On Campus: PLAIN Collective

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Chris Nguyen, a third-year architecture student from Grand Island, poses with one of his cedar panels. The panels are part of his project to find useful materials from the invasive Eastern Red Cedar tree.

Chris Nguyen applied to the College of Architecture on a whim. But through the PLAIN Collective—a design + build collaboration—he’s gained hands-on experience in the field and has seen first-hand the impact he can have through architecture.

Talk about why you decided to apply to Nebraska, and specifically go into architectural studies.

Nebraska was my go-to university pick after I was accepted into the university’s Nebraska College Preparatory Academy (NCPA) in eighth grade. I am a first-generation, low-income student and would not have been able to afford a college education without the help of their full financial assistance which covers nearly every financial aspect of college. I originally planned on pursuing a performing arts degree, but after accidentally enrolling in a drafting class during high school I ended up designing a Habitat for Humanity house. After that, I began thinking about architecture. I enrolled in the architecture program here on a whim, not knowing what architects or designers truly did. All I can say is I made the right decision.

How would you explain the PLAIN Collective to someone that’s never heard of it?

Generally, Design + Build is a form of architecture and construction collaboration, where the designer also becomes the builder. Specifically, PLAIN Design + Build is a collective of students who work with professor Jason Griffiths to design and assemble buildings from engineered lumber.

Through your participation in PLAIN or otherwise, what hands-on opportunities have you been able to take advantage of?

Over the spring semester of 2022, I reached out to Professor Griffiths about doing a UCARE research project into sustainable design using engineered lumber. Through that, I was brought onto The Backloop: Curve Continuity and The Mizer’s Ruin projects. I gained hands-on experience working with engineered lumber at the Nebraska Innovation Studios (NIS) and on-site at Cedar Point Biological Station (CPBS) in Ogallala, Nebraska. At NIS I became involved with creating curved cross-laminated timber panels for the Backloop Pavillion exhibition. I worked in the wood and metal shops using a plethora of saws, metal machining tools, and a large vacuum former. Toward the end of the summer, I moved out to Cedar Point to work on-site for Mizer’s Ruin. There I worked on a Wood-Mizer LT15, milling invasive eastern red cedar into dimensional lumber in preparation for the construction phase of the project. A few other tasks I did were moving lumber with a tractor and turning wasted wood into firewood.

Chris processes wood from Eastern Red Cedar at Cedar Point Biological Station

Tell us about the project you are currently working on for the studio.

Currently, I am still working on the Mizer’s Ruin project, with more of an emphasis on research. I have been doing calculations on the embodied energy and carbon emissions that are being created through the process of this entire project. Moreover, I have been specifically focused on comparing whether importing prefabricated lumber from another state or locally sourcing lumber by hand would be more sustainable and green. Mizer’s Ruin is focused on sustainably removing eastern red cedar and maximizing the use of its natural resources in a positive way. Eastern red cedar is labeled as an invasive species of tree in Nebraska because it destroys local farmland; however, most people uproot the tree and burn them.

What could this project mean or how could this project impact Nebraska?

We hope that the Mizer’s Ruin Project brings more attention to ways local Nebraskans deal with eastern red cedar. Rather than burning the trees and adding emissions to an already troubled environment, why not put this natural and abundant resource towards something more sustainable? Mizer’s Ruin will be the second building built by the PLAIN Collective that uses locally-milled red cedar.

What is your favorite part about your work at PLAIN?

My favorite part about my time with PLAIN is the variety of different experiences I was able to take part in. I was able to experience what the day-to-day life of an architect could look like. I enjoyed meeting a variety of people that came from different backgrounds and disciplines. I had the opportunity to also work with clients and suppliers, a rare experience for even architectural interns. On the Backloop Project specifically, due to Professor Griffiths being overseas, I also had the opportunity to primarily oversee the project and coordinated the team.

How will your involvement in this studio help you in the future?

My experience with PLAIN taught me a lot of hard skills like woodwork and metalwork, but it has also enhanced soft skills like communication, collaboration, and creative thinking. I have already seen myself applying the knowledge I gained within other projects I have worked on outside of PLAIN. I hope I can take these skills even further throughout the remainder of my time here at the university and into my professional career.

What or who inspires/motivates you?

The person that motivates me the most is my girlfriend, Elizabeth Pernicek. She is also a first-generation, low-income student in architecture, and ever since meeting we have always talked about our dreams of making a better life for ourselves and a better future for others. We constantly treat all of our school work as a friendly competition, seeing who comes out on top on exams or debating who has a better eye for design. We always find ourselves having to swallow our pride to ask how to do an equation or what might work better in a building. She always makes sure I stay mentally healthy and picks me up when the pressure and stress get to me.

Who has impacted your time at Nebraska?

I believe that everyone I have met at UNL has had an impact on my life; I have had interesting conversations with a variety of professors that have changed my perspective on life, and the friends I have also made here have made Nebraska feel like a home. Although, I believe the person that has had the biggest impact on me has been professors Jason Griffiths. If it weren’t for Professor Griffiths I would not be where I am today. As I have mentioned before he was the one who allowed me to be part of the PLAIN Design + Build Collective, if he had simply turned me down I wouldn’t even be writing this today.

My experience with PLAIN taught me a lot of hard skills like woodwork and metalwork, but it has also enhanced soft skills like communication, collaboration, and creative thinking.

What is one piece of advice you would give an incoming student looking to gain hands-on experience in architecture?

One piece of advice I would like to give incoming students that are wanting to gain hands-on experience in architecture is simply to reach out to a professor, especially when they say they are looking for students to be part of an upcoming or ongoing project. Many students go through the program, doing just what is required for the degree; but getting involved in different groups and projects outside of the classroom opens up new opportunities and experiences when it comes to architecture.

What is something you’ve learned from PLAIN that will stick with you after you graduate?

The most important thing that I have learned from the PLAIN is that believing in what you are doing will always elevate the quality of the final product. If I were simply working on this project because I was required to do it, I would have produced mediocre work. I believed in what we were doing and loved doing it; a job is simply doing work, but having a fulfilling experience while working is what becomes a career.

What do you hope to do after you graduate?

After graduating from the undergraduate program here at the College of Architecture, I plan on enrolling in Architecture and Community and Regional Planning Dual Master-degree program here at UNL. After that, I hope to start my career locally in Nebraska in either Lincoln or Omaha with the goal of one day being able to rejuvenate low-income communities into more supportive and prosperous areas, with a focus on developing our cities to be more sustainable and efficient. I have always wanted to be able to give others a better future, and hopefully, this path will allow me to fulfill that goal.

Chris walks through the final structure

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