As an incoming first-year architecture student, Carley Parsons had heard the stories: Studio is a lot of fun, but it can also consume your life.

When she toured the Virginia Tech campus last year as a high school student, Parsons had several opportunities to speak with current students about their experiences in the School of Architecture + Design’s five-year professional architecture program – and about studio culture in particular.

“The expectation was that my schedule would revolve around studio,” said Parsons. “But I also understood that it’s kind of like a rite of passage. Yes, you spend a lot of time there, but it’s also a great experience. You’re working on projects that you really enjoy and forming this tight social network with your studio mates. It’s the backbone of your program.”

When COVID-19 caused a shift in the university’s fall plans, with some classes adopting hybrid or online-only modes of instruction, Parsons wasn’t sure what to expect for her foundation program design lab, a studio-based course required for all first-year design students.

Fortunately, school faculty and staff – and even current students – had been working diligently over the summer to preserve the studio experience in Cowgill and Burchard Halls. When Parsons and other students arrived on campus in August, they discovered evenly spaced, socially distanced studio desks placed throughout the buildings, along with colorful Plexiglas barriers and directional signage for traffic flows.

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These efforts to safeguard and prioritize the most important in-person experiences for students are part of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies’ broader COVID-19 action plan, which allowed for almost 950 studio desks spread out across six buildings. According to Aaron Betsky, director of the School of Architecture + Design, every design student who wanted a studio desk on campus this fall was provided one.  

Parsons admits she’s not sure what a normal year in studio courses is supposed to look like, but so far she’s happy with how this semester has unfolded.

“It’s not as different as I thought it would be,” she said. “Students are still spending a lot of time at their desks, and older students are making an effort to come up and talk to us about our work. They’re really trying to make this first year a positive experience for us despite the limitations.”

Parsons has also enjoyed the freedom to pursue a variety of design choices through her projects, something she says foundation program chair Chris Pritchett encourages.

“Some people enjoy structure and a rubric, but I love the program’s emphasis on exploration,” she said. “How we design is really up to us. There’s nothing cookie cutter about it.”

That flexibility is something Pritchett and other faculty members have had to adopt themselves this fall by getting creative with where and how they’re approaching instruction. Pritchett, for example, is holding pinups, or critiques of student work, outside underneath the Derring Hall overhang. He also takes students on sketch walks and uses existing structures around campus as design prompts.

“It’s been kind of exciting for me, and this is not to downplay COVID at all, but to be forced out of my comfort zone of how I teach has actually been refreshing,” said Pritchett.

As for Parsons, time in studio still forms the foundation of her schedule, just as she expected, with many students typically spending about 12 hours per week in the course. But additional hours are optional, and she has the freedom to come and go as she pleases.

“This approach has definitely helped me develop a better work ethic,” said Parsons. “Freedom comes with a lot of responsibility, and I’m sure the time management skills I’m learning this semester will help me down the road.”