New collaborations set to boost real-world learning opportunities for College of Architecture and Urban Studies students

The Research + Demonstration Facility is a dedicated space where students can gain practical, hands-on architecture, design, and construction experience alongside expert faculty and industry professionals. It’s also representative of a larger initiative to involve Virginia Tech students in construction and renovation projects on the Blacksburg campus.

Architecture student Andy Stepka works with kiln-fired porcelain pieces at the Research + Demonstration Facility. Students have been using the recently renovated space to plan, experiment, and produce prototypes for the college’s various living lab projects.

Ever wonder where the international award-winning FutureHAUS was assembled?

Situated approximately 1.5 miles from Virginia Tech’s campus at the end of Plantation Road is one of university’s most unique research facilities.

Since its dedication in 1994, the Research + Demonstration Facility (RDF) has been an integral part of academic and research programs in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS). RDF is a living-learning laboratory, a dedicated space where CAUS students can gain practical, hands-on architecture, design, and construction experience alongside expert faculty and industry professionals. Furthermore, the 14,000-square-foot facility offers enough space for students to conduct design and build research, and even assemble full-scale buildings like FutureHAUS.

The RDF also houses seminar and workshop spaces, digital fabrication and robotics labs, a thermal test cell facility, and more. In fact, Virginia Tech Facilities recently completed a large-scale interior demolition of the building to support even more discovery in the very near future.

The RDF is representative of a larger initiative aiming to meld education and industry to deliver unmatched hands-on learning experiences for students – without ever leaving campus.

Bob Schubert (center), associate dean for research, speaks with Enric Ruiz-Geli (right) and facilities supervisor Jeff Snider (left) about ongoing and planned renovations to the Research + Demonstration Facility. Located on Plantation Road, the facility houses important design-build and prototyping spaces that can even incorporate the assembly of full-scale buildings.

At the heart of the new initiative is enhanced collaboration among CAUS; the Division of Operations; Facilities; Student Affairs; the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology; and a multitude of other university and private sector participants. The groups will work together to provide enhanced interdisciplinary spaces for CAUS students to put skills gained in the classroom to test in the field.

With the boom of construction and renovation projects already taking place and in the works at Virginia Tech, the Blacksburg campus offers an abundance of potential interdisciplinary learning opportunities for students.

Through this initiative, which is already being implemented in several key areas, CAUS and Facilities hope to provide students direct learning experiences within campus construction projects like the Creativity and Innovation District, a project set to transform the campus landscape for years to come.

Large, handmade porcelain tiles await inspection at the Research + Demonstration Facility. Students experimented with size, color glaze, and pattern to find the right combination for an upcoming installation on the Virginia Tech campus.

“The College of Architecture and Urban Studies has an exceptional history of preparing graduates with the latest skillsets to succeed in today’s architecture and construction careers. The burgeoning interdisciplinary collaboration and experiential learning spaces across campus will be distinguishing resources for our students and faculty,” said Richard Blythe, dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

These living lab projects across campus will not only provide hands-on experience for students in architecture, construction, and design; the newly created and revamped spaces will also incorporate work from students in interior design, landscape architecture, the visual arts, public policy, and urban planning – among others.

“We’re elated to help drive the connection between the classroom and the real world within construction projects on campus,” said Chris Kiwus, associate vice president and chief facilities officer. “This is a space where students can add tangible value to their own university and at the same time connect with industry professionals and prepare for careers beyond Virginia Tech.”

Fine arts student LeAnna Jackson-Gilmer (left) and architecture student Ojima Glover discuss ongoing work on a living lab project. One of the initiative’s goals is to bring students, faculty, and industry professionals from a variety of disciplines together to work on campus projects.

The hope is that the new hands-on discovery opportunities will be a strong driver of the overall culture of innovation at the university and catalyze new innovations that will lend themselves to solving complex, global challenges around population growth, sustainable transportation, socioeconomic inequality, and more.

“As a leading land-grant research university with deep community and industry partnerships and a thriving construction ecosystem, Virginia Tech is the perfect setting to launch this new initiative,” shared Enric Ruiz-Geli, a professor of practice in the School of Architecture + Design and leader of the Big Sticky Projects initiative within CAUS. “It will transform the university campus into an educational living lab.”

Written by Alexa Briehl and Emily Roediger. Photos by Cat Piper.