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Diego Barrera

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How a simple pencil can connect the worlds of architecture and education

Great design – just like learning – requires creativity, experimentation, and discovery.

At the heart of what I do is my community. As both an architect and as part of Stantec’s education group, I specialize in creating communities for learners within K-12 and higher education environments. In our Plano, Texas office, the architecture and education worlds collide since we design for the student community every day. We are dedicated to creating educational spaces that meet today’s challenges with ingenuity and flexibility.

To celebrate architecture’s role in making our communities better places to live, work, and play, AIA Dallas launched RETROSPECT. Established in 1990, this public outreach event celebrates the local architecture community by exploring the impact our projects have on society. The event also offers firms like ours an opportunity to share our culture and communicate what makes us unique.

Last year was our first time participating in the event as Stantec (instead of predecessor firm, SHW Group). We wanted to communicate what it meant to now be part of the larger Stantec community, so we used the RETROSPECT theme (Architecture Matters: Past, Present, and Future) to highlight both our larger geographic presence and the additional capabilities and service lines that make us better together. For this year’s “Re:Arrange” theme, we shifted our focus to reflect on our profession and further speak to the connection between education and community.  

What continues to make RETROSPECT a positive experience for me, regardless of the theme, is that our design process reminds me of my own learning experiences. (No surprise, considering my background focuses on conceptual design and design development!) Working together with my peers in an environment that encourages learning, understanding, and collaborating reinforces my view that the educational environment has a major impact on the students learning in it.

As with any project, defining the scope and identifying the right solution is critical to our success. We knew our display should be about what we do, but also why we do it. That’s what defines us. We’d quickly established that architecture and education both serve as conduits for discovery, expression, and progress. To us, this relationship between what architects and learners do every day is obvious—but then we wondered: is it as obvious to those outside our profession?

How do we (as architects or learners) convey our desire for meaningful work that makes us think, learn, and create? So, we started a conversation—sharing our stories, inspiring each other, and discovering where our ideas intersected.

As it turned out, the answer was simple. We use a pencil. Several pencils, to be precise.

As we explored the relationship between architects and learners, the everyday pencil organically spoke to us as the perfect symbol of what the two have in common. Beginning with the first day of kindergarten, one thing is clear—you’re going to use a pencil. At first, it’s a simple writing utensil used for expression, but it quickly becomes an important part of one’s education and learning experience. Equally, as an architect, I use pencils every day to capture design details.

Fittingly, the pencil became a structural feature in our RETROSPECT design this year—an element that symbolically bridges the gap between architecture and education. By carefully connecting the pencils together to form the bridge structure, we keep the pencil intact, allowing it to return to its original state and be used after its life as part of the bridge. This design and build process embodies how our design respects the individual learner, while understanding that the overall design is integral to the greater society.

Even in today’s world of gizmos and gadgets, there’s still a place for the familiar pencil. Pencils convey a sense of creativity, discovery, and the ability to change. Our clients need their facilities to be relevant for multiple generations of learners, thus requiring design flexibility to accommodate changes in education. Great design is about striking a balance and designing flexible and adaptable spaces that still echo a sense of timelessness.

With each educational project we design, we challenge ourselves to create beautiful structures that truly relate to their context—even when our materials are merely pencils and wire. We take this approach to our work every day—creating exciting spaces that directly affect the learning experience by using timeless design elements and our imagination.


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Diego Barrera is a design architect with Stantec focused on Education projects in Texas. He specializes in creating innovative solutions using the latest technology, resources, and trends affecting educational architecture.