The Guggenheim’s Las Vegas outpost

Many high school students aspiring to be architects are heading into this year’s summer vacation with a fundamentally new learning experience under their belts, one that recognizes that the profession is as much about landscaping and room circulation as drawing lines.

This holistic approach comes courtesy of the Architecture Handbook, from the Chicago Architecture Foundation, a 462-page primer that debuted last August and has quickly caught fire in schools across the country. By April, 71 schools in 34 states, plus 10 community colleges, were using it, says Lynn Osmond, foundation president, with the list expected to grow in the fall.

For some, the textbook couldn’t have arrived sooner. Chicago-area teachers had been stuck with the handbook’s predecessor, Architectural Drafting, a 1951 work whose emphases can seem as outdated as that era’s tail fins and Brylcreem. Lessons called for designing a single-story ranch house, a style that can seem atavistically rooted in the early suburbs. Also, that ranch needed to be accompanied by a garage, though in today’s age of eco-mindedness, encouraging fossil-fuel-dependent auto travel seems like an increasingly quaint notion.

In the Architecture Handbook, the case study is a skinny three-story residence known as the F10 House, designed by EHDD Architecture, based in San Francisco. Its name refers to the fact that it’s 10-times less environmentally harmful than the typical American dwelling: sedum plants sprout on the roof, for instance, and a second-floor carpet is made of recycled soda bottles.

The text, the culmination of a three-year, $500,000 development process, is also easier to read than its predecessor, teachers say, and the 60 hands-on activities included on a companion CD-ROM are desirably interactive. Most important, perhaps, it moves beyond drafting to teach design through different disciplines. There are lessons about vocabulary—explaining “contour line” and “clerestory windows”—math, and reading, including passages from Sandra Cisneros and Jane Jacobs.

“Firms need people who can draft, but who also understand the bigger picture of how a building comes together,” says Jennifer Masengarb, the book’s co-author. Even if the students who will use it—mostly sophomores—pursue careers other than architecture, “they could be homeowners or future clients or city council members and so the more we can impact them, the better.”

In Chicago, that soup-to-nuts approach also fulfills a city mandate that vocational schools do a better job prepping their students for generalized standardized tests. Practice with the Pythagorean theorem can boost their math scores, teachers say, while an exercise about adding sugar to concrete can illustrate chemistry principles about the curing process.

On the national stage, the new publication’s timing is also fortuitous because attracting more young people to the profession is a key goal of Marshall E. Purnell, FAIA, the 2008 president of the American Institute of Architects, especially those who hadn’t considered architecture before. A book with many entry points can accomplish this, he believes.

“We need to broaden the appeal of the profession because it’s not just about drawing a single building, it’s also about planning neighborhoods,” Purnell says. “I want to expand people’s thinking about what an architect is and what they can do professionally.”

Being well-rounded by senior year may also give students a better shot at a top college, adds George Ranalli, dean of the architecture school at the City University of New York, who studied drafting in high school. As the general public grows more aware of how development contributes to climate change, he explains, “schools are thinking more broadly about the profession. We want students to be aware of the forces on the planet.”

A head start may even help land a job down the road, says Krisann Rehbein, the textbook’s other co-author, summing up the input she and Masengarb received from architects while writing it. “We asked them the million-dollar question: ‘Where would you place people in your firm with drafting backgrounds?’ and nobody said anything,” she recalls. “It’s been wonderful to see how architects pick up this book and say, ‘I wish I had this in high school.’”

Dave Bodmer, a design teacher at Bound Brook High School, in Somerset County, New Jersey, turned to the Handbook last October, frustrated that the 20 students in his introductory architecture class were uninspired by other texts. “The new one is more real world,” he says.

Students also give it positive reviews. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be before I took the class,” says Ashley Sanabria, a junior at Lane Tech College Prep High School, which is a magnet school in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. “When I got more of a feel, I really liked it.”