Senior architecture student Dania Darra shares her experience of representing the College of Architecture, Art and Design (CAAD) at this year’s American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) Freedom by Design program and Grass Roots Conference at the University of Maryland and in Washington, DC. Dania was the only international student invited to participate in the program, making this a first for CAAD and the Middle East.

As a fifth-year architecture student at AUS, I have been a member of the AIAS chapter at CAAD for more than two years, which has helped me to stay up-to-date with the architectural news and opportunities around the world.

In July 2019, I was selected by AIAS to be one of 10 students to receive a grant to travel to Washington, DC, to be on the Freedom by Design  (FBD) task force, as well as to attend the AIAS Grassroots Conference.

As the first and only student from the Middle East to be offered the opportunity, I gained a new, broader perspective of the architectural field, opening my eyes to the wide range of possibilities of what we can achieve through design. I made valuable connections with students and professionals and was able to increase the recognition of AUS and CAAD to people outside of our region, many of whom had never heard of Sharjah and were fascinated to learn that our programs are accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB).

The Freedom By Design program, which was hosted by the  American Institute of Architects (AIA) Potomac Valley Chapter at the University of Maryland’s Leaf-House and led by AIA Director Bo Green, was established with the view to impact local communities through modest design and construction solutions that address physical, educational, environmental, socioeconomic and cultural barriers.

With a focus on climate change and sustainability in design, the program included a series of workshops experimenting with innovative student research projects such as a vertical wetland system in a recycled plastic mesh powered by a bicycle (Dr. Peter May, University of Maryland).  Through these workshops, agriculture students and faculty, and architecture students and professionals came together to create a hybrid of ideas and solutions with the aim to pave the way for the future of architecture with consideration for the changing planet and climate.

Both the FBD and the AIAS Grassroots conference provided valuable opportunities for cultural exchange and professional networking and development. I was able to offer some insight about the Middle East, the UAE and AUS to both students and experts, who expressed their interest in learning more about and even visiting our College of Architecture, Art and Design. And I was inspired by the ideas that we generated together as a task force and by the expertise shared by architects working at the highest level of their profession.

Over the next year, I will work together with the FBD team to finalize our design, with the aim to begin interacting with real-world clients, professional architects and contractors on our design-build project from July 2020.

Returning to the UAE, I am motivated with new ideas about design sustainability and have aspirations to start our own FBD program at CAAD, and new inspiration to explore my future path as an architect and designer.