Six miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, fourteen graduate students designed and built a stair during the fall semester of 2016 on the seaward edge of the ancient dune named Seahorse Key. The program for a marine lab’s beach access asked students to test conventions of a stair—landings, rise/run, railing—within the fluid context of tides and sand, ecologies of a National Wildlife Refuge’s sensitive environment, extreme weathering of sun exposure and salt air, and logistics of boat-access with limited materials. How to address the need for stability within a changeable context?
In the short term, students contended with Hurricane Hermine’s record-setting storm surge that, two weeks into the semester, carved the dune and moved their site thirty feet inland—a firsthand opportunity to consider resiliency in design and construction. For the longer term, students addressed sea level rise through platforms that calibrated to fluctuating tides. Embracing this vulnerability became a collaborative method to strengthen the project’s connection to its context that could be evaluated in terms of environmental responsiveness, functional access for scientists and visitors alike, and the sheer joy of arriving at the beach.
The stair project also anchored the studio’s comprehensive objective to foster reflective building that engages the logic, poetics, and implications of design work, in the spirit of Donald Schön’s reflective practitioner. Reflection occurred with students’ recursive mapping of the site to further test assumptions and outcomes, a mid-semester exhibit that brought learning outcomes from the stair project into the school’s teaching gallery, and a week-long workshop to design and build two projects on the main island.
Just as the stair became a pivot for reflective building, the design/build course, within the graduate curriculum, serves as a keystone between the previous two studios and students’ work on their thesis projects, as it also treads between academia and professional life.