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Residential Architect: A dedication to social justice propels today’s young professionals.
Author: Cheryl Weber, LEED AP, Residential Architect
Posted: May 9, 2013

Read the original story here in Residential Architect. 

Theresa Hwang, a recent Harvard graduate, has spent the last three years working with Michael Maltzan Architecture on the Star Apartments, a modular mixed-use housing complex for disabled and formerly homeless people in downtown Los Angeles. It’s a noteworthy building on many levels, and one that The New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman praised in a column last year. But this wasn’t your typical design commission. In addition to gaining licensure credits, Hwang also got a crash course in community participation, financing, property management, and post-occupancy issues. She performed the work as an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow sponsored by Maltzan’s client, the nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust, where she is now employed. Hwang says she is drawn to the “performative nature of architecture, a way of shaping the environment and changing how we live.”

“I wanted to push my own social agenda,” she says. “There are all these alternative career pathways beyond sitting at a desk and working for an architect who does only high-end residential work.”

Public interest design—which focuses on the needs of the community rather than the individual—is not new, but the next generation of designers sees it as integral to practice. Young people have always been attracted to humanitarian causes; coming of age in a time of climate change and economic unrest, however, has made today’s graduates view socially conscious design less from an idealistic perspective than as the third leg of sustainability—environmental, economic, social.

“Ten years ago, we had to carve out a space for public interest design,” says Katie Swenson, vice president of national design initiatives at Enterprise Community Partners, Columbia, Md., which administers the Enterprise Rose Fellowship. “Now young graduates come with a triple-bottom-line approach more naturally.”

Perkins+Will principal Meg Brown, director of human resources, has noticed the same trend. Within the first two sentences of their cover letters, nine out of 10 young job applicants mention the firm’s commitment to social responsibility, she says. “It’s a real hook for us. They’ve been to our website; they’re doing their research, and that’s what’s connecting with them.”

The sustainability movement, in particular, has changed the conversation about what architecture encompasses. John Cary, founder of PublicInterestDesign.org, sees this manifest in initiatives, such as LEED-ND, that actively consider social and cultural factors. Says Cary, “There’s a direct recognition that it’s not just about what goes into a building, but its output in terms of employee retention and productivity, or that well-designed low-income housing makes people feel more dignified.”

This philosophical shift goes beyond altruism, agrees Sergio Palleroni. He is the founder of BaSiC Initiative, a design/build housing collaborative for architecture students at Portland State University and the University of Texas at Austin, which attracts several hundred applicants each year. Palleroni says these values dovetail with the movement to reconnect with the local economy by supporting small farmers, craft traditions, and shop owners.

But it’s more than that. “I think there’s a sense that things aren’t well,” Palleroni says. “There’s homelessness, poor housing, and we no longer fund schools adequately in this anti-tax climate. Students used to want to see beautiful projects, but now the first question is ‘How do the finances work?’ Don’t tell me stories, tell me how to do it. It’s a huge change from when I started to teach 30 years ago.”

Indeed, there’s a growing recognition that, in order to sustain itself, socially conscious design has to be understood in strategic terms. How do recent graduates, many with large debt loads, pull it off in practice? In an era of dwindling public funds, how do the pieces fit together politically, culturally, and financially? And, perhaps most important, how might the profession support it as a career choice?

A Bigger Tent

Public interest business models take different forms. Some rising architects start or join firms that allocate resources to pro bono work (the 1-percent solution) or form hybrid practices in which traditional commissions support low-pay projects. Others work for a local community development corporation, such as Theresa Hwang at the Skid Row Housing Trust, or start a nonprofit.

The Boston-based MASS Design Group, started by 30-something partners Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks, is the current poster child for scaling up quickly to serve those with few resources. In 2006, while a student at Harvard Graduate School of Design, Murphy attended a lecture by global health pioneer Paul Farmer. “What was particularly interesting was the way he talked about housing under a rubric of health. In order to provide adequate healthcare you have to invest in official economic indicators of health, and one of them is housing,” Murphy says. “I hadn’t heard architects frame it that way, and it gelled.”

MASS Design Group (MASS stands for Model of Architecture Serving Society) was born the following year when Murphy, Ricks, and several other students teamed up with Farmer’s organization, Partners in Health, to design and build the 150-bed Butaro Hospital in Rwanda, raising third-party funds to support themselves. Now the nonprofit firm is working on doctors’ housing at the hospital, among other projects, and employs 26 full-time staff members, including a licensed architect and two people working in development. Funding for research, training, and design is split evenly between grants and donations.

Ironically, demonstrating the value of design—the Achilles heel of a chronically underpaid profession—is often easier in the community-based realm than in other sectors. “What we’ve learned in this process is that architecture, for-profit or not, is largely underfunded,” Murphy says. “We’re in a crisis of value. What public interest design has been able to do is ask the question: How do we revalue architecture for clients—by improving their mission and outcomes, not just providing a shell—so that it can be compensated appropriately?”

Like most startups, it took several years of sweat equity for MASS Design Group to turn a profit. Only in the last year and a half has Murphy been able to pay himself. But he believes deeply that the work must provide a decent living. “If public interest design is only able to be volunteer shops and moonlight projects, it can still be terrific, but it will never affect the marketplace of the built environment in a substantial way,” he says. “The goal is to live comfortably and do only work that has impact. I would call that a success.”

