Spotlight aims to promote student and graduate work in design. We recently caught up with Kelvin Saunders, a masters student studying architecture and urban design at Delft University of Technology, Netherlands (TUD). In 2017 Kelvin completed a semester of study abroad program at the Melbourne School of Design in the Bachelor of Design program, and also interned in MVRDV’s Rotterdam office during his gap year between bachelor’s and masters.
Kelvin is currently the Project Architect of Team SUM, a group of over fifty students representing TU Delft in the 2022 Solar Decathlon Europe design competition.
Isabella Etna (IE): In 2017 you spent a semester studying abroad at the University of Melbourne. Could you tell us about your reasons for the exchange and why you chose to come to Melbourne?
Kelvin Saunders (KS): When I applied I was already two and a half years into the bachelor program at TU Delft. We had an opportunity to do a semester-long elective and I decided to go abroad. I wanted to push myself to go outside my comfort zone and experience living away from my family and friends. Moving to another continent seemed very appealing also because I wanted to get another perspective on design. At that point I was planning to take my masters degrees also at TU Delft which has a high international intake. I had seen the work of international students studying at TU Delft around campus, and what stood out to me was that they have a very different design approach to the local students. It was for this reason that I wanted to do an exchange outside of Europe. Australia was an exciting choice because it is both a secluded continent and country, which intrigued me. I immediately applied for Melbourne School of Design because it is one of the top architecture schools in the country. At Delft it is competitive for students to get accepted into the exchange program to melbourne. In 2017 only 12 or 13 students were allowed to participate in the exchange program to the MSD.
Image: Exchange Program, 2017, provided by Kelvin Saunders while participating in Exchange, MSD
IE: What were the biggest differences you found in the teaching styles and coursework focus in European and Australian architecture schools?
KS: They’re very different. Neither is necessarily worse or better. A more rigorous scientific approach is expected at TU Delft. The approach to an architecture brief is that there is a problem that needs a solution, and through careful analysis and various research methodologies you prove that you can set up a design strategy that will form a desirable solution. If you don't, then you describe the reasons why. At the MSD the approach was more like you have a problem, but then you were also encouraged to connect it to a much wider narrative that you could create around that problem. During my time in Melbourne I was definitely inspired to marry my methodological approach from Delft with the more narrative based approach of MSD, as Hannah Montana would say ‘it's the best of both worlds'. Lately in Delft there has definitely been an increasing focus on environmental performance in design, and things such as construction methods, circulatory and material technology are becoming more and more predominant in our curriculum. When I visited MSD in 2017 this was not so much the case, but there was definitely more of a focus on the social-cultural aspect of design. Specifically, a course about spatial ownership and indigeous land was very eye-opening. A course where storytelling has a huge focus, so naturally it’s an aspect that is critiqued quite heavily. There is a conscious effort to help students to evolve their narrative style. In Delft this is also every bit as important but when you have to really find your own style and there is less interference of tutors on this part. So although the coursework and style of teaching in the TU Delft differs quite a bit from MSD, I would say that both are very much focussed on big societal challenges. In Delft the education is more focussed on sustainability and climate change, whereas Melbourne focuses more on social segregation and social inequality. This is also why I would recommend studying abroad, getting a glimpse of different teaching styles and seeing things through a different lense have definitely enriched my way of designing.
Image: Altona North Movement Corridor, 2017, provided by Kelvin Saunders while participating in Urban Precinct Studio, MSD
IE: Having learnt about these different approaches to design in Melbourne and at Delft, how would you describe your approach as a designer now?
