Molding the next generation of architects

City Department of Buildings official Damian Titus (right) talks to P.S. 142 fifth grader Stephen Cruz (middle) and his peers about high-rise buildings last Friday. Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds

BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  Twenty-one bright-eyed fifth graders from P.S. 142 huddled around the City Department of Buildings Senior Project Advocate, Richard Rosen, on Fri., June 17 to learn about urban construction.

“How long does it take to make a building?” asked the students’ teacher, Judy Dunne.

“Five to seven years from start to finish,” Rosen responded.

Student Stephen Cruz was surprised.

“I thought it takes three years at the most,” he said.

The field trip to the D.O.B. offices, at 280 Broadway, was part of a new city-wide education program, “Junior Architects and Engineers,” meant to teach elementary students about the history and art of construction and relay to them how different types of NYC buildings are constructed.

The fifth grade class had a chance to see drawings they made at school of their favorite Manhattan buildings in the D.O.B.’s lobby, where they were put on display. They then toured the D.O.B. offices upstairs, where the Department’s daily operations take place.

“We don’t do the work. We’re the regulator who watches over to make sure [architects and building owners] do the right thing,” explained D.O.B. Commissioner Robert LiMandri.

LiMandri talked to the kids about the different branches of government, and encouraged them to get their high school diplomas.

The students were taken to the skyscraper review room, where high-rise buildings specialist Damian Titus showed them a ball made out of rubber bands — each rubber band representing a building application that was not approved.

“One thing you do when you enter a building is look for the egress stairs,” Titus told the students. “You always need to know where you are at all times and what’s the fastest way to get out just in case of an emergency.”

The trip, Dunne said, was a great educational experience for the students.

“It opens their minds and vocabulary,” said Dunne. “ They know words like ‘excavate,’ ‘egress’ and ‘codes.’ I think they know this is a place of business.”

The students could use the construction concepts in their robotics class, where they are building structures using Legos.

But the most important lesson the youngsters absorbed that day, Dunne said, was how to plan — a skill they can apply to everyday life circumstances.

“I think ‘planning’ is a big word down here, and I think it should be a big word in their life,” said Dunne. “When they write, I tell them all the time they have to plan — plan how much you’re going to read at night, and plan how to cross the street. It’s very important, especially with children [because] they’re very impulsive.”

The kids shared their own thoughts on what they learned. “Now, I know it’s a lot of work to make buildings and inspect them,” said fifth grader Jose Casanova. He then glanced at a picture of LiMandri and his team, and said, “That’s us in the future!”

While some of the students said they aspired to become architects and engineers one day, others said they would like to work for the D.O.B.

“I’d like to have a job like [Rosen]. I’d like to make people safe, like he does all the time,” said fifth grader Steven Cruz.

The D.O.B. completed the tour by taking the kids to visit an upper floor apartment in Beekman Tower, the tallest residential and commercial high-rise in Lower Manhattan.

“[The architect] had about 50 different concepts of what this building could possibly look like,” said Project Executive Russell Andersen, showing the kids the architects’ multiple study models on the wall behind him. The buildings’ material came from all different parts of the country and world, he explained, including Florida, Detroit and Japan.

The purpose of the Beekman visit, Andersen said, is to “Let your imagination run wild [when it comes to building]. The technology is here to build anything you can think of.”

“I didn’t know that they can make a building like this 76 floors,” commented fifth grader Noelani Velez.

D.O.B. officials said they were thrilled to participate in the “Junior Architects and Engineers” program. “Construction is vital to the future of this great city, and it’s important for all New Yorkers to understand why it must be done safely,” said LiMandri. “We look forward to expanding the program and encouraging more teachers and principals to sign their students up.”

The program’s launch this year follows the Department’s 2010 initiation of the annual Elevator and Escalator Safety Awareness week at The Yung Wing School (P.S. 124) in Chinatown, in which D.O.B. inspectors taught students best safety practices for riding the city’s 62,000 elevators and escalators.