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Center for Engagement and Community Development

Small Town Studio

Todd Gabbard, professor in the Department of Architecture, launched the Small Town Studio. The year-long graduate design studio has two goals. One goal is to provide underserved rural communities with architecture visioning and design services. The second goal is for students to experience “real-world dynamics such as community and client interaction, consensus building and project management skills.”

The community of Eureka, Kan. has been an enthusiastic partner since 2012. The first year was such a success that three students moved to Eureka after graduation. They started a new business, Rural Design Mob.

The Eureka Foundation provided financial support to the Small Town Studio’s local presence, Eureka Studio. The Eureka Studio is also growing. It will be a rural community design center and co-working studio located with the non-profit Bluestem ARTS Initiative Inc.

In previous years, students designed projects in several Kansas small towns. This year, four students worked in Kinsley, Kan. Looking at his final presentation, student Steve Leask said, “Working with a town made it more real.” He continued, “I learned to work closely with the client as early as possible.”

Kinsley is the Edwards county seat. Linette Miller, director of the Edwards County Economic Development Corporation, was the community liaison for the Small Town Studio. She recalls, “We asked the students to draw up plans for multiuse buildings that would fill some specific needs in the community as well as revitalize our downtown area. We presented them what we wanted and then we kind of just turned them loose. We realized this would also be a final project for them so it had to be something they were passionate about as well.”

Over the course of the year, Miller did not expect the students “to be so passionate about our little town.” At the final presentation she “was surprised and delighted that each of the students worked to save something of the original building or design and incorporated something totally different or more modern with it.” Collaboration with students doing class work was slower than working with a consultant. Yet Miller writes, “We would absolutely do it again.” She already has a list of potential projects for future Small Town Studio students.

Larry Coleman of Eureka, Kan. has worked with the Small Town Studio since fall semester 2012. Looking back he writes, “In 2010 locals referred to Eureka, Kan. as a ‘dying town,’ not with anger or sadness just an eerie resolve.” Each year the students bring “a wealth of knowledge, unbridled enthusiasm, and an unstoppable energy.” Coleman admits, “It challenges people to think of possibilities.” As a result some people are more active in town.

Small Town Studio students have worked in about a dozen Kansas towns. In each of those towns Gabbard has seen community champions. They are “men and women keenly aware of both the specific and overarching concerns that their town faces.” Those champions connect with the “solutions in conceptual and sometimes built form” the students provide. The students’ visualization work helps all residents see beyond familiar problems to holistic solutions. “Once residents see a new idea they can begin to reconsider their town and question the underlying assumptions they may have about that place,” Gabbard observed.

As the students work with residents of real communities, their thinking about the role of the architect in society changes. To guide that change, Gabbard has long discussions with the group and individual students.

According to Gabbard, community-engaged learning teaches students that “architecture impacts people and communities. Designers cannot ignore place, culture, and people as individuals. Design must embrace them.” Gabbard is “motivated by the sincere care and concern shown by the community members we've worked with.” He encourages other faculty to teach in community collaborations. “Engagement is easier than you might think. If you are a faculty member interested in engagement across Kansas, you are at the right school.”

Three years and three student groups later, Gabbard senses the energy level in Eureka is more positive. By promoting discussion of what could happen the Small Town Studio played a role in that change. He anticipates that “we are at the point now where we can come up with a plan for improvement that is tailored to that community. I'm really looking forward to seeing where our partnership can go.”

Larry Coleman is confident that the small town has a future. He credits the Small Town Studio for Eureka’s ability to dream again. “We are not a small town in the middle of nowhere. We are connected with the university. That makes us feel a little smarter, think of possibilities. That is a result of the work with K-State.”