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View the Video: Scuba-Diving Design Students Immersed in New Studio Course


A new Extreme Environments design course has been a sink-and-swim experience for UC architecture and interior design students asked to set up a framework-and-net shelter at the bottom of the university’s Olympic-sized lap pool. Scroll down to view a video. 

Date: 5/6/2008 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Submitted by DAAP students

UC ingot  

It was an assignment to take her breath away, says University of Cincinnati architecture junior Emma Scarmack, 21, of Lancaster, Ohio.

Emma Scarmack
Architecture student Emma Scarmack in UC's Olympic-sized lap pool as part of the new Extreme Environments studio class.

Scarmack was just one of the UC College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) students who recently jumped feet first into a new Extreme Environments design course that asks the students to first experience the kinds of environments they will later design for.

That’s how it came to be that ten out of the 17 students in the new studio course, led by Brian Davies, associate professor of architecture, swallowed hard and then immersed themselves in scuba-diving training and underwater design efforts. Only one of the students in the class had any prior scuba-diving experience.

At first, Scarmack thought it would be pretty easy to go with the flow of the class. It wasn’t quite the smooth sailing she expected. She explained, “Before we got to the evening where we tried to set up the underwater framework shelter, we had three in-water training sessions. When I actually started to do some of those training exercises, I suddenly found it terrifying to scuba dive. I’ve never been afraid of the water, but you’re asked to take your [breathing] regulator out of your mouth, take off your mask and open your eyes under water and other moves that were pretty scary for anyone who likes constant access to oxygen.”

This less-than-two-minute video shows students trying to erect their framework shelter underwater, secure the base with weights, communicate while underwater, shrug off the challenge and, of course, wave to the camera.

Fellow student Jason Rohal, 21, an architecture junior from Cleveland, had a different reaction. For him, the experience was pure fun. “It’s the most fun thing I think I’ve ever done. I had a complete sense of freedom under the water. I was able to sit at the bottom of a bed of water and look up and have a perspective I’ve never had before. It was a total ‘wow’ experience for me,” he recalled.

Both this fun and even the fear has a professional purpose: To help the students become better designers of structures set in extreme environments.

This class in UC’s top-ranked architecture and interior design program is part of a long university history, going back to the 1960s at least, of designing structures and tools – and testing these same designs – for the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), for the U.S. Air Force and even for other countries. Past design projects have included designing environments for space, for the desert, for polar climates and for ocean surfaces and depths.

“And recently, UC received a prestigious gift for research related to space that will require our college (DAAP) to work with the university’s engineering and medicine programs on projects related to the extreme environment of space. That was really the impetus behind this newest course,” Davies explained.

And as for underwater training to substitute for space design, Davies was matter of fact: “It’s easier to go underwater than space. The weightless environments correspond, which is why NASA trains personnel underwater, too.”

Eco-hotel design
Rendering of an underwater eco-hotel and research center designed by students Jason Rohal, Heather Vorst and Sarosh Ali.

In UC’s Olympic-sized lap pool, the students culminated their underwater training by trying to erect the framework for a shelter. In the end, the shelter collapsed in slow motion before it was complete due to challenges related to water-volume displacement, the amount of weight needed at the base of the framework to secure the structure and the necessarily slow pace of under water work that used up both oxygen and the students’ physical energy.

But, said Davies, he and the students probably learned more from the “failure” than they would have from an easy success: “We even videotaped our efforts so we could review it like game-day footage.”

Among the lessons learned

  • People working in extreme environments need clear and easy channels of communication. Said Davies, “Once we began to erect the shelter, we had no clear, quick way to communicate. People in extreme environments need that, or they need a detailed, almost rote plan before entering the environment to eliminate all questions beforehand.”
  • Shelters for extreme environments need to offer special comforts. Said Scarmack, “Being underwater for any length of time like we were does make you very cold. In questioning divers about shelter, I now know why several of them mentioned they wanted to get into a hot tub or have a hot shower as fast as possible when coming out of the water. I wanted the same thing.”
  • The users of any shelters in extreme environments will need to be team players, and so, any shelter design needs to promote team building. Rob Fausz, 22, a third-year architecture student, explained that – at one point – he was given the responsibility of taking the students’ shelter weights (used to hold their framework to the pool floor) up to the surface. He got that job because he had the largest oxygen tank and thus, the greatest supply of oxygen. Another student helped him, both of them breathing from Fausz’s tank. Said Fausz, “All that ascending and descending made me not only think about aspects of my design for an atoll-based research center but also how we weren’t going to mentally or physically conquer this group challenge in the pool without all the classmates participating. We couldn’t even bring the different parts back up to the surface and get them out of the pool without working together.”
  • Users of extreme-environment shelters will need ways to conserve physical energy. Rohal stated, “We all got very tired very quickly when working underwater. That’s shaped our design for an underwater eco-hotel that we’re proposing locating off the coast of Belize. We’re putting a mesh where we want people to explore and scuba near the hotel so that they can hold on, rest and even help themselves to move along. We wouldn’t have thought to do that except that we ourselves got so tired working underwater.”
  • Extreme-environment shelters have special storage needs. “We couldn’t really believe all the equipment we had to put on for scuba diving and all the specialized gear we could have used,” said Rohal, who is now working with fellow students Heather Vorst, 22, an interior design junior from Kalida, Ohio, and Sarosh Ali, 22, a third-year architecture student from Atlanta, Ga., on an eco-hotel design project.

Eco-hotel interior
Rendering of hotel room interior from students' design of underwater eco-hotel and research center.

All the students are now working in groups to create plans for a variety of theoretical structures, including research centers and an underwater eco-hotel. Importantly, these extreme-environment designs will, according to Jennifer Moots, 22, an interior design junior from Van Wert, Ohio, “…give us something completely different in our portfolios. We don’t know of any other school that offers ongoing design classes for extreme environments.”