15 October 2013

The Philadelphia Story

A little over three months ago I packed my bags and set off to fulfil a long-held ambition to study abroad. A sensible time now seems to have passed and although I could still be said to be in a period of 'settling in' to my new surroundings I think that enough time has passed to begin putting 'pen to paper' (so-to-speak) and start documenting my thoughts once again in this blog. So it is with this in mind that I am now writing from Philadelphia, the fifth largest city in the United States of America. I am extremely fortunate that I have not had to undertake this journey alone as my fiancée, Carrie Bayley, has been able to join me for an extended visit during these early months. Having the support of someone alongside you undoubtedly makes adjusting to a different culture that little bit easier, because for all the similarities between the U.S. and the U.K. it is at the same time very different.

View of Downtown Philadelphia from the South Street Bridge,
looking across Penn Park and the Schuylkill River.

As already mentioned the reason for the 'home-base' of this blog shifting overseas is that I am now studying abroad (it still seems a little odd to regard myself as an 'International Student'). I am enrolled on the Master in Environmental Building Design (MEBD) program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design or PennDesign as it is otherwise known. The MEBD course is extremely international in outlook, with a small cohort of just 10 students from the following countries: USA (1), China (1), Egypt (1), Saudi Arabia (1), Mexico (1), India (2), South Korea (2) and of course the UK (1).

The MEBD has been designed as a "specialized, post-professional degree to train architects in the new skills and knowledge required for environmental design and especially the design techniques with which those skills must be integrated into the practice of architecture." As the title suggests the course is primarily concerned with 'environmental design' and hopes to tackle issues ranging from climate change and resource scarcity to "net-zero" design, all with a "renewed urgency" within the "growing field of sustainable design". Key to this is the ability for architects to work across multiple scales beyond the building in 'isolation'; "requiring the understanding of the chemistry of materials as well as consideration of the impact of whole populations of buildings on their local, regional, and global ecosystems". This approach is something which I am familiar with from my time spent in the [Re_Map] atelier at the Manchester School of Architecture. The course includes work on building performance simulation, integrated building design, building envelopes and systems, lighting, daylighting, and the theory and practice of environmental design, and operates in close coordination with the T.C. Chan Center for Building Simulation and Energy Studies.

My time here is being made possible through two scholarships: The Thouron Award and a PennDesign Scholarship. Established in 1960, the Thouron Award is a graduate exchange program between British universities and the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League institution. Originally "created to reinforce the 'special relationship' between the US and the UK, it sought to create an ever-growing number of leading citizens of these two countries who would have a thorough understanding of their trans-Atlantic counterparts." With over 700 alumni one of the most distinctive qualities of the Award is its sense of family, with members of the Thouron family still actively involved; there is a saying "Once a Thouron, always a Thouron!" The Thouron Award is among the most generous exchange fellowships in the world, covering tuition fees and a provides a monthly stipend to help cover living costs. Thouron Scholars are actively encouraged to travel whilst in their 'host' country, suffice to say that without such generous support I would have been unable to take up my place at PennDesign, let alone embark on the other opportunities this presents.

Julian Abele Park in South Philadelphia

Over the coming weeks and months I hope to share some of my own experiences of the US academic culture, new research insights, and thoughts on living in a different culture.

To bring this post to a close then I'd like to sign off with a short video prepared by PennDesign back in 2009, I think a number of the issues it introduces are still relevant to the school today and will undoubtedly be shaping my education over the coming months.