Free Lab

A day in the life

Free Lab


It is all about hands-on learning – learning by doing. Free Lab throws students into the world of architecture with no holds barred.

The design-build course that inspires us

What started as an improvised summer course has become one of the most loved events of the academic year.

“It is all about hands-on learning – learning by doing. Free Lab throws students into the world of architecture with no holds barred,” writes Christine Macy, Dean of Architecture and Planning, in her book documenting the School's Free Labs from 1991 to 2006.

Free Lab gives students two weeks to work on a full-scale project with a vertically-integrated team of students and faculty.

“The philosophy behind it is that there are things that you learn in reality that you don’t learn on the drawing board and that you learn things working in full scale that you don’t learn making a little model,” says Instructor Emanuel Jannasch.

They discover things about gravity, weather, working in teams and working with clients. It’s an opportunity to test the imagination and get adventurous, Mr. Jannasch explains.

"It’s actually about dealing with the unexpected in many cases.”

Over 20 years of community building

For over 20 years, students and faculty have worked on Free Lab projects with communities from India to New York and from Cape Breton Island to Halifax. Over the last two years, students worked on a community garden in Halifax, a youth camp project in Montreal and an AIDS hospice in Botswana.

Having a community relationship adds the extra motivation for everyone to give 100%, but furthering faculty research is another big part of Free Lab.

“Faculty are really pushing for an investigation and looking for a result,” says Mr. Jannisch. “I would say this, to my knowledge, is unique in North America.”

“To imagine and do at the same time is pretty rare,” says Professor Ted Cavanagh.

Maybe that’s one reason why Free Lab has become a so central to our idea of what an architectural education should be.

Elyse Snyder

Elyse is building a portable camera obscura with students from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. They tested two full-scale mock-ups out of cardboard to start before they decided on their current version.

“We’ve had a great team working well together. We’ve got different skills because, we’ve got NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) University art students and Architecture students,” she says.

“As well, it’s been a lot of material testing and coming up with the best solutions, so that trial and error has been really engaging and exciting.”

Mohammed al-Shafie and Glen Nicholson

Mohammed and Glen sit at a table drinking coffee and soldering wiring for a robotic saw that will cut custom curved pieces of wood for boat builders. Both enjoy learning how make something out of metal for the first time.

“I think all Free Labs present us with tasks that none of us have really done too much of,” Glen says.

“It informs you about the process,” adds Mohammed. “We don’t just design it, we do the drilling. We learn what you can do with a certain machine. It informs you when it comes to design. It tells you how you can put pieces together.”

Elysha Klaiman

Elysha's team is weaving a giant fishing net that will hang on the school steps.

“We went to Rainbow Net Rigging, where they showed us how to weave nets. Different styles of weaving nets and different examples. That was interesting, seeing the techniques and learning about different materiality.”