Architecture Students Finish Vision for Rebuilding in Paradise

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Small-scale models of buildings are taking shape inside faculty member Stacey White’s third-year architecture studio class, where students are wrapping up an intense, six-month project to envision how the fire-ravaged town of Paradise, California, could rebuild.

The students’ work, which started less than two months after the Camp Fire devastated the Northern California town last November, culminates with one last trip to Paradise on June 2-3 to present their final projects to the community, followed by a presentation at Cal Poly on June 4 and a trip to speak at the AIA Conference on Architecture on June 6.

“The students are so invested,” said White who, along with faculty member Kent Macdonald, has led the students as they took their ideas from a conceptual phase to a fully designed building. “It’s not theoretical. When they design these projects, they're picturing the people they’ve met from Paradise and doing what they can to make them proud.”

During three previous trips, the architecture students met with numerous residents, asked questions and listened to what community members said they wanted for their town. Their projects — including a town hall, a recreation center, an entrepreneurship center, mixed-use housing and healthcare facilities — reflect the desire of Paradise residents to create a more walkable community that can meet the needs of longtime residents and create jobs and opportunities for new arrivals. 

“When I look at rebuilding our community, I’d like to see it built back better than the way it was, to build it for future generations,” Paradise Town Council Member Melissa Schuster said. “To have the students give us ideas was absolutely phenomenal.”

As the students describe their work, one word is often repeated: resilient. The students are not only designing structures that produce their own energy and collect water on site; they are also hoping to build deeper connections across the community.

“The extensive contact they’ve had with survivors has given them a sense of how architecture can help people,” Macdonald said.

A fire station is paired with a rock climbing gym, for example, to create a casual atmosphere for people to connect, start conversations about fire safety and support social resiliency, said third-year student Pacific Austin, of San Ramon, California.

The recreation center includes space for community events, in addition to basketball courts, a running track, pool and bicycle shop.

“There are a lot of social spaces for people to create bonds and connections,” said third-year architecture student Alyson Liang. “That’s what helps a community recover after a disaster.”

Liang, of Santa Rosa, recalled evacuating her home in October 2017, when the fast-moving Tubbs Fire hit densely populated areas of that city. Liang’s family’s home survived, but she couldn’t return to it for two weeks.  Just over a year later, she surveyed fire-charred landscape in Paradise.

“It was a heavy trip for me,” Liang said. “Standing on the street, seeing the burn marks, I could imagine people running down the street, having to abandon their cars. It was really emotional.”

“I really hope our projects truly inspire Paradise residents to rebuild,” she added.

After the design studios conclude, the students’ work will be put online, free and available for anyone to view and use. Each student in White's class is also working on a book outlining their research — from slope analysis to climate studies — so that the work can serve as a foundation for Paradise residents as they continue to recover and rebuild.

In addition, a fourth-year studio led by faculty member Maggie Kirk in spring quarter will produce designs and drawings for single-family residential homes designed to be net-zero.

“The fourth-year students’ work aims to offer housing designs for community members to use as they rebuild. They will be presented with options that could work on multiple sites and orientations,” Kirk said. “The students designed the houses to incorporate and connect to the community while being modeled to net-zero and high-performance standards. They also incorporated strategies of resilient design into the building materials and the layout of the building and site.”

Schuster, the town council member, acknowledged that she had some doubts when she first heard about the Cal Poly project.

“But when I saw their projects and talked to the students, my attitude completely reversed,” she said. “I was so grateful and I saw how they had listened to what the community wanted, and it felt good.”

The work gives community leaders conceptual ideas and visuals to present to potential investors and may help to secure funding. Many of the students’ proposals happen to parallel those of a community recovery plan that was developed for the town simultaneously by a consulting planning firm, Urban Design Associates.

On June 2-3, the Cal Poly students will show their work through posters, 3D and large-scale models, and virtual and augmented reality during four meetings in Paradise. They include a community presentation June 2 and three presentations June 3: 8:30 a.m. at Paradise Alliance Church; 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Arts and Humanities Building at CSU Chico: and 2 to 3 p.m. with Paradise High School students.

On June 4, the Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo community can view the projects during a barbecue from noon to 3 p.m. Students in White’s class will show their projects in Engineering West (No. 21), Room 249 (on the third floor); Macdonald’s students’ projects will be displayed in the conference room of the KTGY Gallery, also in Engineering West (No. 21, Room 105).

White hopes the relationship with Paradise continues.

“We’re uniquely set up to help in situations like this,” she said. “Our students are incredibly motivated, and we know that their learning is enhanced through service.

“The students are now in a long-term relationship with this way of doing architecture. They have been mature, responsive and empathetic — just good quality humans. And when you do that, you get good, quality architecture.”


About Cal Poly’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design
With more than 1,900 students, Cal Poly’s acclaimed College of Architecture and Environmental Design (CAED) offers a unique blend of eight degree programs in five closely related departments: architectural engineering, architecture, city and regional planning, construction management, and landscape architecture. The college’s architecture program is the No. 1 ranked public architecture program in the nation, according to the latest DesignIntelligence survey. For more than 70 years, the CAED programs and 16,000 alumni have been a positive influence on the forces that shape the planning, design and construction worlds. Learn more at



Photo information: Students in Cal Poly architecture faculty member Stacey White’s third-year studio class work on their projects to reimagine the town of Paradise, California. Photo credit: Cal Poly Campus Photographer Joe Johnston. (Higher-resolution images available upon request.)



Related Content


Connections Magazine

Read the latest issue of Connections, the College of Architecture and Environmental Design's quarterly e-magazine.

Read more

CAED Diversity Equity & Inclusion

Learn more about the CAED's Diversity Strategic Plan and Overview.

Read more

Giving to the CAED

Learn how to support Learn by Doing at the College of Architecture and Environmental Design.

More on CAED support

CAED Features in Cal Poly Magazine

Check out the cover story and awesome video about the Design Village competition and learn more about alumnus Chuck Durrett’s cohousing work!

Read the Spring Issue