A design-build workshop for architecture students leaves a lasting imprint on both its participants and the community it serves

By Amy Goetzman

Something is missing from many architecture programs. Students are steeped in theory and learn to CAD their way from here to eternity. But they don’t always learn how to swing a hammer, join two pieces of wood, or lift their designs off the page and into the world.

“I was amazed that there was little practical application taught in graduate school,” says Paul Neseth, AIA, cofounder of Locus Architecture and Real Architecture Workshop (RAW). “We were never taught how two things go together.” Neseth came to architecture after working in construction for five years, and he says that that hands-on experience was a critical part of his development as a designer.

“I knew I wanted to start a design program to give other people that experience. Then, in 2009, I saw my chance,” he says. “Recession is beautiful, because it gives us time to think about our future.”

Recession? Beautiful? The proof lies on top of a mountain in Oaxaca, Mexico. There, Neseth, a handful of collaborators, and small teams of architecture students have designed and built six structures that form the infrastructure for La Mesita, a land restoration project and environmental education center. These bare-bones wood structures—an observation deck, bungalow, classroom, children’s tower, visitor’s center, and picnic pavilion—are interspersed with sculptures, a plant nursery, and educational signage.

RAW, the product of Neseth’s recession imagination, is an intensive design-build experience in which students take a bare schematic to a site in a global location and build it—in just one week. RAW groups have worked in South Dakota, France, Tanzania, and Mexico. In the six trips to La Mesita, the site has been slowly transformed from a degraded rocky landscape into a carefully nurtured ecological reserve. The program’s 2017 AIA Minnesota Honor Award recognized RAW’s contribution to the La Mesita project as beautiful indeed.

The RAW leaders work with community partners in Oaxaca to identify a need at La Mesita and rally materials for the project. The students arrive at the site with tools in their suitcases and not much more.

“In school, students learn to do the first 10 percent of a design project. When you leave school, you realize how much design still has to happen beyond that initial idea,” says Neseth. “When you’re solving things in real time, so many valuable lessons become ingrained. We start with a basic design and order materials, but when we arrive, there are hundreds if not thousands of design decisions that accrue—on aesthetics, joinery, roofing, orientation to manage views. I do the first schematic, which removes that first 10 percent of the process, and the students do the rest.”

Things don’t always go as planned, but that’s real life. In the village of San Pablo Etla, where La Mesita is located, it was easier to find old telephone poles than the fresh pine lumber RAW specified for one of the structures. Students quickly adapted the design to accommodate the rounded wood.

For another project, the wood provided for a railing turned out to be carrizo, a grass similar to bamboo. “We had to alter the design of the railing to make the connections work,” says Mark Nichols, AIA, who has worked on three La Mesita projects—two as a student and another as Neseth’s assistant. He says the skills he gained at RAW have carried through to his professional work. “Knowing how to put things together has been really useful when I have to detail a project now,” he adds. “I also learned how to manage a project on a tight timeline and work with other architects who have their own design intuition. But the most rewarding part is working with the community members.”

The carrizo ended up having a second use. Local workers overseeing the project cut some of it into segments to make small drinking glasses. “We ended each day with a toast with a thimble of Mezcal,” says Nichols. Improvised, hands-on design in action.

Location: San Pablo Etla, Oaxaca, Mexico
Client: Comisariado de Bienes Comunales de San Pablo Etla, Oaxaca, Mexico
Architect: Paul Neseth AIA, RAW/Locus Architecture
RAW faculty team: Barbara Hahn; Bill Stecher, AIA; Jim Austin; Adam Jonas, AIA; Wynne Yelland, AIA; Justin Merkovich; Mark Nichols, AIA; Brian Johnstone
Design/build team: RAW—Real Architecture Workshop
Size: 1,200 square feet
Cost: $18,000
Photographer: Paul Neseth, AIA

“For the students to work collaboratively on a concept, and then to manifest that concept in a very short time frame—over spring break—we just know from our own teaching experiences that this program must really, really mark everyone who participates. It also seems to be giving something back to the community.”
—Wendell Burnette, FAIA