way way back

Delta Design Build Workshop grew from a construction company into a social impact design, build, and teaching collaborative in 2016. Post Rose Fellowship, we are excited to have continued to work in the Mississippi Delta, building equity through the built environment and working in partnership with communities and organizations that share our values.

Unfortunately, while we were busy with all that growth, writing blog posts didn’t make it to the top of my to-do list. So to end the year, we are recapping a great twelve months with a series of blog posts that highlight how we stretched our capacity, our brains, our schedules, our budgets, and our legs in 2016.

To start the list, Delta DB’s longstanding partnership with Village Life Outreach Project continued. Our design team grew to include recent University of Cincinnati DAAP graduate Jesse Larkins as a summer intern, and Richard traveled to Tanzania to wrap up construction of one medical personnel duplex, and begin a second one. These staff houses are essential to support the Roche Health Center (read more about RHC here) because the remoteness of the site means that resident doctors and nurses are required for the center to qualify to offer many important medical services and medications.

We are thrilled to continue to be a part of this team (including partners both in Cincinnati and Roche) that values health and human life so much.

Many aspects of the process that has developed over our seven years of working with UC, Roche, and Village Life is represented in the pictures below. Roche residents build masonry (fence posts and soil bricks) on site, a team of Tanzanian craftsmen lead the construction crew, women are a part of the construction team, new water and electrical infrastructure is being developed, and UC alumni, faculty, and students provide medical care. It makes me proud to be a Bearcat.

innovation and the odds

In July of 2015, a Washington Post article “An Opportunity Gamed Away” shared the story of Linda Fay Engle-Harris, a Tunica, MS resident whose housing and economic situation might have been different if the development possibilities brought by casinos had been tapped into by government and corporate leaders. Ms. Engle-Harris, like many others in rural Mississippi, lives in a dilapidated home and does not have access to affordable housing options that are safe, healthy or dignified. Though we often hear stories of Mississippi and the ways in which the deck is stacked against residents, especially Black residents, adversity also leads to ingenuity. Though a challenge is at the root of Ms. Engle-Harris’ story, in 2016, innovation is becoming the theme.

Olon Dotson, an Associate Professor of Architecture at Ball State University, was inspired by to get involved by the Post article. He contacted Ms. Engle-Harris and the two have embarked on a journey to improve Ms. Engle-Harris’ living situation, but also to engage Ball State students in important questions around affordable housing and social and environmental justice in the process.

My own work documents one story of how Katrina Cottages have been re-purposed as affordable housing after their initial deployment to the Gulf Coast. Now, Dotson and his students are digging into the question of how to utilize remaining one-bedroom (approximately 400 square foot) units that don’t fit well in the demographic of large and sometimes multi-generational households common in Mississippi’s rural environment. Students presented mid-term designs to Ms. Engle-Harris combining two of the smaller units into one large home.

Dotson’s studio is exposing students to topics that loom large in the architecture and community development fields today, such as how design can better be utilized and understood as a tool for building equity, and how the definition of the roles of the architect and the client change faced with contemporary challenges. But likely the most innovative aspect of this project is the balance that the student proposals strike between modular and site-built components. As architects seek opportunities for innovation throughout an expanded scope of project delivery, and interest in pre-fabricated, modular and manufactured housing continues to rise, this type of hybrid thinking is not yet well vetted but implies untapped potential for improving building performance and responding to client’s individual goals within the confines of a budget.

redesigning japan’s work place to welcome women

It wasn’t long ago that sustainability was an uncommon term, but the need to use resources efficiently becomes clearer with each year that the global population increases, climate change advances, and we become more connected to each other through technology. Within this context, the concept of what is excess, a bi-product, or otherwise deemed unnecessary is shifting. Recycling, upcycling, and a variety of product streams illustrate this change within society. Within my own work, the idea of discovering value where it was previously unnoticed has become a core value extending into material and building reuse, access to capital, but most importantly partnering with and leveraging the skills of traditionally marginalized communities.

