Creating Online Communities with Architecture Families

Over the last year, with a combination of national lockdowns and socially distanced learning, students across the country have felt more isolated than ever. In the School of Architecture and Design, three undergraduate students from BA (Hons) Architecture have launched an initiative designed to recreate the on-campus community online. 

Cartoon image of university students

Architecture Families, led by Laura Hastings (Level 6), Alex Mewis (Level 4) and Leena Nashman (Level 4), brings together students from all year groups. Each family is an informal network where students can ask for help and advice from each other outside of studio tutorials, and learn from other students’ first-hand experiences.

All three members are Student or Course Reps and were inspired by conversations at recent student forums where fellow students shared their experiences of lockdown and, especially for first year students, the difficulties of making friends through virtual lectures or socially distanced working bubbles.

As Laura explains, “The university experience has been so different and your time with other students is restricted. For the new Level 4 students, they don’t really know their peers. We’re in studio bubbles so even when they’ve been able to be on campus, wearing a face mask and working at a distance limits the social interaction you can have.”

The idea was partly inspired by Alex’s previous university experience: “I’d been to another university before and I didn’t have the best experience. I was diagnosed with really bad anxiety and it was hard for me, and that’s why I wanted to be a Student Rep here at BCU. The one thing that did help me was a similar mentoring scheme so I thought, why not incorporate something like that here and see if it can help anyone else?”

After launching Architecture Families on Instagram in February, the scheme has proved very popular; 34 students across different year groups have signed up and 9 family groups have been formed. The families are encouraged to keep in touch regularly by text, email or social media and can share ideas, examples of previous work or get a second opinion on their projects.

As Alex explains, the students’ aim was to recreate the close-knit community that exists in the school and the experience of working in a studio setting: “That’s the beauty of studio, you have everyone’s different opinions and perspectives, and you can work things out quicker when you’ve got help. I’ve been responsible for peppering my tutor with emails and queries so, instead of loading all these questions onto our tutors, your Architecture Family can be your first port of call, taking a bit of pressure off the tutors aswell.”

Left: Laura Hastings, Middle: Alex Mewis, Right: Leena Nashman

Left: Laura Hastings, Middle: Alex Mewis, Right: Leena Nashman

Leena has come from Canada to study in Birmingham and, isolated from her family, Architecture Families has become an important way of forging friendships with other students: “Moving from Canada to Birmingham has been a remarkable journey though, during lockdown, it has been difficult to get in touch with others who share the same interests as me. As an international student, I’ve been especially looking for opportunities to get connected with my classmates as well as second and third year students. I feel incredibly grateful that Laura and Alex shared the same sense of urgency that I had to get a program like Architectural Families started, for students studying in Birmingham or studying abroad at BCU.”

The scheme has also gained recognition from outside of the university, as Course Director Victoria Farrow has shared the news with her professional networks within practice and academia. Questions have flown in from friends at other institutions asking for advice in setting up their own similar project.

Victoria commented: “As Course Director for BA Architecture, it has always been incredibly important to me on both a personal and professional level that my students are happy and that we build a positive learning community. The staff team are very warm, passionate and give a huge amount of their time to support students in a typical academic year, but 2020 and 2021 really have been quite unique. To have students who are also driven and so motivated by kindness to set up an initiative such as architecture families makes me unbelievably proud. It demonstrates that we are more than just educators and students, but we are a team. This is really something special and I can’t wait to see where the project evolves to. Growing networks is a key part of developing a solid professional career so it is a fantastic test ground for the students to gain this experience.”

Architecture Families is being piloted with BA (Hons) Architecture students and is intended to continue after Covid regulations are relaxed, becoming a more sociable network as part of the university experience. The team have high hopes for its future with the potential to include other courses and to connect current students with BCU graduates.

Laura commented on the potential benefits, saying "the students of today will be the architects of tomorrow and having those connections is so beneficial. There are lots of ways this can develop in the future but getting graduates on board would be a great place to start. It could really strengthen those student-professional networks and blur the boundary between architectural education and architectural practice."

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