable in both construction and design.

During their eight-week stay in Loiza, the architecture team forged connections with members of the community. “At the beginning the locals were kind of confused as to who we were and what we were doing there, but the longer they saw us working the more invested in us they became,” says Starr. 

“Plenty of people would have us over for lunch or offer us drinks and food. People were super generous,” says Ekerin Agboola (B.Arch. 5th Year).

Locals also offered their design and construction input in addition to lunches. “Eventually people would stop by and say, ‘Using this material, have you thought about this, this, and this?’ Little conversations here and there turned into discussions about, for instance, how to pour concrete [in Loiza], given the humidity and the resources,” says Agboola.

Agboola says the help locals provided was instrumental in completing the project on time. He recounts, for example, a local who loaned his tractor to lift a steel frame and move a gravel pile when the crew didn’t have a budget to rent its own equipment for such tasks.

But in spite of setbacks, the DesignBuild team members were able to complete the one-room schoolhouse before heading back to Chicago for the fall semester. The resulting structure is a modestly sized concrete-and-wood building that should be able to weather the extreme weather humidity and soil erosion pervasive in the region.

“I think the experience made me realize the impact we have as architects,” says Starr. “Most of the time we’re in school we’re really removed from actually talking to the people we design for, so actually being there with the people watching us do it, it made me realize just how much projects like this matter.”