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September 11, 2017

DESIGNING THE MERGE INSTALLATION: Learning from and Respecting One Another Through the Design Process

One of the highlight’s of this year’s DesignPhiladelphia Festival is the MERGE installation on Jefferson’s Lubert Plaza at 10th and Locust Street.  The installation is a must-see of this year’s festival for two reasons (1) the installation itself is impressive in scale and design; and (2) it is a design-build installation that showcases the design and construction talents and the value of collaboration between students from the Finishing Trades Institute (FTI) and Jefferson University’s Architecture Program (Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University).  The installation will be on display throughout the entire DesignPhiladelphia festival, so make sure you swing by Jefferson’s Center City campus and check it out.

This project started back in January 2017, when AGI (Architectural Glass Institute), FTI, and the Jefferson Architecture Program teamed to host the 2017 Architectural Glass Student Design Competition. Third-year architecture students presented design-build proposals for glass pavilions. Over the summer, a special design-build course run through Jefferson teamed six architecture students and six FTI glaziers under the guidance of Jefferson Professor Jeff Kansler and FTI Instructor Steve Metzger. The Jefferson students included competition winner Ryan Mann, Raymond Bracy, Rebecca Caddick, Michael Jose, Jessica Schell, and Morgan Young. FTI participants included Neil Amadio, Jerry Kots, Phil Rothwell, Patrick O’Connor, and Joe Wojtkielewicz. The group refined Mann’s winning design and fabricated it for exhibition. The “design” portion of the course took place over three weeks in May. The “build” phase took place from August through September.

On behalf of the DesignPhiladelphia team, we spent a day at the FTI Training Center because we wanted to learn about the design process and find out what the students learned about one another.   All of the participants shared their preconceptions and most had the same stereotypes about themselves and one another: “Designers only care about concepts and big ideas, but have no idea how to actually build things;” and “Craftsmen tend to be so pragmatic only thinking about cost and simplicity of construction.” And the stereotypes to a large extent are true – but what all of the participants shared with us is that once they got to know one another and learn from one another – they came up with a better process and ultimately a better product.

One of the key design decisions that the group labored over were the posts that would hold the glass panels.  The dilemma was that the designers wanted the posts to be as minimal as possible, making the glass the star of the project.  The glaziers recommended and advocated for a solid, manufactured posts because they are cheaper and quicker than custom welded posts.  But the profile of the solid posts would have been too large and clunky and would have detracted from the design, according to Ryan Mann.  So the group settled on custom welded posts, which are beautiful btw, but it was a very important lesson for the designers.  There are 30 posts in the MERGE installation, and it took approximately 2 hours to weld and finish a single post.  All of the architecture students agreed that it was the right design choice for the installation, but they also agreed that they learned a valuable lesson about understanding the impact their design decisions have on project costs and timelines.  Incidentally, all of architecture students had to contribute to the finishing of the posts, even though they weren’t allowed to do the welding.

The architecture students agreed that this project was one of the most useful and educational experiences they have had during their undergraduate career, and the glaziers agreed that they felt valuable in the design phase and most importantly, appreciated for their knowledge and skill.  Clearly, the design and construction industry would benefit immensely if designers and craftsman were sensitive to one another and appreciative of the knowledge and skill each party brings to a project.  So why aren’t we doing this interdisciplinary design-build process all the time in architecture school? Or in trades education? In practice?

The answers to those questions are numerous, but what is so compelling about this Jefferson – FTI and AGI collaboration is that it is clear the educational institutions and industr­­­y should be moving towards models like this.  The more communication between designers and craftsmen the more the design can be protected and more fully realized, and many times the project will be executed more efficiently and ultimately saving money by avoiding delays and change orders.

As you admire the craftsmanship and design of MERGE during this year’s festival, I hope you now have a deeper appreciation for the valuable educational experience this project provided as well.