Carrying this ideology with me, I was honored to be selected as a participant in a non-governmental diplomacy exchange, the Junior Chamber International of Osaka’s Outstanding Young Persons (TOYP), that took me to Osaka and Tokyo during the first week of September. As a component of this cultural experience, I was interested to see what insights Japanese culture, so well-known for attention to detail and valuing beauty, might provide in regards to not just efficient, but excellent use of resources.

The TOYP program provided a wealth of opportunities to expand my network to include Japanese acquaintances (including a family who hosted me in their home and took me to visit Tadao Ando’s Church of Light) and fellow TOYP participants, visit important landmarks (such as the Osaka Castle and the Ikutama Shrine), and experience Japanese culture (through a formal tea ceremony, outstanding culinary experiences, and the art at the Kamigata Ukiyoe Museum). Perhaps most impressive, the JCI Osaka organized an audience for TOYP participants with Their Imperial Highnesses Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako, with whom we spoke about our projects and our motivations. Through each of these experiences Japanese culture and architecture exceeded my expectations; beauty and efficiency were visible throughout.

Despite this culture of excellence, Japan struggles with many of the same issues that we grap20140531_ASC071ple with in the United States including an affordable housing stock inadequate to meet demand, and persistent gender inequality in the workplace. Within the TOYP forum, where I presented my work as a social impact architect
and builder, the focus was on how women can be more included in the work force. This issue is particularly pressing in Japan where parallel statistics: the declining national population[1] and the low participation rate of females in the labor force, are threatening future economic growth for the country. Within this context, the potential contributions of women in the business and economic sphere can no longer be overlooked in Japan. This resource has shifted from unnecessary to valuable.

As JCI Osaka makes strides toward accessing the resources of female employees and entrepreneurs, this is only one example of a shift in attitudes toward uncovering, rather than overlooking, valuable assets. Globally, it will take a broader and faster moving application of this type of thinking to have an impact on the wicked challenges that face us today if we hope to achieve goals of equitable and sustainable practices in our cultural, economic and physical environments.

[1] http://cdn.static-economist.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/original-size/images/print-edition/20140531_ASC071.png

go equity go

Theresa Hwang’s article, Designing for Equity: Using a Civil Rights Framework, is a must-read for anyone invested in the social impact design field. For both new and experienced practitioners the writing provides leadership by shining a light on the knowledge that the field has earned in recent years.

My favorite quote: “Design needs civil rights outcomes, not just functional, programmatic, and aesthetic outcomes. Design can be a strategy to redistribute power and create more opportunities for full participation in the shaping of our built environment, resulting in more equitable neighborhoods and empowered residents.”

Theresa’s article is the third installment of an eight part series on Designing for Equity. Follow them all as they are released.


Photo from Theresa’s article.

rose fellows next big thing

The 2012-2014 class of Rose Fellows reflect on their communities, their work, and their personal and professional growth in this video. As each of them speak, the power of the fellowship to bring about innovation and develop design leaders intent on social justice is clear. I’ll miss Nate Poel, Sam Beall, Mark Matel, Sam Carlsen and Ceara O’Leary, but I’m excited to see what the next big thing will be for each them.

good for the environment, good for you

Last month the US Green Building Council announced three new social equity pilot credits as a part of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. According to the USGBC website, “Over 15% of Americans live in poverty. One of our most effective tools to address inequities in the building world is through LEED. The three pilot credits are:

  1. The social equity in the project team pilot credit outlines strategies to positively affect the people connected directly with the building.
  2. The social equity in the community pilot credit rewards project teams for identifying and responding to inequities faced by people of the local community.
  3. The social equity in the supply chain pilot credit encourages project teams to use materials from suppliers or manufacturers that ensure basic human rights for their workers.”

From within the social impact design world this is an exciting development. While LEED has an international presence and can be linked to multi-million dollar industries and millions of dollars saved on energy costs, architecture that addresses social and economic inequities is a field that is still being defined. Despite this, it is clear that social impact design is a field of collaboration and to be built into the LEED process will mean opportunities for just that, more partners and bigger goals.

