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Sunday, 15 May 2016 10:44

KCAD’s master’s program in architecture seeks growth after first cohort graduates

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Students in Kendall College’s graduate program in architecture were tasked with identifying design-focused solutions to global problems such as urban food deserts. Kendall College seeks sustained growth for the program now that its first cohort of architecture students has graduated. Students in Kendall College’s graduate program in architecture were tasked with identifying design-focused solutions to global problems such as urban food deserts. Kendall College seeks sustained growth for the program now that its first cohort of architecture students has graduated. Courtesy Rendering

GRAND RAPIDS — As Kendall College of Art and Design finishes its first cohort of graduate architecture students, the school’s nascent program aims for significant growth in the coming years. 

While five students will graduate in the inaugural class, the Grand Rapids area’s only graduate-level architecture program aims to enroll a total of 30 students by 2020. To do that, Kendall will need to market itself as a viable academic program in an increasingly competitive marketplace, said Brian Craig, the director of the graduate program.

“It’s primarily awareness,” Craig said of the way the college hopes to drive student interest. “The work we’re starting to show will help reinforce that. … It’s really an organic process of building and building. Now that we have our first graduated cohort, we have spokespeople out there with a vested interest in the success of the program. It isn’t just an emotional thing of paying it forward.”

Kendall College joins four other institutions — three in Southeast Michigan as well as Andrews University in Berrien Springs — as the only colleges or universities in the state to offer a master’s degree in architecture.

Architecture industry executives welcome the emergence of another program in the state, particularly one that offers a blended education combining technical engineering skills along with critical thinking and business acumen to help solve problems for clients. 

“As a profession, we are presenting design all day long,” said Dan Tyrer, senior design architect at Holland-based GMB Architecture + Engineering. “Our profession, like so many, is collaborative. It’s not done in a vacuum. The way you engage people is so important.” 

Tyrer added that the firm hires for a variety of skill sets and experience levels, but said candidates with a master’s degree are very much in demand. 

“As a firm, we look at hires as strategic,” he said. “We want to hire them for the long term. There’s a strong demand for master’s degrees because it shows commitment to the profession.” 


The type of blended education with a focus on critical thinking fits with how Kendall College designed its curriculum, according to Craig. 

“We created a program that looks at both the technical aspect of architecture and the ‘why’ of architecture,” Craig said. “We’re not a technical school. But we immerse our students in really rigorous research-based design. We can serve the profession by providing graduates who are critical thinkers, who know the design process and dive in and take on leadership. That’s a pretty good thing.”

For example, students from the inaugural class were tasked with coming up with architectural solutions to what Craig defined as larger world problems, such as the living conditions of migrant workers and the lack of food options in many urban areas, specifically downtown Grand Rapids. 

Each student’s final work was on display in early May in a gallery at one of Kendall College’s buildings in downtown Grand Rapids.

Craig told MiBiz these kinds of projects are critical to the broader role architects can play in society, and particularly in communities like Grand Rapids.

“There’s a homegrown stewardship of place, of environment,” Craig said of the architecture community in West Michigan. “For us, it was natural to tie into that idea of stewardship and sustainability and create an education that is focused on that.”


While many in the industry remain supportive of the program, Kendall’s long-term enrollment target could be a “lofty goal,” said Diane Nagelkirk, professor and program coordinator of architecture, sustainability and facility management at Ferris State University in Big Rapids. 

Kendall College is part of Ferris State University, but the two programs operate separately. Ferris State does not offer a postgraduate degree in architecture and Kendall College’s curriculum was designed independent of its parent university.

Nonetheless, Nagelkirk said she foresees some future challenges for the nascent program. 

“Cost isn’t on their side,” she said of the tuition rates at Kendall College. 

The Grand Rapids-based Kendall College charges $978 per credit hour for the master’s program compared to Ferris State’s rate of $527 per credit hour for graduate programs. 

Given the relationship between the two schools, Ferris State and Kendall could find an opportunity in the future to merge the programs together, which could offer both cost and operational efficiencies, Nagelkirk said. 

Craig confirmed discussions to combine the programs have occurred, adding that he has “long held a vision for a complete architecture program” in Grand Rapids. 

“There are many potential educational and operational benefits, but at this point, such a conversation is speculative,” Craig said in a follow-up email to MiBiz

Nagelkirk also added that the graduate program could run into headwinds if the economy turns. Architecture schools tend to experience a drop in enrollment when the construction industry goes south, she said. Additionally, Ferris State’s undergraduate program has just returned to pre-recession enrollment levels.

Regardless of those challenges, Craig said he’s confident that his students’ work and the strength of Kendall College’s curriculum will speak for itself. 

“We feel like we’re doing a high level of work,” Craig said. “We have an architecture community here and a built environment community here that’s really hungry for this, I think.” 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from a previous version to clarify that Kendall College wants to enroll a total of 30 students in the master of architecture program by 2020, not 30 students in each cohort. 

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