Sustainable buildings designed by Grade 8 and 9 learners

In 2018 we had the great pleasure of working with the dynamic Delia Kench and the staff of St Benedict’s on a three-day workshop that aimed at encouraging learners to think deeply, plan strategically and explore the skills associated with design – engaging some of the transferable skills valued in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Project-based learning encourages learners to work things out for themselves. It engages them in immersive, sensorial, physical, emotional and intellectual experiences that are relevant to them, rather than abstracted knowledge that has no meaningful context. It challenges the popular perception of learning as the passive process of receiving predesigned knowledge from a teacher or an expert. In the process it explores those 21st century skills that are most valued in the knowledge economy: thinking critically and creatively, communicating clearly, collaborating dynamically and adapting to change with as little anxiety as possible.

The workshop theme we chose together was designing buildings for the future. This was an extension of the greening theme learners had been exploring that term. Learners had to design and produce 3D cardboard models of buildings and develop concept documents that clearly and concisely explained their rationale. Each team’s building needed to meet the demands of a post-fossil fuel world – using strategies and technologies that make alternative energy available. It also needed to be controlled and automated by artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. To be as self-sufficient as possible, the building needed to include: apartments, office space, retail space, recreation space, parking space, gardens, waste management and security.

Their sustainable building also had to operate as a community and the students needed to decide how decisions were going to be made together (governance). Additionally, students had to work out what their building would provide the city around it with and what it would need from the city. This required them to practise the skills of systemic thinking.

We tried to slow down the process of design as much as possible with carefully structured:

  • brainstorming opportunities (on small white squares of paper – one idea per square),

  • exploring visual references for inspiration (modelling research),

  • working in rough,

  • giving and receiving feedback,

  • integrating feedback into 2D designs,

  • experimenting with materials before using them,

  • returning to the brief,

  • changing the plan,

  • planning a schedule of activities and roles for the final day’s big build,

  • developing concept documents that clearly and concisely explained their rationale, and

  • translating all their ideas into 3D cardboard models.

We were warned that learners tend to rationalise what they have done after they have done it, even creating their rough plans after completing a project. They found it difficult to slow down and work in rough. It was a challenge to step back, imagine a process and create a strategy before beginning. They wanted to forge ahead and make it up as they went along. This experience was definitely an opportunity for them to improve their project-management skills. We delayed the actual building until the groups were ready with a plan they had fully interrogated.

Learners were given a chance to come up with their own list of criteria for assessment under the headings:

  • creativity,

  • team work,

  • project management (planning strategy, managing materials and time),

  • fulfilment of the brief

  • personal satisfaction of group members.

Throughout the workshop there were competitions to add variety to the modes that learners were thinking and working in. These also created an opportunity for teams to be awarded credits to buy extra building materials at a later stage.

Before designing their whole building, learners were challenged to apply all the principles they were expected to use on a small scale through the design of a single apartment. The principles they needed to consider were:

Management: governance, maintenance, security, resource management; waste management.

Self-sufficiency: alternative forms of energy, budgeting and monitoring, reduce-reuse-recycle, food production.

Relationship with the environment: inputs from and outputs to the city, managing pollution, responding to and harnessing the weather, collecting water, planting indigenous.

Personal and communal wellbeing (health): sense of community, water, ventilation (air quality), hygiene, recreation, medical facilities, lighting, heating (avoiding sick building syndrome).

Human-machine interface: what is outsourced to the AI, what will it monitor, what kinds of decisions can it make, what kind of feedback will it give.

They were explicitly told that the apartments did not have to have separate rooms, and that they could allow their imagination create alternative designs. The apartment needed to have facilities for: storage, cooking, cleaning, food production (herb gardens, living walls, vertical farming, mushrooms, UV), preserving food, working, sleeping, bathing and hygiene, eating and entertaining, recreation and exercise, as well as security.

That was all on day one.

Day two of the workshop involved the students completing their 2D building designs as well as having to come up with a concept document, or mood board, for their building.

The students were then given materials for their 3D building. Tensions did run high at this point as some groups saw that they needed to trouble-shoot their way out of some physical constraints they hadn’t anticipated. Some plans were aborted entirely.

After being told that we did not want to see predictable square buildings, and after being given many photographic references of radical innovations, learners still tended to start by doing what they thought we wanted to see, seeking affirmation from the facilitators and the teachers, rather than doing what they were inspired to do. It took some time for them to appreciate the freedom they had been given.

Towards the end of the day, an auction was held where students could buy building materials from the facilitators. The day ended with the learners having completed their 2D designs as well as having a strategy for how to proceed with activities for the following day.

Learners in the thick of constructing their buildings.

The generative chaos of project-based learning.

The final day of the workshop saw students having to implement their 2D design into their 3D building as well as completing their concept document or mood board.

Learners were allowed to trade materials for credits and use those credits to buy more materials from us or from other groups. This parallel process of economics added complexity to the whole experience. We like to think of our workshops as experiences that model the whole of life in miniature.

Project-based learning is an ideal opportunity to experiment with integrated studies. By involving as many different subjects learners can begin to see the deep knowledge structures and real-life contexts that connect them. In the briefing sessions we asked teachers what topics they would like to see covered.

During the workshop learners grappled together with things like:

  • exploring the dynamics of innovation and competition in the knowledge economy by creating towers using only spaghetti and masking tape

  • calculating the number of ways different apartment designs could be rearranged in a building

  • creating branding (name and logo) for their building

  • strategizing how to use artificial intelligence and big data to screen prospective buyers and tenants

  • playing a game in which tying and untying knots was used as a metaphor for coding and hacking passwords in their building’s security

  • identifying their values, explaining how they were useful and applying them to their building’s sense of community (understanding the relationship between value and design)

  • innovating under constraints, building public sculptures (based on their team’s commitments to biodiversity) with unfamiliar materials (pegs and elastics)

  • calculating the smallest number of hexagonal tiles it would take to cover a lobby floor (a tessellation exercise)

  • assessing another team’s strategy with the help of a list of questions that reinforced everything that should be considered in the process of creating architectural models


Innovative sculpture of bow-and-arrow and tree used as part of sustainable building

One group made a sculpture of a bow-and-arrow and a tree to symbolise the loss of biodiversity.

At the end of the workshop the learners assessed the teachers, the MindBurst facilitators and themselves.

The facilitators then assessed the buildings using the criteria that the learners themselves had identified.

The process was often messy, noisy and appeared chaotic. This frustrated some of the teachers who thought that more formal constraints and control were necessary. For us however, this is what learning looks and sounds like. Teachers were challenged to let go of control, resist the desire to instruct and allow the process of discovery and experimentation to run its course. Our instruction to the teachers was simply to engage, enthuse and energise the learners.

Here are a few examples of their finished buildings:

Building constructed from layered circles

This building has a rooftop garden and walled solar panels

Many owers on a cylindrical base

Biomimicry: this building is modeled after an aloe