Congratulations to the team who made this happen: Emma Hughes, USGBC staff; Susan Kaplan, Co-chair; Joel Ann Todd, Co-chair; Heather Rosenberg; Raphael Sperry; Shawn Hesse; Brad Guy; Lance Hosey; Sara O’Mara; Alfonso Ponce and Max Zahniser.

fellowships are for the field

The training of architects has always been rigorous, but public interest design requires all of the essential architectural skills plus financing, policy, community engagement and organizing skills….Fellowships provide an alternative career path, arming these individuals with skills, resources, and network to lead the future of public interest design practice.

– Katie Swenson, Vice President of Design at Enterprise Community Partners

In a blog post on October 22nd, Katie Swenson summarized some of the ways in which fellowships are important in the development of thought leaders, a benefit that contributes to the field as much as the individual. Read all of Katie’s blog post on Impact Design Hub.

I’m also glad to see that Greenwood, MS provided a great backdrop for Katie’s picture!

KatieSwenson gwd


can customization be affordable?

Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota and an important critical mind within the field of architecture, was recently a guest on Enoch Sear’s the Business of Architecture. Per the norm with Fisher, his insights into architectural practice are framed within a broader economic picture that brings an interesting perspective. During the discussion, Fisher cites economist Jeremy Rifkin’s writing about a movement from “a mass production, mass consumption economy of the 20th century in to what he calls a mass customization economy of the 21st century.” As a concept, “mass customization” seems antithetical, but real world examples are everywhere. Smart phones are probably the most prevalent example. Each phone is mass produced and has certain similarities, but the exterior, screen display, apps, and functionality are controlled by the end user (and at this point, we wouldn’t have it any other way).

Closer to home, the Baptist Town Cottage Project has provided some opportunities to practice mass customization through a modular, affordable housing effort. Though each size floor plan is identical to the next, various interior finishes and exterior colors allow home owners a level of individualization. Additionally, each home owner was paired with a team of architects and designers during the Enterprise Rose Fellow Alumni retreat last spring. The teams spent an afternoon together, each creating a custom carpentry detail that will be built and installed as the slats between foundation piers and the railings around stairs and porches. Today, we are excited with the project progress as eight foundations are currently under construction and the Greenwood-Leflore Fuller Center for Housing was recently awarded a $10,303 grant from the GE Volunteers Foundation to construct our “mass customized” designs.

For more about this concept, listen to Sears and Fisher’s entire discussion.

a fresh coat of trust

Over thirty people attended a meeting at the new Baptist Town Community Center on Monday night, by far the most that have participated in this type of meeting since I began working in Baptist Town last year. Even better, a lot was accomplished at the meeting with the selection of an advisory board for the center, collecting ideas and volunteer commitments from residents, and celebrating a fresh coat of paint on the building’s exterior with games and snacks. It felt like an important moment in the course of this neighborhood revitalization effort.

Often when “community engagement” is discussed, the concept is sugar-coated. It is described as meetings where information flows freely and individuals rally around a common cause. The reality of this type of engagement is often far from such a utopia. Issues are rarely cut and dry, and it is difficult to develop a clear understanding of community member’s needs and hopes. Further, many engagement activities fail to attract more than a few participants. When community members do arrive, factions sometimes develop or certain individuals are antagonistic to the point of inhibiting discussion. I have experienced this many times in a variety of locations, so what made last nights meeting different? Trust.

When I arrived in Baptist Town much had been promised and resources were aligned to deliver on these promises, but there was no one in place to oversee actual implementation. We were able to complete infrastructure, park, and signage projects in 2013, and this went a long way toward building trust within the neighborhood, but it’s been months since these projects were completed.

Last week, a group of painters from Resurrection Catholic Church in Wayne, Ill. teamed up with Sherwin Williams to repaint the building we had newly purchased for the community center. From a faded and scratched blue to a brilliant red (selected by community members through a voting process), the building has new life. I think that the trust we build by making good on promises is the primary factor in garnering both the participation and the communal spirit of meetings like the one we held last night. This is encouraging as we prepare to break ground for five of the Cottages (at last), but also a reminder that for the communities we engage with as social impact designers, regular, visible signs of our work are necessary, no matter how small or what form they take. Otherwise it’s perceived as just a lot of talk.