Saying hello to Public Interest Design
An architect’s visit to the nucleus of all conversation surrounding socially conscious design.
The Structures for Inclusion Conference, 2016
A few months ago, I didn’t know what Public Interest Design was.
After resigning from a position at a commercial landscape architecture and master-planning firm, I found myself seeking something.
But seeking what exactly?
Seeking more than the many hours spent at the hands of AUTOCAD and Photoshop, that offered me little or no direct contact with the persons for whom I was designing. I began to question the several (seven to be precise) academic years I had spent designing utopian and righteous work, that was in sharp contrast with the way I had practiced over the last few months. During this time, It felt, like many young designers, that I was miles away from contributing to society or engaging with a community.
Browsing the Internet, and writing e-mails to academics and practitioners in the field, including pioneers like Bryan Bell of DesignCorps and the SEED Network, gave me my first real insight into the Public Interest Design (PID) movement and designers were sharing their learning and experiences.
This is what I learnt:
Public Interest Design is an umbrella term that describes a range of work done by architects and other designers, in places and communities which would not normally benefit from their services.
The financial constraints of such clients are overridden via pro-bono or reduced-fee work by the designers and occasionally aided by sponsorship or support from other organizations or forces.
Above all, the design process itself is community and user - driven. PID often involves the contribution of resources from the community itself- both in the form of conceptual input and labor.
Learning about Public Interest Design was like a breath of fresh air for me. I had no clue at that point about how I could find my way in, and begin to do work like this myself. Yet, I felt empowered by the very knowledge that such work and such unique design practices existed.
A few days later, I discovered that Structures for Inclusion, the annual Conference for Public Interest Design (now in its 16th Year), was scheduled to be held in North Carolina (not too far from my Texas whereabouts) and in just a few short weeks.
I took the plunge and signed up to attend. I told myself that there was no better way to learn about this emerging revolution in design and above all, to discover if I could find a place for myself in it someday
The Burns Auditorium, NC State College of Design, Raleigh-Durham. March 19-20, 2016
Day 1: Learning about the three Ps.
A chilly North Carolina spring morning welcomed a large turnout of practicing designers and students to the NC State College of design. In the company of accomplished designers and enthusiasts, a high proportion of whom were less than five years out of school, I felt the same rush I had experienced during my graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. It was a feeling of immense possibility and being surrounded by a wealth of energy and ideas.
On the agenda for the first day of the conference was the presentation of SEED awards to six prize winners for their ground-breaking projects in the field of socially conscious design. Several panel discussions featuring eminent speakers were additionally planned, that explored and questioned (to my mind), the three Ps of the Public Interest Design phenomenon--- Project, Practice and Process.
Over the course of the day, I saw eye-opening work done by my peers in diverse landscapes such as Rwanda, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, The Rio Grande Valley, Chicago and more.
More than just offering overviews of their work and award winning projects, the designers recognized by the SEED awards, took time out to explain the processes they had followed. They shared with the audience the manner in which they had slowly, and incrementally worked on these initiatives for years. They spoke about how they had begun with a limited palette of local construction resources and skill sets, generating architecture in remote areas and creating unique material and educational solutions.
Unlike design school, the conversation here was equally about how to navigate the ‘people’ portion of a project—the communities, the stakeholders, the financiers and others.
Some projects that left a lasting impact on me were Marwen, by Chicago-based Wheeler Kearns Architects and The Ilima School, by Mass Design Group ( See pins below ).
Perhaps the most valuable Panel of the day, for me personally, was a session titled ‘Activist Architecture Firms’. Four design firms, with projects in the Public Interest Design space, talked about how they made their practices and projects WORK. This discussion was all about their motivations, the inner financial workings and the business and practice models that allowed them to devote their time and energy to projects at a reduced fee or pro-bono, and still run their firms successfully!
Joy Meek, from Wheeler Kearns Architects shared that her firm had avoided working on speculative or developer-driven projects. This had prevented the organization from working on projects where there was little knowledge of, or contact with the end user. This approach also enabled Wheeler Kearns to create quality and thoughtful work, that was in sync with what their clients needed.
Stefan Schwarzkopf from Inscape Publico and Inscape Studio explained the unique business model of his non-profit architecture firm. A non-profit architecture firm model is new to the world of design and everyone was keen to learn how the firm functioned.
Inscape Publico offers schematic-design services to organizations at a very reduced fee, helping them to reach the stage where they can pitch for funding of their projects based on presentation-worthy designs. Stefan’s firm also has a traditional architecture practice component—Inscape studio, which takes on work beyond schematic design and on to construction. This pairing of pro-bono and market-rate fee allows the firm to run successfully.
Another valuable discussion on “Inter-cultural competencies” yielded a better understanding of how socially conscious architecture created for diverse communities could serve local needs, without imposing the style or values of the foreign architectural firm. The work by Mass Design group, deeply ingrained in multiple contexts in West Africa, was a very appropriate example of inter-cultural competencies.
Mass Design Group’s Andrew Brose talked about the many instances, where during the projects in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the design, material palette and construction solutions had risen entirely from the site. Interestingly, several construction techniques and new compound materials were born during testing by locals involved in the projects and using only the limited natural materials available near the site. The Gheskio Cholera Treatment center ( see pin below), was crafted from locally crafted metal-work panels which allow patients to have the ventilation they need while creating a more visually appealing environment. Given my interest in materials, this led me to one of the biggest takeaways of the day:
- Public Interest Design appears to have a unique connection with innovation in materials. The proverb “ Necessity is the mother of invention” holds true, forcing designers in diverse and remote contexts to create design and construction solutions from materials like sandbags, wood bark chunks, earth, local metal work, and banana leaves to name a few.
- Another big takeaway came from observing the ways in which designers were building carefully and in small increments. The success of projects under the banner of Public Interest Design seems to be equally dependent on persistence (think long timelines with limited funding) and restraint. Firms are building carefully and thoughtfully on projects, using project funds to deliver the highest impact to users, even when that means building less.
Day 2: Education and Feedback
Naturally, after practice, the conversation turned to education.
This day of the conference was devoted to gathering thoughts and opinions from attendees and speakers, particularly about Public Interest Design Education. While this was not the awe-inspiring experience of the day before, it was vital nevertheless to assimilating all the knowledge and ideas that had been collected by bringing together practitioners, educators and enthusiasts.
Informal discussions and panel deliberations on education indicated the importance of integrating socially conscious design into the curriculum of all design education. Eminent speakers pointed out that while there were several Masters and Graduate certificate programs in PID being offered at universities across the country, the majority of designers, both in the field and at school, did not have access to some of the skills needed to practice Public Interest Design successfully.
Grant writing, financing and fund-raising, and community engagement skills are just some of the tools that future practitioners in this field would need, for which training was currently missing. Another, less tangible skill to build would be the ability for designers to feel like partners in, or members of the community they were serving, rather than outsiders.Though it was short, this second day served to unite everyone who was attending the conference and create a sense of kinship and common interest in the future of Public Interest Design.
I left Raleigh with much food for thought and a wish to scout for all opportunities to give to Public Interest Design. Going forward I will focus on how I, as an individual can meaningfully contribute my time and skills to this movement.
I hope that my effort in acquiring a brief education on Public Interest Design, will help you too. I am looking forward to sharing my learning and experiences with like-minded fellow architects and designers like you, and excited about what you think and believe.