Architects Help Build Community

Craig Barton and John Quale

By Charlie Feigenoff (PhD, English ’83)
Craig Barton and John Quale

Craig Barton and John Quale
Tom Cogill

In their own way, architecture faculty members Craig Barton and John Quale each underscore a fundamental truth about their field. Architecture is not simply about the buildings. It is about the values and aspirations that buildings represent.

Craig Barton consults with a number of communities in Virginia to restore old African-American schools to the inventory of civic places. He is not interested in enshrining them or treating them as historical artifacts. Rather, he wants to use them to connect the current generation to a time in American history—between Reconstruction and the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision—when many African-American communities pinned their hopes for a better life on these small, under-funded structures. At the same time, he encourages the people who live near these schools to redefine the structure’s value in light of their current needs. “We make a distinction between stewardship and preservation,” he says. “We want to recover these places for our use today, with respect for the significance they had for people in the past.” Barton’s work is funded by the schools’ alumni organizations and local governments, as well as through a grant from the University’s Center for the Study of Local Knowledge.

Quale takes a different but related tack. He is striving to create new buildings that embody values he thinks are important for society today: buildings that are affordable, environmentally responsive, and prefabricated. “These three ideas could work together in compelling ways,” he says. Prefabrication is a cost-effective way to build houses, and energy-efficient homes are less expensive to maintain, making the combination ideal for people in lower income brackets. Currently, however, prefabricated homes are not designed for energy efficiency—and energy-efficient homes are not cheap to build.

Quale’s challenge is to demonstrate the potential of combining all three ideals. Quale founded ecoMOD, a research and student design/build project at the School of Architecture to build and assess the effectiveness of prototype homes that incorporate the three criteria. EcoMOD1, dubbed the OUTin house, was recently completed in Charlottesville for the Piedmont Housing Alliance, while ecoMOD2, known as the preHAB house, will be set up in Jackson County, Mississippi, for a family displaced by Hurricane Katrina. It is being built in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity. 

Both Barton and Quale use these projects to enrich their students’ understanding of the resonance of architecture. Students taking Barton’s undergraduate design studio have worked with local people in Emporia, Virginia, to revitalize the Greenville County Training School, built in 1929. “This generation never directly experienced the tyranny of segregation,” Barton says. “These projects challenge students to engage portions of African-American history in a visceral way because these places are incredibly poignant and evocative.” Quale’s projects are also based in a design studio—and the lesson again is to help students understand the human dimensions of architecture. “The best way to encourage students to commit intellectually and emotionally to a project is to give them real responsibility,” he says. “With the ecoMOD houses, they have a real budget and real clients, and they have to stick to one and satisfy the other. They learn that, as architects, their decisions make a difference in people’s lives.”