the value proposition of design

All of this…demonstrates the tremendous ROI of architectural fees. Indeed, while most clients view fees as an expense that they need to minimize, they should be putting architecture fees on the savings side of the ledger, as an investment that brings a handsome return.

This is a quote from Thomas Fisher, professor and dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, in the article “Value Added” in the March edition of Architect Magazine. This intelligent and succinct article focuses on the part architects have played and will play in saving billions of dollars through reduced energy consumption in buildings as a direct indication of the value added by the architect. Fisher goes on to discuss the ways in which we, as a field, make it difficult for ourselves to associate a clear value with our process and our products. The article ends on a positive note regarding a Minnesota initiative to commit to research and demonstration of the architect’s value proposition.

value_addedThe commitment by this consortium is good news, but it’s also a call to action. As architects, particularly public interest architects, we should all be measuring our impacts and building a resume that not only demonstrates our design skills, but also ties them to concrete examples of value added. Linking architects to energy use savings, improved health (particularly in affordable and senior housing), occupancy rates, increased sales tax revenue, increased property value, and other metrics provides an avenue to answering long-standing questions in the architecture field regarding legitimizing design fees for both public and private projects.



painting the town square

Work began on the CREATE: New Houlka project on Tuesday. The design, which delineates a walking path, bike path, and parking areas around the historic downtown square, is the result of a design-impact seminar I am co-teaching with Leah Faulk Kemp through MSU’s Carl Small Town Center. Students learned about and implemented community engagement activities throughout the first few weeks of the semester and then worked together to design a response to the needs and aspirations expressed by residents.

Based on community feedback, the primary goal of the project became to attract both local and non-local people (walkers, bikers, drivers, and festival go-ers) to the square. In particular, residents and community leaders hope to attract bicyclists from the new Tanglefoot Trail (a 43.6 mile Rails to Trails conversion that opened in October 2013) to visit New Houlka, even if just for a spin around the newly painted square.

Here’s a link to the video of some news coverage we got yesterday!

gas station information

In a community as small as New Houlka, MS (population 617), it can be difficult to plan a community engagement activity that more than a handful of people get involved in. The CREATE: New Houlka class was struggling with not only this, but we also needed an introduction to this rural community. Last Sunday, the students found a way to solve both problems.

First, they identified a place that is a hub of public activity, and then researched when the most people visit. The answer: David’s One Stop after church on Sunday. David’s is more than a gas station, offering hot plates, homemade desserts, and tables to stay and mingle. David’s welcomed us to set up outside of their store on what turned out to be one a beautiful, warm day.

Students researched methods of community engagement a formulated a plan in class. Each developed a component of the engagement and on Sunday we had a large arrow that said “Tell us about Houlka.”, a map with push pins, a string of questions on colorful paper, and cookies to help draw people in to share their thoughts. For two hours, a constant stream of welcoming residents shared their ideas about what makes Houlka unique, the assets, the eyesores, and more.

Students also drew on some of the work of artist Candy Chang, and created “tablecloths” that we left at David’s to get responses beyond Sunday’s event (pictured below).

Throughout the day, a few themes emerged. Houlka is hopeful though it’s population and economy continue to shrink. Houlka is welcoming; residents were not skeptical of us and they are optimistic about how the new Tanglefoot Trail could impact downtown. The residents of Houlka support each other. Benefits for residents who have had a misfortune are held as often as biweekly.

A big thank you to the residents of Houlka for their warm welcome. Our class is excited to partner with you, and deliver a project that reflects the spirit of your community. Visit our facebook page for updates throughout the semester.

“The Heart of Hale County” gets to the root of the question

You’ve heard about the Rural Studio, and Hale County. Maybe you’ve even watched the movie Citizen Architect, but you should also read this article if you are interested in equity, design, and change. Rob Walker’s The Heart of Hale County, featured this month in Fast Company magazine, takes an in depth look at the social innovation work that has been taking place in west-central Alabama for the last two decades. But the writing is relevant to change makers working around the globe. In addition to details about work in Hale County, the article takes readers through a conversation about the most pressing questions in social impact design and architecture. Can outsiders be effective change makers in an unfamiliar place? How is success defined within the field of public interest architecture? Walker’s writing vacillates from triumphant to daunted, taking the reader along on his journey. In the end, what remains are questions, which is apt for a field trying to define itself within the context of today’s most complex and variable challenges.

