Is it Good for Humans? Lessons and Questions from Structures for Inclusion, New York



While moss isn’t explicitly a public interest design firm, we all definitely try to keep a finger on the pulse of that community.  We helped spearhead the People Spot project here in Chicago, designing the first parklet which is re-installed every spring here in Andersonville.  Team member, Lety Murray, has served on the board of Chicago Architecture for Humanity.  All of our interests stray from the pure design of buildings to the idea that design can be used for good at all scales of our local and global environment.

We’re feeling particularly fired up about the potential of design used for GOOD on the heels of this year’s Structures for Inclusion conference which took place last weekend at Parsons The New School for Design in New York.  We sent a delegation (of one) to the conference and are bubbling over with the new and renewed ideas that came out of it.

One of the key events at Structures for Inclusion every year is the presentation of awards to half a dozen projects which qualify for the rigorously selected Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) award.  This concept is (rather obviously) inspired by the LEED program but strives to widen focus from the environmental to the human community as well.

SEED VISION: “Every person should be able to live in a socially, economically and environmentally healthy community,”

Several of this year’s SEED winners were particularly inspiring speakers.  Here are some highlights from the presentations:

Manica Football for Hope Centre

manica football centre

Darren Gill of Architecture for Humanity described the Manica Football for Hope Centre which is one of 20 such centers constructed across Africa in the wake of 2010 World Cup (soccer) held in South Africa.  The intention is to use the positive draw of a youth football center as an entry point into communities and then provide services at the same facility to provide classrooms, kitchens, toilets, and health centers (particularly addressing the AIDS epidemic).  He attributed the success of the project to collaborative design process and the motivation of the community members to contribute – local workers set up and ran a mudbrick manufacturing setup which they are now using to sell materials to other projects in the region.

QUESTION: How do we create dignity?  How do we engage everyone?

the Potty Project

SFI notes venn

Julie King of the Potty Project has been working in Savdo Gheura community of New Delhi where there had been an 88% open defecation rate caused by the lack of available sanitation facilities.  The community toilets provided by the state were available one per every 250 women in the community.   This isn’t an issue traditionally handled by architects, but according to King,

“As an architect I have come to realize how irrelevant [architects] can be to the design of cities”

After she identified the issue she wanted to work on, creating a large central waste holding tank that could be connected up to toilets in the homes of community members, she worked hard to both inspire government officials and work closely with the community.  She never brought CAD drawings to the site, finding that sketching on a white board while talking to people got much more interactive results.  The end result is a decentralized sanitation project which is managed and maintained by local women.

REMEMBER: “The difference between a slum and an italian hill town is the number of iterations it has lived through.  Good sanitation is key [to sticking around long enough to develop those iterations].”  

King sees her role in the project as a mediator between technical experts “the people who understand that gravity works” and the NGOs and community organizations who know how to work with in the community.

Can City

Alex Groves of Studio Swine presented their innovation for creating a value added product from the waste products of Sao Paolo.  In a city of 20 million with more high rises in the world, recycling is carried out by small independent workers (who can resemble bag people and are being targeted by the mayor who thinks they look tacky).  The Can City project reflects the fact that “there is no waste in nature” and seeks low tech but high beauty solutions to repurpose the cans.  WATCH THIS VIDEO and appreciate their clever process.

Communidad Ecologica Saludable

comunidad ecologica saludable

Ben Spencer of University of Washington presented the Communidad Ecologica Saludable project – a collaboration with informal communities on the outskirts of Lima, Peru.  The desert city of 9 million people with almost no annual rainfall and water supplies predicted to dry up entirely there is  drastic need to come up with alternate water solutions.  Working with pilot projects in Lima and testing improvements in Washington state they have been piloting a water collection program which harvests moisture from the near constant fogs in the mountainous region.

QUESTION: Do we spend too much time focusing on the built environment at the expense of the occupied environment.

Other Lessons from the Weekend

Mindy Fullilove, MD, a psychiatrist who lectures at Parsons emphasized the importance of creating continuity for communities – not displacing low income neighborhoods at the whim of urban planning concerns – and urged us to take the Planning to Stay Pledge repeating, “What is it about this place that draws us here?  What could we add to this place that will keep us here?”  She reminded her audience of architects and designers:

REMINDER: “There is no empty space in an American city.  So we can never walk into any place and say ‘there’s nothing here.’  We have to work WITHIN the existing frameworks.”  

Miguel Robles-Duran, also of the New School, warned against the long tradition of Architects  comfortable working only with people at the top, those who can provide us with comfort and power.  He highlighted and urged us to reject the ideas of Renaissance theorist and architect Leon Battista Alberti who admonished architects to, “concern yourselves with none but persons of the highest rank and quality […] not only because the world has generally a higher opinion of the taste and judgment of great men, but also because I would have the architect always ready and plentifully supplied with everything that is necessary […].”   When put like that it does sound a pretty craven and offensive.

Nootan Bharini and Scott Cryer, founders of Chicago’s own AIA Community Interface Committee, discoursed on the pros and cons of the Pro Bono debate: are pro bono projects advertising the idea of design and finding foot-in-the-door funding for future projects or simply allowing larger firms to poach potential paid work from smaller ones.  They described their inspiration to research the history of Public Interest Design within the AIA and underlined the importance of bringing social issue under the umbrella of issues designers address.

ISSUE: Architects don’t have a mechanism for providing COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT.  We have so little experience with going beyond the scope of “doing what the client asks.”  We need to expand our definition of the stakeholders.

All of these projects circle back to the basic understanding that good design IS synonymous with sustainability because a building that lasts, that is used and loved by its community, is the best possible return on the investment of effort and materials used in its construction.  To summarize this year’s conference we turn back to one of the most sticky concepts of SFI 10+1 (held right here in Chicago in 2011).  Sergio Palleroni of BaSiC Initiative presented the conference with this flow chart he uses to check his ideas before executing them:

SFI notes sketches