KS: I feel it's a constant balance between on the one the more methodological and solution focussed approach of the TU Delft and the more narrative based approach of MSD. Perhaps, the TU Delft has shifted towards an approach that is quite technical and focussed on innovation, where the concern is all about creating sustainable buildings. But, I think in our day and age we can no longer afford to keep on designing buildings like we always have, and we need a change in the way we approach our built environment. I think this is a really good discussion to have and to talk about the balance between things such as narrative, aesthetic design and the technical, functional, and performative aspects of our built environment. When I started my masters at TU Delft I noticed that we had a lot of students from the MSD come for an exchange in our construction subjects. They were very shocked at the workload and the standard of production that's required probably because there is not as much of a focus at the MSD. That's also the thing I noticed when I did some design studios at MSD. That was one of the biggest differences in terms of the differences between the learning outcomes I noticed coming from TU Delft where there is such a focus on how a building is going to perform and what it's role will be in the future. In some of my classes at the MSD there was no mention of a construction timeline or foundation plans. That just wasn’t a concern. In that respect I felt like something was missing because it is an expectation of almost every design studio in Delft. Despite this,I actually like the reasoning behind the curriculum of the MSD; they want to teach you how to be a good designer and how to create mindful and inclusive designs.
IE: What about the differences in the architecture faculty’s student culture?
KS: What I noticed during my time in Melbourne is that student culture is really laid back and there is a real sense of community on campus. I still dream of those relaxing barbeques or italian pizza nights on the beautiful Unimelb campus. The MSD faculty building is unlike anything I had seen before, I vividly remember how on my first day at the faculty one of my tutors started to directly pin things on the felt walls, which I of course hadn't noticed up until then. No need for endless amounts of tape and really great studio acoustics, the MSD faculty has definitely turned into a beautiful and highly integrated building. But if I have to mention a downside, it would have to be the layout of the faculty building, it is somehow too flexible. Maybe it is a faculty of the future where remote working is really already a thing, but somehow the study spaces felt awkward. In Delft the faculty building is very traditional where we have just huge studios and you just have an assigned spot for the whole semester where you can go. Your assigned space is not a tiny desk but a large table that you share with a group of other students. It’s basically a large table with about eight people that you get to know and eventually you mingle and mix ideas. It allows for an informal transfer of knowledge which is really beneficial when you’re studying. I felt like this concept was diluted by the space at the MSD because of the hyper futuristic flex working situation. The MSD building itself is really nice, but it's not very conducive to informal mingling and talking about your design approach or even your point of view on life. I feel like it doesn't really happen other than in the classroom where it's very much controlled by a tutor, but it did mean that you met peers more outside the faculty enjoying some nice fresh air.
IE: You’re currently participating in the European Solar Decathlon as the Project Architect of the team of over fifty students representing TU Delft. What made you want to get involved?
KS: The solar decathlon is basically the world cup for building sustainable homes. That's I think the easiest way to explain it. It's actually quite tough to get in, but basically every two years, the solar decathlon happens in four zones: America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Teams from all over the world can apply. The team representing TU Delft applied in 2019 for the entry for the European Solar Decathlon in 2021 in Germany, and we were selected among eighteen teams. We're kind of following the TU Delft legacy because there have been two teams from TU Delft that have participated. In 2012 the TU Delft team came third and in 2018 they came second. Our team representing TU Delft in the 2021 Competition (delayed to 2022 due to the pandemic) is called Symbiotic Urban Movement or Team SUM. I have to say that participating in a Solar Decathlon is truly unique and you become part of a worldwide community of people that are interested in creating a better and more sustainable world for all. The way the competition works is that the hosting city provides a few design scenarios. In this year’s competition the city is Wuppertal in Germany who provided three urban scenarios, essentially three buildings that they want to redevelop and densify. There is also a fourth option to create your own urban scenario in your home country. That's what our team has decided to pursue, and we have put our minds to the Dutch housing crises where we need to build 1 million homes by 2030, and the struggle for an energy neutral built environment by 2050. Our case study is sited in The Hague, which is luckily only a short bike ride from the TU Delft campus.
Image: SUM Team, 2021, provided by Kelvin Saunders while participating in SUM, TU Delft
IE: Can you tell us about Team SUM’s design response?
