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Public Interest Design Institute Asks, ‘Who do Architects Work For?’
This nonprofit started with AIA grant money teaches architects how to move beyond their traditional client base and design in the public interest
By Angie Schmitt
It’s no secret that these are difficult times for the architecture profession. The frequently alarming news reports on the topic, however, rarely go past the subject of job losses, glossing over potential causes or tacitly pointing the finger at the real estate crisis.
But Bryan Bell, executive director of the Raleigh, N.C.–based community service nonprofit Design Corps, says the problem is much more fundamental than that. The good news is that the problem isn’t architecture itself—in fact, never before have so many of the world’s problems been as accessible to design solutions. The problem is clients—specifically, there aren’t enough. The fault of architecture as a profession, Bell says, is that it has been fishing in too small of a pond.
Bell is the founder of the Public Interest Design Institute, a two-day training course that’s been offered at almost a dozen universities from Harvard to Portland State. He trains students and practicing architects on how to reach a wider ocean of potential clients, clients who aren’t part of the proverbial “1 percent.” The objective of the institute is to help students and practitioners make a career as an architect serving those who need the most help.
While environmental sustainability and performance-based building design are revolutionizing the practice of architecture, they represent only a fraction of the potential within the field for meeting the challenges of the 21st century, Bell says.
“A lot of us recognize that the environment is not the only issue that needs to be addressed,” he says. “It’s not just affordable housing or accessibility; it’s providing water, providing jobs, reducing communicable diseases. Once we demonstrate the value of design, the number of jobs and the sort of trajectory of who we’re serving is sort of unbelievable.”
The impetus for these ideas comes from innovators like Architecture for Humanity, Design for the Other 90%, AIA Gold Medalist Samuel Mockbees’s, FAIA, RuralStudio in Alabama, and Public Architecture and its The 1% pro bono program. Taken together, these groups and many others testify to a growing recognition that in addition to being beautiful and functional, architecture can be a powerful force in addressing underlying social inequalities.
What’s revolutionary about Bell’s Public Interest Design Institute is that it teaches that architects can fully dedicate themselves to public service work and at the same time make a living. Along the way, they might just turn the market for architectural services upside down, massively exploding the recognized demand for building design by proving that architecture can help solve problems previously considered the exclusive domain of public health officials, environmentalists, community activists, and others. “This is bigger,” Bell says, “than pro bono.”
In 2011 Bell received the AIA’s Latrobe Prize, receiving $100,000 to study this nascent initiative. What he found was that architects curious about this type of work needed formal training. So he created the Public Interest Design Institute’s two-day seminars, which have so far brought the world’s most successful public interest practitioners to classrooms at 11 universities. Almost 250 people have taken part since the first session at Harvard in July 2011. These courses, Bell stresses, are as much (or more) about the practicalities of public interest architecture as they are about design. To succeed as a public interest designer, he teaches, architects must be engaged in their communities and be entrepreneurial.
“This is not a sort of superficial inspirational talk,” Bell says. “This is drilling deep into a project, how it got started, how did the architect get paid. These are the questions that aren’t normally discussed in a lecture, but you can’t do this work unless you have this information.”
Putting community at the center
Jamie Blosser, AIA, a Public Interest Design Institute instructor and architect with Atkin Olshin Schade Architects, is a prime example of how public service–oriented design can evolve from a nagging desire into a rewarding career. More than a decade ago, Blosser was working as a “traditional architect” in Santa Fe, N.Mex., when she suffered a crisis of faith after working on a series of resort-like projects geared toward tourists. “It led me to place where I was wondering if architecture was really my cup of tea,” she says. “I didn’t find it fulfilling.”
In 2000, Blosser won the an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship offered by Enterprise Community Partners to help promising young architects get training in sustainable community design. She used the opportunity to dive into an affordable housing project with a local Pueblo Indian tribe on the Ohkay Owingeh Indian reservation. About 3,500 people live on the reservation, which has been occupied for 700 years.
Blosser began working with the tribe to develop a housing complex that reflected the customs and traditions of the Ohkay Owingeh. At the time, much of the tribe were living in rundown single-family housing originally constructed by HUD, an arrangement at odds with many of group’s most cherished cultural traditions. Working with tribal leaders, Blosser’s team began a years-long collaboration to build Tsigo Bugeh Village, a $5.3 million affordable apartment complex financed mainly through tax credits.
Tsigo Bugeh did away with single-family housing, which isolated nuclear families. A multifamily apartment complex was better suited to the traditional Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo way of life, in which large semi-communal housing structures facilitated close ties among extended family members. In addition, the 40-unit complex was designed with an east-to-west orientation to coincide with the equinox, which has special significance for the tribe and plays a key role in many ceremonies. Residences employ an open layout to better facilitate large gatherings of extended family members.
