Using ePortfolios, Comparative Matrices and Decision Webs as Design Decision Making Tools in a Design-Build Studio

Presented by: Nathan Bicak

Summary A design-build studio implements a variety of visual and technology-driven methods in the selection of sustainable products for the design and construction of a tiny house. Context As a central component of a multi-semester design-build studio, a group of students are researching sustainable materials and practices to be used in the design and construction of a tiny house (Appendix A). This studio focuses on examining the environmental, political and social impacts of residential spaces. Currently, the course is in its fourth iteration and has been comprised of Interior Design, Business, Geospatial Science, Communications, Media Studies and Journalism students. Problem There are innumerable options when considering sustainable products to integrate into the design of a sustainable tiny house. To further complicate the matter, there are many products that advertise as ‘green’ but are not as sustainable as they claim. In order to productively analyze these options, and promote collaborative teamwork, the instructor of the studio established an interdisciplinary research project in which students explore sustainable practices and products for use in the tiny house. “Getting every single person to take real responsibility for a task or area of research seems to be the best way to encourage a productive team dynamic. Everyone owns a part of the collaborative project, and all contributions are important”.(1) With the abundance of information this process creates, there is a need to catalogue and synthesize the discovered materials for evaluation and implementation. Methods of Investigation Students create ePortfolios as a means of organizing their product research and information gathering (Appendix B). Students examine the sustainability of materials in terms of: economic impacts, ecological impacts, design and space implications, technical information and major disadvantages. They interview industry experts for opinions and guidance as to the viability of the selected materials and products. This exercise compels students to be flexible in the research process; if their industry contact reveals the research trajectory to be fruitless, they must reposition their focus. Each product requires that a written analysis and related artifacts, such as images, web links, and technical data, be posted to the ePortfolio. To date, research topics have included solar power, wind energy, plumbing considerations, heating and cooling, insulation, cladding, interior material options and flooring. In addition to the ePortfolio, students consolidate their findings into a visual matrix (Appendix C). This format allows an in-depth review of a product’s attributes and provides an assessment tool for students to reference as they generate visual decision webs (Appendix D) and make product recommendations. Outcome The ePortfolio, comparative matrix and decision webs allow the interdisciplinary research teams to capture and catalogue the materials they discover. The research project concludes with each team proposing the material or product they deem to be most sustainable. An ePortfolio provides an organized means for students to make informed decisions, and allows them to reflect on the entire process as they make their recommendation. In addition, the ePortfolios, matrices and decision webs serve as artifacts to pass on to future generations of the class. Format This poster presentation will visually portray the sustainable product research and information gathering process described above by illustrating the progression from an ePortfolio to the comparative matrix and decision webs, accompanied by drawings and photographs of the tiny house design and construction process. The poster will also identify how the materials and practices recommended by the research teams are, or will be, incorporated into the tiny house.


  • (1) John D. Quale, Sustainable Affordable Prefab: The ecoMOD Project (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012), 56.
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