KS: SUM is a renovation plan for 847,000 underperforming tenement flats in the Netherlands, which is about 11% of our total housing stock. With our repurposing and densification strategy for these tenement flats , we want to create a world in which diversity, innovation and social interaction are stimulated. Where social, economic and environmental challenges across the country can be addressed through smart design solutions. Sadly most of these tenement flats are at the end of their life cycles and the housing associations that own them are planning to demolish these post-war social housing buildings. However, our strategy is to assess this post-war building stock and determine which buildings need to be demolished but also which can be repurposed and densified with two additional building layers. This reduces the carbon footprint of the redevelopment of these neighborhoods, and also ensures that existing communities can stay intact and be diversified. So our proposal consists of a mutually beneficial design on both an environmental and socio-economic sphere. The proposed design is getting really exciting because we are now developing a business case together with the building owner that can be replicated on the many other similar buildings. But don't worry there is still some magic that is untold so make sure to check out our website and socials for more updates.
Image: SUM Design Proposal, 2021, provided by Kelvin Saunders while participating in SUM, TU Delft
IE: Sounds like a lot of responsibility. What is it to be involved in both the project design but also as a part of the team management?
KS: It's definitely like a wild experience. Our team comprises almost 60 students from different faculties at the TU Delft, and we are managed by a Project board of about 5 people which I am a part of. At the TU Delft the curriculum is set up in such a way that you can easily get involved in extracurricular projects like this. Being part of the team is really nice because I get to work with a really diverse group of people and I'm getting so much experience. It basically emulates a real project that an architect would be doing in terms of responding to a brief, real client needs, portfolio management, and seeing the design through to 1:1 prototypes. The Symbiotic Urban Movement It is a real project with a lot of responsibility that is basically preparing us for the real building industry. Currently we are in the final stages of speaking to sponsors and partners to secure funding for our building, because we are developing a prototype of it for the competition. Just to clarify, we have a theoretical building design that deals with one complete block of about 60 tenement flats (apartments), and we are going to develop one of those apartments into a 1:1 scale prototype to really showcase what we're doing and how we are transforming Dutch social housing. . The prototype will be tested under different conditions to measure its performance by the judges of the competition.
So essentially it requires a significant amount of funding, building materials, collaborations, a very detailed design and a very good team structure. Over the past two years we've really tried to optimize our team structure and listen to our team members and board of advisors. Team SUM is first and foremost a student run team, but Professors from TU Delft join us on a bi-weekly basis to help out with challenges that we face. Most of our team are currently studying a master's degree at TU Delft. Around half of those master students are actually graduating this year. In onder to do both you need to manage your time very well, but during these times of the pandemic it has created a tight community of eager students working towards one goal. In the project board we've really been pushing for better mental health and to create a healthy work balance because we're all studying, we're all doing this on a voluntary basis. Like with anything in life, you also need a healthy work-life balance to keep you focused and in a good head space. As a member of Team Sum’s project board sometimes I feel like I'm doing four master's degrees at once. I'm doing management of the built environment, I'm doing building technology, I'm doing architecture and I'm studying urbanism. basically doing all four at once. What makes it all worth it is that we get a chance to challenge the current status quo of the Dutch building industry on an international stage and that hopefully can make a meaningful contribution to our global fight for a more sustainable world for all.
IE: If your team wins, will your building be realised?
KS: If you win the Solar Decathlon that doesn't mean your building design will be realised, however you are very likely to get a lot of acknowledgement. Whether the building design gets realized really depends on who your team has been collaborating with, and if those partners are willing to invest in your design as a business model. The biggest challenge is of course finding the right sponsor. For SUM we knew very early on that we wanted to collaborate with a dutch housing association that owns post-war tenement flats. . After doing a lot of urban analysis on post-war neighborhoods throughout the Netherlands we found a neighborhood in the Hague called 'Dreven' and contacted the owners of the building. We presented them our design, plans, and our initial business case. They were quite enthusiastic. Once we had them on board as a partner it was easier to get other partners on board as well. The construction firms were quite happy to get involved too, and now we even have a modular building construction partner. Nevertheless, finding partners is one of the hardest things and I have developed a lot of respect for people that work in the business side of design and building development, because it's pretty tough. Whether our prototype will win in the Solar Decathlon Europe competition in 2022 we will have to wait and see, but I can already announce that our prototype has been selected to partake in a Living Lab initiative in Wuppertal by the German government.
