“I didn’t know we have that here.”

“I think I heard something about that …”

“Oh, you’re those people who are always in your studio working, right?”

Those are just a few of the comments and questions students in the new architecture program at State have heard over the past few years. How new is the program? The first four-year class just graduated in spring 2014.

Jared Smith, Rex Lyon and Garrett Walter prepare the site for footing.

Jared Smith, Rex Lyon and Garrett Walter prepare the site for footing.

Walker and architecture department head Brian Rex pour concrete.

Walker and architecture department head Brian Rex pour concrete.

Fernando Marsan, assistant professor Charles MacBride and Beau Prest review plans.

Fernando Marsan, assistant professor Charles MacBride and Beau Prest review plans.

And while the graduates found that being the first group to go through an academic program can be a challenging experience, the students also discovered they had a rare opportunity to help shape their experience at State.

“The opportunities—and sometimes frustrations—that come with being in the first class of a new program have been insightful on many levels,” student DJ Bilka said. “We have experienced something no other class has experienced.”

That experience included spreading awareness of the program to the university community and watching as people came to recognize their program’s existence.

Students also had unique opportunities to fill leadership holes in their major.

“Our class had no older students to compare ourselves to or go to for help or advice,” Bilka said. “The fact that we were the first class in the program meant that we were thrust into leadership roles for the new incoming classes.”

Bilka, a native of Chester, was one of the 21 students who graduated in May with a Bachelor of Science in architectural studies. When he was in high school, he thought he would have to travel out of state to study architecture. Then State announced it would start its architecture program.

“I chose the program here at SDSU for proximity to home and the cheaper tuition,” Bilka said.

Provost Laurie Nichols said those were two of the many reasons an architecture program was established at State.

“When President Chicoine arrived as a new president, he observed that (the state of) South Dakota didn’t have an architecture program,” Nichols said. “We were losing many students to adjoining states to pursue this major. Since we have a robust engineering program, as well as design disciplines, it seemed a natural fit to add the program to our portfolio of majors.”

Architecture students receive hands-on field experience beginning their first year. This experiential learning and practical experience is invaluable.

“Students start doing field-based projects from the very beginning of their program,” Nichols said. “This is a studio-based major, so it is hands-on learning from the start.”

Bilka added: “We try experiments with the materials such as actually casting concrete, working with wood and manipulating steel. By working with our hands, we not only understand the material and what it can do, but we also improve our skill.”

State’s architecture program focuses on rural settings and sustainability. These are primary concerns in South Dakota, and a goal of the program is to give students the necessary skills to find work in the state when they graduate.

One of the benefits of having an architecture program at State is that it provides a homegrown professional workforce that South Dakota did not have, Nichols said.

Bilka hopes to stay in South Dakota for as long as he can. He will continue in the architecture program in the fall as he pursues his professional master’s of architecture degree. After finishing school, he said he wants to work as a licensed architect.

“I would like to work with the vernacular architecture of South Dakota and the region,” Bilka said. “I am curious to explore some locally available materials in further detail, such as rammed-earth walls and quartzite construction.”

Brian Rex, head of the architecture department, said the program will continue to be a “learning-by-doing” professional program focused on “the unique sparse urban fabric of South Dakota.”

The architecture program and its students will also serve and advocate for the needs of South Dakota’s architecture profession.

Looking ahead, Bilka said one piece of advice he got from Rex will stick with him as an aspiring architect: “Never stop learning. There is always something more out there you can gather and learn from.”

Hanna Larsen

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