All of Blosser’s work at Ohkay Owingeh stresses one of the most important principles of public interest design: putting community members at the center of the project. Community forums, storytelling sessions, even oral history projects have helped inform her work.
But working with this group hasn’t only been fulfilling; it’s helped her develop a valuable specialty in historic preservation. Since leaving her traditional firm and working at the reservation, Blosser helped found the Santa Fe office of Philadelphia-based Atkin Olshin Schade. And, indeed, a major portion firm’s Santa Fe staff is consumed by public interest design concerns.
“One of the goals of public interest design is to really reconsider again, in this very global time, what placemaking means,” Blosser says. “The goal [in] my work with traditional communities—and the work of my firm—is not to hold onto a historic past but to celebrate it.”
If building performance and sustainability as well as socially ameliorative design are the primary forces changing the practice of contemporary architecture, how do you measure the social good a building generates along with its consumed energy? It’s not a nonsensical question, and to answer it Bell has developed a rating system for the institute’s curriculum based loosely on the concept of LEED but with a much broader scope. His SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design) rating system prioritizes inclusion and discourse among stakeholders. Projects must minimize waste and respect the unique place and community from which they spring.
Each year Bell honors the most sensitive groundbreaking projects with SEED awards. One thing all winners have in common is that they must address multiple challenges. Award recipients must also demonstrate—with data—positive impacts on public health, the local economy, educational achievement, or any number of social benefits, all depending on the community’s needs.
SEED certification calls for an even higher standard of care than winning a SEED award. Some 152 projects are going through the SEED certification process, Bell says, but as yet only one has received the honor: Szostak Design’s Durham Performing Arts Center in Durham, N.C. The process is time-consuming, Bell says, because projects like the Tsigo Bugeh Village might take years to produce measurable results, especially on factors as hard to measure as the beneficial outcomes of cultural respect. But Blosser’s work with the tribe continues. Currently she is working on the rehabilitation of the village’s historic Pueblo. That project, Owe’neh Bupingeh, was a recent SEED award winner.
Environment, economy, health
One groundbreaking example of how architecture’s capacity for good can be expanded is represented by the work of architects Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks, Assoc. AIA, of the MASS Design Group.
Murphy and Ricks were graduate students in architecture at Harvard when they attended a presentation by Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners In Health, an international humanitarian organization that offers healthcare to the poor in developing nations. Inspired, the pair approached Farmer to inquire about what architecture firms he was working with. His answer: none. The organization had never employed an architect. The value of design just wasn’t obvious to an international institution focused on health in the developing world.
Murphy and Ricks, working with other students, took on their first project with Partners In Health, Butaro Hospital in Rwanda, pro bono. They began by researching some of the nonprofit’s existing hospitals. Along the way, the team made a startling discovery: The way the humanitarian organization was designing hospitals was contributing to the spread of disease.
For example, Murphy and Ricks noticed that when patients entered a hospital, they sat together in a poorly ventilated waiting room. As a result, a trip to the hospital for a broken arm might result in a hospital stay for tuberculosis. The group’s hospital plan then began to isolate patients waiting to see a doctor in small rooms with good air circulation.
But the team didn’t stop there. The students arranged for the new hospital to be constructed with local materials and by local laborers. Because of Murphy and Ricks’ intervention, local workers on the project not only received needed income but were trained in stoneworking, a skill they could use to help support their families after the project was complete. This method of construction not only resulted in significant cost reductions, but also introduced almost $500,000 into the rural community’s economy.
The project’s designers considered every detail, and how it might sociologically impact the rural area of Rwanda, even down to materials. Locally sourced materials became an important focus because Rwanda is a landlocked country where importing materials such as steel is difficult.
“[By] using local volcanic stone, part of the idea was to increase the impact of local labor and reduce costs, and also to sort of reframe people’s perception of this material,” says Sierra Bainbridge of the MASS Design Group, who served as a lead on construction management for the Butaro project. “It’s kind of seen as a junk rock that people have to clean out of their fields, but it’s actually a beautiful material.”
This single project addressed three problems: the environment, by using local materials; the economy, by employing and training local workers; and health, by improving the environment for treatment. It’s certainly paid off for Ricks and Murphy, who is a Public Interest Design Institute instructor. Partners in Health has become a regular client of MASS Design Group, and the firm now has a staff of 20.
Blosser, as well, has not returned to designing luxury hotels. She’s applying the lessons she learned building affordable housing and performing historic preservation in the Philadelphia office of her firm.
In both Blosser and Murphy and Ricks’ cases, it was up to the architect to prove his or her value, and what they provided went above and beyond the traditional demands of the profession—at least as it’s typically defined now. But these two projects are just the tip of the iceberg, Bell says. The public, and even architects themselves, have just begun to recognize how design can be unleashed to advance all sorts of social goals.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘Wow, we didn’t realize design could address these issues. We thought design was just making things pretty,’” Bell says. “We need to go out into the community and prove what design can do.”