Walker writes, “It’s worth celebrating design’s social successes, but it’s also worth openly assessing the limits. The potential of design to enable change has been established; maybe the promising paths forward involve the humility to recognize that lasting change is harder than it looks, and the willingness to openly debate and disagree on how to integrate differing design approaches into more wide-ranging solutions with a range of partners.”

at rural studio 8_13

photo credit Richard Elliott, during our visit to the Rural Studio, August 2013

hands on at MSU

CREATE class poster

Next week I will begin co-teaching my first architecture course at Mississippi State’s CAAD (College of Art, Architecture and Design). In this community engagement seminar sponsored by the CREATE Foundation, Leah Faulk Kemp and I will guide students through the process of engaging residents of the small town of New Houlka. As in previous years, the class will wrap up with a document in which students propose design solutions based on the goals and needs articulated by the community. In addition, this year’s class will implement one small scale project, giving students experience in the surprises that come with project implementation.

Also at CAAD, the Collaborative Studio ended the fall semester with a ribbon cutting. Students completed construction of two bus shelters for the Mississippi Band of Choctow Indians. Their work is a continuation of CAAD’s relationship with this community built upon a previous design-build bus shelter and various design and consultation services provided by CSTC since 2009. Read more about the class and the bus shelters here.

MSU Collaborative Studio A13

stake holders


Greenwood Utilities continues to provide excellent support for the Baptist Town project even in the muddy conditions shown here. The stakes show construction boundaries and light locations for a pocket park, designed by landscape designer Brantley Snipes, to be constructed in May with students from the Carl Small Town Center and Harvard’s Kennedy School.

As we squished through the mud today, I thought of how individuals and organizations can choose to be flexible, helpful contributors to a project, or introduce difficulties and limit progress. I have encountered both here in Greenwood, but in either case they provide lessons in how to support rather than hinder projects.

a meeting without an agenda

flyer image

Those of us working in the field of social impact design attempt to enhance neighborhoods, introduce design where it is lacking, and reduce social and economic inequities. Though fellows work hard to serve the public and engage communities, the road to realize projects is often rocky, with the interests of various groups and individuals coming into conflict with each other, the project, or the way in which it is being implemented.

In recent weeks, local politics threw a road block in the way of the housing portion of the Baptist Town neighborhood revitalization project in Greenwood, Mississippi . The road block may have been posturing or it may have been the result of poor communication, but in either case, mud was slung and tempers rose over a deed issue. Diplomacy eventually won out, and the project only suffered slight delays. In the midst of navigating this sensitive situation, a community meeting unlike any I had previously experienced was a refreshing reminder of the big picture goals of this neighborhood wide project.

The Kids Only Community meeting on April 20th involved chalk, markers and imaginations. Neighborhood kids were invited to the playground (currently a basketball court, swings and a few spring rockers), to share their ideas of what could exist on the site. Slides and monkey bars were top recommendations, but we also asked students how this park could incorporate their favorite subject in school (The overwhelming response was math!). Project H’s LearningLandscapes served as a great precedent that allowed both the kids and the adults who helped collect feedback understand how a playground could be a fun and active space, while providing opportunities for learning and fit within a limited budget.

We collected dozens of drawings and photographed the chalk art that spread across the basketball court throughout the meeting. Kids were excited to share their ideas, especially when we asked them to dream up things they hadn’t seen before. An addition to the swing set that would make it look like a dragon, an unlimited supply of sidewalk chalk, and hills to roll down were just a few of the ideas we took away.

Though this playground is a smaller scale and less contentious project than the twenty-six home affordable housing effort that is taking place a block away, the enthusiasm and flexibility that the kids of Baptist Town shared with me on Saturday will be a reminder of the best way to approach future challenges as they arise.


looking for something?


The first Public Interest Design week happened in Minneapolis last week. As one attendee put it, “I found my people.” If you are new to community led architecture, this post is for you. These conferences allow an open format for discourse about architecture, development, design, and the way we work to progress.

The field can sometimes be frustrating because it is difficult to know what is happening in the field and how to take part when so much of the work is through grassroots efforts. The program for last weeks conference documents many opportunities in the field – educational, fellowships, jobs, papers, etc. Most of this is at the end of the document below, so go apply for something new and exciting.

8 days a week


American Public Media’s Marketplace segment yesterday, High Rents, Low Income, included a succinct segment describing the gap between what is an acceptable hourly wage in the US compared to monthly rent rates. The two don’t match up, and something has to give. The options individuals and families are left with include skimping on essentials like health insurance and healthy food, or as a last resort, homelessness. At the community level, businesses and lawmakers should take note of who is leaving and when, taking with them their contribution to the local economy as well as the social fabric.

Some may argue that such problems are a result of laziness, but as the map above shows, 8 days a week still wouldn’t be enough to cover the rent at minimum wage in any state.

boston orientation


This weekend the new class of Enterprise Rose Fellows had orientation in Boston. Getting to know new friends, explore Boston (Thank you for the great tour, Mark!), and understand the nationwide organization that will support us (and us them) is helping me wrap my mind around the work that I will be doing over the next few years – and who to call when I need help.