30 May 2018

TRADA CO2nnect Student Design Competition – where are they now?

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It’s been a stellar year for two students from Coventry University who scooped Highly Commended in TRADA’s prestigious University Challenge CO2nnect Student Design Competition 2017.  


After picking up TRADA’s top timber accolade, Kirsten Adjei-Attah was awarded ‘Student of the Year’ at her university end of year show and a placement as a Trainee Architectural Technologist with IDP, while Piotr Bieluga is studying Architecture in Barcelona as an Erasmus exchange student and will return to his Architectural Technology studies in September.


In 2017 students were invited to design a modular timber panel system that could be easily transported for re-use.  The CO2nnect competition invited students to think about the wider issues surrounding carbon sequestration and the possibility of re-using timber modular buildings.


Below TRADA caught up with finalists Kirsten Adjei-Attah and Piotr Bieluga to find out how winning a prestigious accolade has helped shape their career and ambition.


What inspired you to enter TRADA’s Student Design Competition?


Kirsten: I was fortunate to have the encouragement of my university lecturers, along with my family and course mates.


Piotr: Competitions like this attract great designers with fresh ideas and unique solutions to problems that the industry face. To be able to compete with like-minded people, from different backgrounds and styles is one of the best opportunities to develop as a designer, grow as a person and have a shot at improving the world we live in.



What advice would you offer architects who are considering entering the competition?


Kirsten: It seems very daunting at first but if you believe in yourself and your ideas, you never know where it could lead. Sometimes it takes another to see your project’s potential. The competition is a great balance of presenting creative, innovative concepts and providing a solution to current issues in the construction industry with the use of timber. It’s very much a learning experience, my knowledge of timber has increased immensely since I entered the TRADA competition.


Piotr: Entering this competition is a golden opportunity to break away from what you know, get out of your comfort zone and venture into the unexplored. If you’re used to designing in an architectural studio, take your project and ask structural engineers for an opinion. See it from a different perspective and listen to what people tell you. Turn this into an opportunity to explore books, journals, ideas and method you are unfamiliar with – you will quickly realise how limiting your previous approach was and in return, you’ll see those new ideas elevate your work to another level.



Did being put through your paces with the judges give you confidence?


Kirsten: It was incredibly challenging presenting an idea to judges who are so experienced in the industry.  The competition helped me realise what areas I was confident in and areas I could develop. The judges provided feedback, which helped me improve and gain the confidence to believe and defend my design ideas in a concise and informative format.


Piotr: Every competition comes with a dose of stress – and it affects everyone in different ways. Some people find themselves terrified of speaking in front of an audience and being questioned about their project, while others perform best under pressure. When you meet up with your fellow competitors on the day of final presentations, it’s always a peculiar experience. Everyone is stressed out and at the same time, everyone is trying not to show it. It’s endearing in a way because you realise that you, in fact, are not the only one who is worried. Very soon you realise that everyone around you is thinking the exact same thing. And when you notice that it’s not just about you worrying how others will see you and your work, but more importantly, others worry about how you see their work, it suddenly makes everything easier. It gives you a different perspective and for the first time you stop looking at other people and their work as your competition and instead you see them as just someone like you, trying to do their best.



What did you enjoy most about the competition and what did it teach you?


Kirsten: Entering the competition expanded my knowledge of timber and helped me to appreciate its immense potential as a material of construction. I really enjoyed meeting fellow students and seeing their fantastic designs. Along with my university experience, participating in the final presentation day enhanced my learning and interaction with real life clients prior to working in practice.


Piotr: Designing a highly modular, multi-functional and portable timber building was by far the most interesting challenge that I have faced as a student. Because the building needs to work on several different sites, each with different access points, its modules need to be small, easy to move around and quick to assemble. The design needs to be sensitive – it needs a language of its own, but what it says needs to highlight the context it is in. The whole process constantly requires you to find a balance between two opposites and it is this play with ideas and what can come out of it that I truly enjoy.


This project taught me the importance of looking at a building from different perspectives at once – ones that sometimes seem almost contradicting. The building needs to be light enough for the builders to easily put it together, but the modules cannot be so small, as to require a long time for the assembly. They also cannot be too large to fit through the gates which sometimes are the only way to get to a site. And at the same time, they cannot be too small, as to make the internal spaces feel claustrophobic. The further into the project you dive, the more complex it appears to become, and each answer you find leads to more questions. 



Is timber set to takes over from steel and concrete as the ‘architectural wonder material’ of the 21st century?


Kirsten: I think it’s great that we now have an increased variety of materials we can use for construction. However, what’s so fantastic about timber is how environmentally friendly, versatile and natural it is. It is definitely a material I look forward to using if an opportunity comes along in future projects.


Piotr: Over the past years, the industry appears keener in exploring timber compared to other standard building materials. With the issues our planet is currently facing, it is no surprise that a plethora of new projects and ideas come into the light – finding solutions to problems is what we do as humans, after all. Timber is unique as a building material because unlike steel, glass or concrete, it’s always been there, readily available for us to use. As a species, we have grown accustomed to it over long millennia and there is always something warm and magically homely about timber buildings. New ways of using the material to build skyscrapers and complex structures, its structural performance in a fire or its ability to sustainably lock in carbon and be grown naturally, make it seem like an underappreciated material.


The century has only just begun – there are many materials and technologies which we will come to discover in the upcoming decades, so we cannot say which will be most revolutionary yet - my bet is on graphene. However, timber was and always will be a reminder of where we come from and our connection to nature – something that we forget all too often – and for this reason alone, I believe it’s crucial that we embrace it in the architectural world, regardless of what the fashionable ebbs and flows of the time dictate.


As part of its University Engagement Programme, TRADA aims to inspire the architects and engineers of the future to design fantastic buildings in timber, setting tough challenges to help students push the boundaries of iconic buildings. The 2019 University Challenge will be launched on 01 October 2018.


For more information about the CO2nnect Student Design Competition 2017, please click here.


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