New High School Architecture Textbook is First of Its Kind

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The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) has recently published The Architecture Handbook: A Student Guide to Understanding Buildings. As a college-prep architecture textbook for high school students, the book is the first of its kind and has broad applications for classrooms across the country.

A sustainable "green" home serves as the book's case study, while students also investigate their own homes and 10 well-known residential buildings in the U.S. and around the world.

Designed for 10th and 11th graders, The Architecture Handbook helps students explore a wide variety of disciplines with links to the built environment. Six projects make connections between architecture and design, urban planning, landscape architecture, interior design, structural engineering, and construction.

The 400-page student book and 600-page teacher edition integrate architecture throughout all of the core academic subjects: language arts, mathematics, science, social science, and fine arts. They engage students through 80-plus hands-on activities to teach the fundamentals of both architectural design and technical drawing.

History of the Project

In 2004, the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF)—a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the public's knowledge of architecture and the built environment—opened a discussion about the state of architectural education in high school. This group included principals from six major architectural firms in Chicago, administrators from the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Education to Careers Department, and admissions officials from schools of architecture.

At the time, teachers and students in CPS were using a drafting manual written in 1951, when becoming a draftsman was a viable career path after high school graduation. In the 21st century, however, the skills expected from students in any occupation have changed from skills requiring replication, repetition, and memorization to skills that are more relevant to an economy based on innovation, flexibility, and creativity.

As a result of this 2004 meeting, CPS administrators officially agreed to partner with CAF in this groundbreaking initiative. The big goals:
  1. Create a new architectural curriculum that is both college preparatory and also addresses concerns of colleges and future employers regarding student preparedness.
  2. Teach the fundamentals of both architectural design and technical drawing.
  3. Give high school students the knowledge and skills to become "architecturally literate."
The People and the Process

As the project's initiator and developer, the Chicago Architecture Foundation brought together a team of architects, teachers and administrators, students, and CAF staff to chart a new direction for this curriculum. Over three years, three primary advisory teams came together to brainstorm ideas, develop content, and test lessons and activities:
  • Architecture professionals: More than 40 members of Chicago's architectural, landscape architecture, and urban planning communities volunteered their time and energy for the project. These architects helped inform the content and design of the curriculum and added their valuable professional expertise.

  • Pilot teacher team: Ten teachers from Chicago Public Schools participated as parts of a pilot team to test the book as it was being written. For two school years, these teachers used a working draft of the curriculum and met monthly to discuss what worked and what didn't work.

  • Student advisory committee: For an entire school year, a core of six students came to CAF every Monday to test out activities and lessons and give creative feedback.
Student Edition Content and Features

The Architecture Handbook is organized into six projects: "The Block Plan," "The Site Plan," "The Floor Plan," "The Elevation," "The Building Section," and "The Design Project." Chapters within the projects focus on the critical concepts found in each type of architectural drawing.

Project Four, "The Elevation," for example, helps students explore issues that influence how and why a building looks the way it does. "Big Questions" within the "Elevation" chapters include:
  • What are the big forms that make up buildings?
  • How do you read and draw an elevation?
  • How do the proportions of a building relate to the proportions of people?
  • How are the materials in a green home different than in a typical home?
  • How does the geographic location of a building influence the architect's choices of materials and colors?
The Architecture Handbook uses the F10 House, an 1,800-square-foot, award-winning green home in Chicago, as its case-study building. The house, designed by EHDD Architecture, takes its name from the concept that it was designed to reduce its environmental impact by a factor of 10 compared to the average American home.

Sustainability and green architecture are woven throughout the entire book. Students are introduced to issues such as connections to public transportation, permeable landscapes, floor-plan design, passive heating and cooling systems, module construction, green roofs, and recycled materials.

As the theme of the book is "homes on the block," students are also introduced to 10 significant homes in the U.S. and around the world. Each chapter in Projects Two through Five compares the F10 House with one of these famous homes and with the student's own home. Students compare and contrast homes by Wright, Le Corbusier, Palladio, Mies van der Rohe, Murcutt, Legorreta, and Perkins+Will.

Throughout each chapter, architecture vocabulary/definitions and an extensive list of resources help students investigate ideas further. The "On Your Way Home" and "Talk About It" sections, as well as the "Try It!" activities, help students make connections to their own worlds.

Reading and math are integrated throughout the book to reinforce essential student skills. Each chapter includes a 500- to 700-word reading with comprehension and analysis questions, as well as 10 to 15 math problems that tie directly to the big architectural ideas.

Teacher Edition Features

A 600-page teacher edition in a three-ring binder contains more than 60 hands-on classroom activities, including step-by-step instructions, skills lists, all handouts, discussion points, and assessment tools. The short activities (one to two class periods) and long activities (two to three class periods) make connections to state drafting standards, core-subject academic standards, and technological literacy standards. All of the student pages are reproduced within the teacher book.

The teacher edition also includes a CD-ROM with activity image sets, a full set of construction drawings for the case study home, and four integrated projects: social sciences, life science, language arts, and chemistry. These projects are designed to help core-subject teachers connect architecture to what they already teach and reinforce academic standards. Each three- to four-day lesson was developed with guidance from an advisory team of teachers of its subject.

To find out more, see sample lessons and a table of contents, or order copies visit

About the Authors

Jennifer Masengarb, author, and Krisann Rehbein, projector coordinator for The Architecture Handbook, are education specialists at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. They can be reached at or 312-922-3432, ext. 246.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing public interest and education in architecture and related design. The Chicago Architecture Foundation pursues this mission through a comprehensive program of tours, exhibits, special events, and lectures. CAF is located in the Santa Fe Building at 224 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, IL. For further information visit or call 312-922-3432.
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