Raleigh, N.C., architect Bryan Bell, Assoc. AIA, founder of Design Corps and the SEED Network, agrees with Murphy’s assessment. “While other architecture firms have been laying people off, here’s Michael, who has never built a hospital before, able to demonstrate the value of design and hiring all these people,” he says. “Now Paul [Farmer] is giving him commissions and hooking him up with UNESCO and huge nonprofits.”

Other architects, too, have grasped that they need to understand complex funding streams in order to erect a bigger tent. Brent Brown, AIA, in Dallas, has developed a hinged approach that taps a variety of partners. He splits his time evenly between the nonprofit Building Community Workshop (bcWORKSHOP) he founded five years ago, which employs 25, and a position as design director of CityDesign Studio, part of city hall.

Within this model, Brown does not differentiate between public interest design and architecture, nor has he left traditional practice skills behind. All of his compensation comes from his CityDesign Studio position, which in turn occasionally hires his nonprofit to help shape investment projects ranging in scope from a single house to three square miles. The funding for bcWORKSHOP comes from foundations, nonprofits, and for-profit developers as earned income. “But we have a robust community engagement model they have to adhere to,” Brown says. “We won’t design and then go sell.”

That approach, he says, allows him to strike a balance between market interests and research and development. Either way, “it’s about people and being engaged in a place entirely in order to ground the work contextually and reveal those interests, which often become the jewel that manifests the formal design. We have grown exponentially over the last four years because of this approach.” The firm now has a second office in Brownsville, Texas, and is working in Houston.

Trickle-Up Economics

There is no shortage of architects with the ambition to do good things. In a recent AIA survey, 81 percent of firms expressed an interest in improving the quality of life in communities. But this preference has yet to have a revolutionary effect in the U.S. because there are few direct avenues for funding. “It is much trickier for firms to be 100 percent focused on nonprofit work in the States,” says Beth Miller, executive director of the Community Design Collaborative (CDC), Philadelphia. “There is almost no money, and our regulations are more complicated than anyone wants them to be.”

Palleroni, who surveys public interest practitioners around the world, says a lot of young firms in Spain, Argentina, and Taiwan get their start through open competitions for public housing, and that the U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t have such opportunities. “There’s a feeling among long-standing public interest design firms that the funding stream is gone,” he says. “With vouchers replacing HOPE VI, cities are asking developers to include affordable housing as a percent of their work.”

This issue preoccupies Peter J. Aeschbacher, associate professor of landscape architecture and architecture at Penn State University. An Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow from 2000 to 2003, he now directs Penn State’s Hamer Center for Community Design and is on sabbatical in Belgium researching the community design movement there. When the remnants of the Great Society programs were dismantled in 1974, urban renewal money that used to come through HUD went local, and it broke up a coherent program focus, he says.

But patchwork funding is only one part of the challenge. The other is the work’s nature. “The key question isn’t just, ‘How do I plug in?’ There’s a structural problem that makes this kind of work very hard to do,” Aeschbacher says. “As soon as you put in the word public, it’s broader in scope than what the architecture profession is used to. As soon as we start talking about real estate development and other kinds of entrepreneurial activities, we are out of architecture.” He adds: “The heart of public interest design is in predesign work; that’s where the brief is set. And in some ways, every minute we spend being a real estate developer deprives us of the time we could have spent applying design to public problems.”

The CDC illustrates the melting pot of possibilities for architects who design for a cross­section of citizens. The nonprofit raises funds for the first 10 percent of a project so that community-based clients can identify priorities early on. Its 1,500 volunteers, who put in a collective 500,000 hours a year, are matched with commissions that in turn provide professional development and a sense of what it takes to execute such a project. “We have two architects on staff to help queue that stuff up,” Miller says.

While volunteering won’t pay the rent, consider where research like this can lead. Not many people know that the CDC’s first affordable green infill pilot project—Sheridan Street Housing, on a sliver of vacant land in North Philadelphia—helped plant the seed for Philadelphia’s nationally acclaimed 100K Houses. Inspired by the Sheridan Street homes, designed by Interface Studio, the private sector took up the mantel. Local developer Postgreen scaled up the model into something profitable while addressing new construction in a city of 40,000 vacant lots. Since then, it has been engaged in smart infill housing in emerging markets around Center City.

The point is, community-based design can be an incubator for all kinds of innovation in the public sphere. “People who want to pursue public interest design need to be really dedicated,” Miller says. “In my mind, it shouldn’t be like Teach for America, where you’re two years in, and then out. You need to build the practice base so even if you work with great developers in the private sector, you’re still looking to build social equity and not kicking out the poor.”

There are many different models for doing public interest design, and all of them can work. Says Jonathan Rose, Hon. AIA, president of the Jonathan Rose Companies, in New York City, “The Rose Fellowship is specifically designed to be a pathway for young architects who want to have a mentor in this career path. But I’m seeing more and more opportunities. Go work for the firm that has the ethic. Start the firm that has the ethic, or work for nonprofits. If you would like your work to be integrated with your values in terms of making communities better, there has never been a stronger career path.”

Murphy agrees. “I don’t think there’s non-humanitarian architecture, just architecture, but some have lost their way,” he says. “We need to fuse this falsely bifurcated discipline into one movement.”