DC’s Phelps High School Trains Future Designers

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Phelps junior Brandon Morales at his drafting board. Photo: Andrea Martinez

People who assume that buildings are designed may not realize that the same is true for our open spaces and parks. In most cases, landscape elements including walkways, seating, lighting, trees, storm drains, steps, and even soils have been drawn in great detail from the concept stage all the way to the construction drawings followed by builders. Choices made by landscape architects will determine how comfortable or safe an outdoor public space may feel.

Awareness of our built environment helps designers and consumers of design put into words and practice design decisions supportive of the public health, safety, and welfare. To that end, on April 7, the District of Columbia joined our 50 states and Puerto Rico in implementing licensure for landscape architects. Now those practicing in DC will be required to have licenses.

Awareness of the built environment has three steps: 1) knowing that outdoor spaces don’t just happen, they’re planned; 2) knowing that specially trained people have jobs designing outdoor spaces, and 3) knowing that these people are landscape architects, which is a profession, like architecture, that people go to school for. You can get a job as a landscape architect and become licensed with a bachelor’s degree. Graduate training is possible but not required.

Phelps ACE High School
There is value in having people from a particular community design buildings and landscapes located in that community. Just north of RFK Stadium in Ward 5, high on a hill overlooking the Anacostia River, is Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering (ACE) High School. It offers Career Academies in architecture/design, carpentry, electrical, engineering, HVAC, plumbing, and IT/networking. Students prepare for industry-recognized certification exams, participate in work-based learning experiences, and gain skills through internships, job shadowing, and industry field trips.

Phelps is an application high school that enrolls students from across the city. Currently, there are 322 students enrolled in grades 9-12, including 54 architecture students. The school population is 96 percent black and 4 percent Hispanic/Latino. In the 2015-16 school year, 94 percent of seniors graduated from Phelps, which is significant because, in the same year, the citywide average graduation rate was 69 percent. (http://watchdog.org/278939/d-c-improves-graduation-rate-trails-50-states/)

Phelps has an exploratory Intro to ACE Careers course which students take in their freshman year before selecting the program in which they would like to enroll. Those who opt into the architecture program then take a series of four architecture courses (in addition to the standard high school curriculum), beginning in their sophomore year. Introduction to Landscape Architecture is a 12th-grade student option.

In these courses, students learn the basics of design, safety, and tools in the fields of architecture and construction. They explore the principles and practices of architecture with a focus on the built environment. After honing their skills, students research an urban design and apply that research to their design project for a district competition. The program ends with a senior capstone project.

2017 Student Design Competition
Currently, Phelps architecture juniors are participating in the 2017 DC Public Space Design Competition for High School Students, cosponsored by the Washington Architectural Foundation (www.aiadc.com/waf) and the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (https://www.doaks.org/research). The competition’s project site is a large open space behind residences in Kingman Park, between 20th and 21st streets and D and E streets NE. Since 2005, much of the site has functioned as the Rosedale Community Garden. The District sold the garden parcel to the dedicated community association in 2015 for one dollar.

The remaining southern, undeveloped half of the parcel is currently leased to the group, and there are various ideas for its development. The site isn’t far from Phelps, and due to its large size and substantial community engagement it is a perfect learning opportunity for the design students. For background on the site and community process, see my 2015 Hill Rag column, “Kingman Park Rosedale Community Garden: A Success Story” (www.capitalcommunitynews.com/content/kingman-park-rosedale-community-garden).

Students received a package document spelling out the project’s goals, program requirements, and format for final presentation drawings. This is similar to any professional design competition request for proposals. On Feb. 16, students and their instructor, architect Andrea Martinez, conducted a site visit and learned more about the project from residents and a local advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) representative.

Kingman Park Open Space Design Requirements
According to the project package, the improved open space must contain a play area, dog run, three-foot-tall perimeter fencing, a service area for the community garden, and accessible walkways throughout. Plantings of native species friendly to pollinators and wildlife, and stormwater management features such as rain gardens, are also required. Finally, a 200 square-foot pavilion must be designed and located on the site. All the scale drawings must be mounted on a board, 40 by 32 inches, provided to the students by the school. Drawings may be done by hand or on computer.

Students were given project milestones throughout the semester to assure steady progress and professional feedback from both Martinez and volunteers from the local design community. A mid-term project review was held on April 11, for which I served as the juror, listening to students present their concepts and offering input on their preliminary drawings. The final review will be held on June 6, with a professional design jury plus an ANC representative. Awards will be made at a final reception for participants on June 8, concluding the competition.

Finding Your Voice
It takes a special person to teach design to high school students just discovering that they have the ability to change their environment for the better. There are so many skills to develop – general ones such as creative problem solving, verbal and written communication; technical skills such as architectural drawing, complex computer software packages like Sketch-Up, Autodesk Revit, and Adobe Photoshop; plant selection; structural design; and stormwater management techniques.

Martinez is well suited to this challenge. She teaches the architecture and landscape architecture courses at Phelps. She graduated from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. She has over six years of experience as an architect working on government, sciences and technology, and historic preservation projects. A skilled technical designer, she has particular expertise in building sustainability (LEED) and building information modeling (BIM) software. Martinez also actively collaborates with the Washington Architectural Foundation and has participated with the American Institute of Architects Diversity and Inclusion Programs.

It will be exciting to see how the students have developed their projects since the April mid-terms. Pavilion designs such as the one sketched out by Phelps junior Brandon Morales (pictured here) will be much further along. Drawings will be more assured, and the students will be able to articulate their design intentions more clearly, having practiced speaking in front of design professionals.

After this competition, students will progress to their 12th-grade capstone projects next year. After that, they will have local undergraduate options for architecture and landscape architecture programs including the University of Maryland, Howard University, Catholic University, University of the District of Columbia, and Morgan State University. And hopefully, some of their design ideas for Kingman Park’s new open space will be put into place, giving students their first taste of the satisfaction of seeing drawings on paper come to life.

Cheryl Corson, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect and writer practicing on Capitol Hill and beyond. She helps prepare landscape architecture licensure candidates for their qualifying exams, and is author of “Sustainable Landscape Maintenance for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” (http://cherylcorson.com/publications.php), sponsored by the Department of Energy & Environment and the Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional certification program.