Seed grant helps high school students with ‘Experiencing Architecture’

Sara Pettit with group of students


When Sara Pettit heard that some of her students in the new “Experiencing Architecture” summer program were still working on their house-design projects at night, at their kitchen tables, she knew the program was having an impact.

Pettit, who began in January as the summer program coordinator of Pitt’s Architectural Studies program, headed the first “Experiencing Architecture” program this summer for local high-school students. It was an intensive four weeks for the 18 incoming ninth to 12th graders from 14 schools, running 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each weekday July 6 to 30,.

Their architecture lessons included tours of buildings in Oakland and downtown and forums with the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. Students also visited the offices of professional architects throughout the city and constructed geodesic domes as a group building puzzle. They experienced the working side of Phipps Conservatory that the public cannot see, examined the revamp of the old Pittsburgh Athletic Association building from the inside and spent time sketching Fallingwater and viewing the city from Mt. Washington.

Each afternoon, they worked on their house-design projects, devising a minimalist house for a client of their own imagination. For a homeless person who was transitioning to supportive housing, for instance, one student’s design emphasized security and privacy but also connection to the community and to nature. Another student conceived a house suitable for a single person living with pets, carefully choosing everything from the materials to the house’s orientation to sunlight.

“Most of them had no background to what an architect did,” Pettit said. “I was impressed with how much they were able to absorb and apply.

“Some of these projects were as good and as well developed as a first- or second-year design project” by college students, she said.

The program was funded as part of a Pitt Seed Grant secured by Drew Armstrong, faculty member and director of Architectural Studies, and John Sebastian, McKamish Director of Construction Management and civil and environmental engineering faculty member in the Swanson School of Engineering.

Pettit, a working architect, has long mentored youth and encouraged them toward an architecture career, first in New Haven, Conn., more recently in Philadelphia and now here, through the national ACE (Architecture, Construction and Engineering) organization. Pitt’s “Experiencing Architecture” program is intended to introduce a more diverse group of local students to architecture as a profession and to the University in particular.

Pettit enlisted the help of Pittsburgh Public Schools and Propel, a major local charter-school player, to attract applicants and was pleased to get a student group that was split evenly among females and males and minority and white kids — a demographic diversity that has been harder to achieve in her profession overall.

“They were most surprised how long of a path it is to become an architect,” she said: five to seven years of schooling, followed by an internship and licensure. “We were trying to emulate an architectural studies experience. I think it opened their eyes but really prepared them for what they would need to do.

“They wanted to be there, which was my greatest sense of accomplishment,” Pettit added. “The day that I really realized how much they had accomplished for themselves over these few weeks” was the final day of class, in which students presented their house designs, rendered in traditional floor plans, colored illustrations and models, in front of classmates, family and professional architects.

“The way they were able to stand up there and talk about their design in such a fluid way was impressive and it was a testament to how much they had gelled as a group,” she said. Even though they had come from different schools and backgrounds, they supported each other with feedback, applause and “really smart questions,” she said.

“The experience hopefully leads to students coming here to Pitt,” she added. “Whether it’s architecture or not, it felt like it gave them the right tools and the right experience” to see themselves here, pursuing a college degree.

The program is already being planned again for next summer, since Pitt extended their funding, and the organizers will likely see outside support to continue it in future years.

Pettit was impressed, she said, with how local architects came to the aid of the program, giving office tours and acting as house-design judges: “Everyone wanted to do what they can to expose young people to the path” of becoming an architect.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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