“With typical buildings, details are decided upon in the final stages,” writes Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, Hon. FAIA, in Matter in the Floating World (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). “The site is chosen, then form, and lastly the details. By then, there is less time for the details—only standard details are considered because of the limited time.”

Kuma is, in part, referring to material selections—the particularities of which most architects leave to the last minute. Kuma avoids this challenge by focusing on material ideas at the outset: “We do decide upon some details toward the end of the project, but we think about most of the details at the beginning,” he writes. “If we have a year to design, we think about those details for a whole year. In that way, we do not leave things to the end.” However, his eponymous firm’s approach to craftsmanship is an outlier unique in architecture.

How is material knowledge incorporated into architectural education? Certainly, students in pre-professional and professional degree programs take a variety of building technology courses and occasionally participate in design-build efforts in which material guidelines are well-established. However, the bulk of architectural studios operate as Kuma postulates: Material details are developed late, if at all, in the design process.

Intending to improve this situation, this semester I teamed up with my colleague Marc Swackhamer, Assoc. AIA, professor and head of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture, and Blair Satterfield, associate professor at the University of British Columbia School of Architecture, to offer an experimental M.Arch. design studio at the University of Minnesota.

Courtesy Isabella Finney, Brad Githens, and Tony Rabiola Cold Form: detail of window infill panel

Courtesy Isabella Finney, Brad Githens, and Tony Rabiola Cold Form: detail of window infill panel