Auburn University students’ study abroad trip leads to first-of-its kind textbook

AUBURN – We recognize them, study them and long to visit them – iconic structures such as the Great Pyramids, Notre Dame and the Colosseum. They remain marvels in the modern day even though many were built during centuries or millenniums past. And while much is known about the structures themselves, what exactly do we know about who built them and how they were constructed?

These were the questions that Linda Ruth’s “Deconstructing Construction” class at Auburn University sought to answer. Made up of 17 senior-level undergraduate building science students and one graduate student, the class centered around a whirlwind study-abroad trip this summer to western Europe and Egypt to visit 17 construction marvels. But Ruth’s students weren’t just casual observers. Their mission was to study each structure in depth and collectively produce a textbook about the history of construction.

The project emerged when Ruth, an associate professor in Auburn’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction’s School of Building Science, was searching for a textbook to use in her “History and Introduction to Construction” class.

“I realized that there was no textbook that focused on how architecturally significant buildings were constructed. Everything was about the architectural history of it: why it looked the way it did, what the architects were trying to express through the design,” said Ruth. “It really frustrated me.”

As an architect, Ruth said she appreciated studying architectural history and learning about famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Antonio Gaudi. But she realized that because of a lack of information and resources available, building science students could not study construction history in the same way.

“I’d ask my construction students who the famous builders were and we didn’t know. We didn’t know who built those gothic cathedrals or who the people were that built the great pyramids,” she said. “It seemed sad to me that my students didn’t have those heroes to look back on.”

From this problem, the idea for the textbook was born. Ruth will use the book to teach incoming freshman building science students about the history of construction as well as architectural history through the framework of construction.

To take the book from idea to reality, Ruth recruited Ross Heck, professor of graphic design with the college’s Department of Industrial Design, to collaborate and lead the book’s design efforts. She also engaged two of her fellow building science professors in the project. Professor Michael Hein and Associate Professor Paul Holley provided assistance to the students throughout the project in regard to the analysis of the buildings’ structures and project management, respectively.

Ruth then chose the students that participated in the study abroad opportunity through a rigorous selection process. Each student had to interview and display excellent writing and research skills in addition to meeting other criteria before being granted admission to the “Deconstructing Construction” class. Once chosen, the group had a week-long “Structures Boot Camp” before departing for nearly two months to Europe.

From the outset, each student was assigned a different structure and subsequently a book chapter. The students were responsible for researching their individual structures and becoming experts on how each was built. Ruth’s students also had to understand and explain the design and construction of their respective structures using modern technology and formats. As the class would arrive at a particular structure, the student in charge would take the lead in telling his or her classmates about the construction marvel and its significance in construction history.

The 17 structures chosen for the textbook are representative of different types of architecture or periods in time. For example, the Parthenon represents Greek architecture and the Eiffel Tower is from the Industrial Revolution. Other structures were chosen because of what they represent for builders; the Tower of Pisa, for example, represents an instance when bad things happen to good builders.

The students agreed that the once-in-a-lifetime trip was a transformative experience.

“This project has changed me as a builder because I’ve learned that anything is possible. When you think there isn’t the technology available or you think it can’t be done, look at the structures we studied and consider they accomplished these things hundreds of years ago and they still stand today,” said student Jeff Jantz.

Student Corey Lemming said the experience changed his outlook as a future builder.

“For more than 4,500 years builders have been doing the impossible. Builders are the ultimate problem solvers, even if it takes 200 years to build something,” Lemming said. “I think [the experience] has made me a more patient builder. Next time I run into a problem on a construction site I will remember the buildings I visited this summer. The builders did not give up on something just because it seemed impossible; each one of these buildings broke important barriers in the evolution of construction practices.”

Ruth said she hopes her student will continue to draw on their experiences as they become builders themselves.

“It was real important for me to show them that the issues that they are going to deal with are the same issues that builders 4,000 years ago were dealing with: how to deal with labor force; how to get materials to the site; how to deal with soil conditions; and how to build a good foundation so that these buildings are still standing after 4,000 years,” she said. “The solutions to the problems are different but the problems are still the same.

Ruth has plans to continue to expand the book. She has three students who will be traveling to England this fall to research and report on Stonehenge, the Millennium Dome and 30 St. Mary Axe.

“I hope what all the students take with them is an appreciation for the heritage of the construction industry,” she said.

For video and downloadable images of this project, go to the Auburn University NewsMakers Web site at http://www.ocm.auburn.edu/newsmakers/ and select the feature “AU students study, write history of construction.”

(Contributed by Katie Wilder.)

Contact:  Katie Wilder, (334) 844-9999 (wildeka@auburn.edu), or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)