Throughout the academic year, 15 third-year architecture students from Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies have been working to complete a sports complex for the Little League in Clifton Forge, Virginia. 

In 2013-2014, the class, known as the design/buildLAB, created the Sharon Fieldhouse house at the Col. Tom Dotson Park in eastern Alleghany County, and now, this year’s cohort is working with the community to design and build two new baseball fields, dugouts, and a press box at the site.

The enhanced facilities created through the work of two consecutive years of the class will allow Col. Dotson Park to become a destination, drawing families from surrounding communities for events at the complex. In addition to helping the community, the students gain valuable skills while interacting with community members, working as a team, and gaining hands-on experience with construction.

And while hands-on experience in construction might seem strange for architecture students, the lessons they learn from actually building what they have designed can significantly change the way they approach their designs in the future.

The students spent the fall semester on the design and planning process, seeking community and stakeholder input, meeting with vendors and specialists, and narrowing preliminary plans down to a final design. This spring, fabrication is underway on the Virginia Tech campus while a contractor prepares the site.

On this project, grading the site is crucial, as two baseball fields are overlaid on the hilly landscape. Different size fields will accommodate the varying ages of children who will play on them, ranging from small children playing T-ball to older children in the Little League.

Student Robert Riggs of Richmond, Virginia, has been working closely with Branch Highways for the site grading, creating level playing fields and sculpting the spaces between to make seating areas. While Riggs had previous building experience, the preparations for this site presented him with a new challenge and learning experience. 

“My first couple of plans were embarrassingly wrong, but I started working with a civil engineer who was helping us out, and from that, I was actually able to make it work,” he said.

For this year’s project, the majority of the construction phase will take place on campus, and the elements will be shipped to Clifton Forge intact and installed when the site is ready. The one exception will be the two-story press box, which will require some on-site work.

The class was co-founded by husband and wife team Keith and Marie Zawistowski, both professors of practice in the School of Architecture + Design. The couple has been leading design/buildLAB projects in Alleghany County for five years, and they are making a difference for the communities there. The design/buildLAB selects projects to work on based on the potential benefit to a community. The projects must also be of a scope and scale that the students can complete  them within an academic year.

“These are projects that would not happen if the students didn’t volunteer. It’s a lot of hard work and commitment, but at the end of the day there is a community facility that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise,” explained Marie Zawistowski. “Beyond the end result, the process of sharing knowledge is extremely important for student learning and for the community. The students and community collaborate with local contractors and craftspeople, and it’s a very empowering experience for both — it’s a shared experience that will stay with them all of their lives.”

The third-year architecture majors participating in the 2014-2015 design/buildLAB are:

  • Mary Covert of Sterling, Virginia;
  • Luke Dale of Medford, New Jersey;
  • Anuja Das of Mumbai, India;
  • Leah Hodgson of West Jefferson, North Carolina;
  • Lauryn Jean of Oldsmar, Florida;
  • Kevin Lee of Vienna, Virginia;
  • Zhuoran Liu of Tianjin, China;
  • Robert Riggs of Richmond, Virginia;
  • Kayla Sloan of Rome, Ohio;
  • Hunter Stephenson of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina;
  • Casey Walker of Kendall Park, New Jersey;
  • Sarah Walker of Ashland, Virginia; and
  • Sophia Xie of Ningbo, China.

The project is funded by the MLB Baseball Tomorrow Fund.