Covington has a lot in common with other communities in southwest Virginia — a working-class heritage built on railroads and resource extraction, a charming downtown framed by picturesque mountains, and, unfortunately, an uncertain future in the 21st century economy. But thanks to two instructors and their students in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech, Covington has an award-winning architectural gem in the form of a new farmers market structure. In return, students got hands-on experience in putting what they learn in their studios to practice in the real world.
Designing and building projects in rural communities is what brought this architecture and design power couple together. Keith Zawistowski, who received a bachelor’s of architecture from Virginia Tech, and Marie Zawistowski, who studied at the Ecole d’Architecture Paris Malaquais in France, met as students at Auburn University’s famed Rural Studio, which focuses on bringing practical yet elegant design to low-income communities and individuals.
Their first project together was building a house for Alabama family from old carpet tiles. Since then they've constructed a homeless shelter in Paris from recycled clothing, innovative houses and other projects. Working under the firm name OnSite, the duo focuses on project that they can both design and construct.
"We are very passionate about architecture and construction," Marie Zawistowski said, "but we are very passionate about practice, and we haven't had a conventional way of practice. We haven't followed any kind of pre-drafted model."
The Zawistowskis brought this passion when they arrived at Virginia Tech with a vision to allow students hands-on practice when it comes to learning architecture. In August 2010, they suggested that their class of third-year architecture students consider a new farmers market structure for Covington, where an active market was being held in an open, pockmarked parking lot. The project combined several aspects of architecture, construction, and community.
"I think ever since we started to teach, we've tried to give students some hands-on experience, not just building,” Marie Zawistowski said, “but also interacting with communities, real people, and real problems."
The students created their own “firm,” calling themselves design/buildLAB, and began researching other markets in the area and internationally, creating case studies, and interviewing farmers and customers at the existing Covington market. Using the information they gathered, they worked with the Zawistowskis’ guidance to come up with a new market design, which they then took back to the community for further input.
The Zawistowskis encouraged the students to apply for a grant from the Allegheny Foundation and seek other ways to cover costs, such as monetary donations and the donation of labor from contractors, consultants, and Virginia Tech. By second semester, the students began finalizing the design, creating a full set of construction documents, and making sure they had all the proper permits to begin building.
The market, which opened in late May 2011, was constructed using prefabricated structures built by the students in Blacksburg, Va., that were transported and erected on site.
The market has brought new life to downtown Covington, and has been featured by Architect Magazine and received awards from the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects, among others. USA Network featured the project on its CharacterBlog in September 2011.
The Zawistowskis have also received awards for their innovative approach to architectural education. The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards gave the couple its 2011 Grand Prize, a $25,000 award for their professional practice course Designing Practice, which the award judges described as “the highly interactive academic course exposed architecture students to real and virtual aspects of running their own firms.”
The couple is teaching another group of students this year who will focus on designing and building an outdoor ampitheater in Clifton Forge, Va.
The students of design/buildLAB tried to integrate as many principles of sustainability as possible into the Covington farmers market’s design and construction. Because all the goods sold at the market must be produced within a 100 mile radius, this distance was used as a goal for finding building materials for the project.
Wood was either salvaged from an old barn and warehouse nearby or was sourced from locally sawn timbers. Asphalt from the parking lot the market was constructed on was milled, stored and then used as a new permeable, compacted parking area.
The market also has a 1,200-gallon cistern that collects water from the roof and is used to water the surrounding park and flush the market’s toilets.
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