IE: In 2018 you interned at a Dutch firm called MVRDV in their Rotterdam office. How did this shape your view on the architecture industry in Europe?
KS: I interned at MVRDV in my gap year between my bachelor's and master's degree. I realised quite quickly that it takes a lot of people to realise a design. I was part of one of eight departments that they have in their Rotterdam office. I was part of a pretty big team that deals with projects in the Americas, Russia, Netherlands. I worked in a team of six other designers and architects that were designing a project in the Netherlands that was already in DD phase. Yeah. I was lucky to jump into a pretty developed project. I quickly noticed how you need hierarchy to be able to function in such a big environment with so many projects going on at the same time. I was fortunate enough to directly work with my project leader and in those months at MVRDV I was able to learn a lot from him. I luckily knew Revit which I was using quite a lot and working on iterations of the project's facades. We had to design 6 buildings and I was working on the unique panel designs for 3 of the six buildings and I was in continuous contact with the manufacturer to determine a feasible and desirable facade. I did so many iterations, but It was really fun and I’m grateful that I got the opportunity to really dive into the full design process.
IE: I can imagine it was a tough gig to get an internship at MVRDV. Could you tell us about the working culture there?
KS: They get tons and tons of portfolios sent to them. They accept roughly 20 students a year, a couple were in my bachelors degree at TU Delft but there were also a large group of students from the AA School in London (Architectural Association School of Architecture) that year. What they said on our first day was that they did not want us to doubt our abilities because they chose us for a reason. They wanted us to believe in ourselves so that if our project leader gives us a certain job, and that they know that you can do it. It was also a really nice working environment because it was pretty informal. Although there is a professional hierarchy at MVRDV there is no formal way of really talking to your project leader or department head. You can always walk up to them and have a chat. I learned so much from my coworkers because they had been working there for years already and just the way they did things in BIM and how they established client relations amazed me. I was privy to design meetings and conversation between the architects and client groups and building contractors. It made me realise that it's about who you know, but it also requires you to be able to be an expert multi-tasker because you need to assume so many roles as an architect. Especially if you're a project leader, you can't just be focussed on design. You have to be able to communicate with your team but also clients. Even as a designer in the team you have to be able to communicate with your coworkers, and do a lot more than just design in a bubble. I am forever grateful for my time at MVRDV and I could definitely recommend doing an internship or getting some working experience during your studies.
IE: You have a keen interest in urban planning, can you tell us about where this all started for you?
KS: When I came to Melbourne for my semester abroad I decided to take a subject in the Bachelors program called Urban Precinct Studio. That was really the first time that I got to design or plan on an urban scale. That experience stayed with me when I finished my bachelor's degree and that made my master degree (or master track) decision very hard. I had my eyes set on an architecture studio, which was called heritage, but then in the back of my mind was this urban design studio from Melbourne that I really liked. I started my masters by studying architecture for half a year then I decided to switch because it wasn't living up to my expectations. I'm studying urban design and I’ll be starting my graduation project in September this year.
IE: What’s next for you?
KS: I hope that Solar Decathlon Europe in 2022 will go ahead and everybody gets a chance to visit us in Wuppertal Germany. Of course every team is in it to win it, but I think the more valuable thing is that we can get together with the 18 student teams and showcase our hard work. Hopefully with that, we can spark some interest in the industry that leads to more sustainable and more socially just developments in the future. Next to preparing for the Solar Decathlon I will also be starting my graduation this September and next July I hope to graduate.
University: TU Delft, Netherlands & Faculty of ABP, University of Melbourne (study abroad)
Project images provided by Kelvin Saunders and Team SUM (TU Delft, 2022 Solar Decathlon Europe)