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Homes for the Holiday: Using Gingerbread to Excite Budding Architects

“And I had but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread.“

William Shakespeare, “Love’s Labour’s Lost

Whether you buy a kit or bake your own, everyone remembers the excitement of making and decorating a gingerbread house. Even if you ended up eating more candy than you applied, or watched in horror as your walls and roof collapsed, the Christmas tradition of gingerbread house construction is a memorable one. For us, it has become a new tradition for introducing local students to architecture and the processes behind the built environment.

Over the past four years, the Northwest Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects has hosted a gingerbread competition in local schools, encouraging 5th graders to think about architectural design in a fun (and edible!) way. The competition has expanded to encompass four schools and hundreds of 11-year olds and their parents, and was enhanced this year with more exciting prizes and increased community involvement.

The Gingerbread House contest has been embraced by the Principals and 5th grade teachers not just because this is a fun, family-oriented activity, but because it also fits in perfectly with their increasingly important STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) curriculum, highlighting the relation that architectural design has to engineering. We all know how hard it is to make those gingerbread walls stand up!


AIA Chapter President Jordan Yee and Ashleigh Voisin, both from DAG, planned all year to make the 2017 Gingerbread House Design contest the best ever. In order to get hundreds of eleven-year olds to see beyond the classic sugar-covered holiday decoration, we began with some classroom education, an interactive PowerPoint presentation filled with emojis and Minecraft references that walked them through the basic stages of the architectural design process and explained how some of these same methods can be applied to a gingerbread design. Here is how we broke it down:

· Participating students are provided with a standardized wood board for their approved land parcel or “lot.”

· Our permission slip looks like a building permit (this makes them feel like important designers.)

· Students receive critical information about the enforced Gingerbread District zoning ordinances including minimum required front, side and rear setbacks ( this lets them know we're about as serious as Gingerbread gets.)

· We talk about the types of utilities that we use in our built environment every day, and which ones should be incorporated into the project (Direct TV? Is this edible?)

· Then, we introduce them to the most exciting concept of all—Programming! Everything becomes real when they understand that there is a “client” involved, and they get to choose (and customize) who or what that client is! Designing a gingerbread house for Superman? Sounds awesome, but better plan for a way for him to fly out. A house for Taylor Swift? Probably think about some privacy fencing.

When the students start to visualize the needs of who they are building for, they start to realize that someone once thoughtfully planned their school to meet their needs, designed their home to make it comfortable to live in, designed the arcade to make it fit the maximum number of games... and the seeds of architectural understanding and real world applications begin to sprout.

· Now we have a crowd of tweens so pumped up about their future gingerbread house designing they can barely keep it together. The next step in the process happens to be a great outlet for their creativity overloads: drawing the plans! We explain that putting their ideas on paper will help them visualize what might actually work vs. what seemed like a great idea in their head.

· We then connect the drawing of the plans (or “blueprints” as some students call them) to understanding the supplies they will need. How many walls are in this design? Are we doing cutout windows or faking them with icing art?

· The architect then considers the best materials to use for each element. This REALLY gets the kids’ attention, since we’re now talking about the properties of candy and other snacks. How much will that melted Laffy Taffy roof weigh? Will graham crackers support their structure or will mom need to bake custom walls for that Jedi Starfighter Spaceship house?

After all this architectural enlightenment (and the 1,765 questions asked at the end), we set them free to design to the limits of their imagination—or their parents’ allowed budget.

We work with school administration to plan the night of judging and awards (about three to four weeks later) and contact local dignitaries, school board members, architects, engineers and businesspeople from the community to attend as judges. Winners are selected at each school in ten categories including best roof, best use of icing, best theme, and best sustainable design. Two honorable mention awards and one grand prize are also chosen, with Amazon gift cards as the awards.

Above are some houses designed for last year's competition.

Pictured above: A full house at West Navarre Intermediate School awaits the announcements of the winning entries; Northwest Florida AIA President Jordan Yee and his daughter Eilly get ready for the contest at Longleaf Elementary School; top winners at West Navarre Intermediate School; and Tiffany Castricone of VBA Design and Patrick Boldrick of DAG Architects present winning certificates at Breakfast Point Academy.

Local sponsors were solicited to make this contest an even “sweeter” experience for the kids. Jordan and Ashleigh elicited community support from Pensacola’s Studer family, long-time champions for improving childhood education, to tie the students’ competition to one for adults hosted by the Studer’s “Bodacious Family of Shops.” The Studer family—Quint, Rishy and daughter Mallory—were totally on board with the concept, and generously added more incentive to the students to win by offering a $100 cash prize, a $50 gift certificate to “Bubba’s Sweet Shop,” free tuition for a week of cooking camp at “So Gourmet.” Most exciting of all— the winning child would ride in the Pensacola Christmas Parade with Kazoo, the Blue Wahoo’s mascot! Greenhut Construction and Pen Air Federal Credit Union covered the costs of the wooden boards (lots) for all 4 schools (previously students were charged a $5 “building permit” fee) and sent representatives to serve as guest judges. Both Quint and Mallory Studer served as judges and team members throughout the planning stages. Local architects who banded together to volunteer as judges in the four schools included representatives from DAG Architects, VBA Design, Caldwell Associates, STOA Architects, SMP Architecture, Dalrymple Sallis Architecture, and Sam Marshall Architects.

Teaching kids about architecture, inspiring our future architects and engineers, and building gingerbread houses ended up with unexpected benefits for everyone—the students, families, schools, architects, volunteers, and the community— all building stronger friendships and relationships. We can’t wait to see what everyone creates NEXT year!!

“Architects have made architecture too complex—we need to simplify it and use a language that everyone can understand.”

Toto Ito

Above: Quint and Rishy Studer help set up the Gingerbread House display at the Bodacious Family of Shops in Pensacola. Below; student winner from West Navarre Intermediate School at the Bodacious grand finale event.

For more information - or to find out how you can get involved in NEXT YEAR's program, please contact:

Ashleigh Voisin

DAG Architects


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