Architecture for Change Summit by Gisela Garrett

October 21, 2010 at 10:36 am Leave a comment

Re-blogged from Ecohaven Project.
Written by Jennifer Hoffman.
Originally posted October 21, 2010.
Copyright Ecohaven Project 2010.

“This past September I had the pleasure of meeting New York-based Gisela Garrett at the Architecture for Change Summit held @ UIC.  I loved Gisela’s series she wrote about Public Interest Architecture in response to the summit for her blog, Daily Design Idea + asked if she would write a piece for Ecohaven Project.  We look forward to future collaborations with Gisela – check out her bio on our Collaborators page. Enjoy!

In 2008, Metropolis Magazine announced “a new breed of architect has emerged.” Anna Muoio of Continuum, an innovation and design consultancy with offices everywhere from Boston to Seoul, is quoted in Change Observer this past June as saying: “We are finding increasingly that young design talent cares and wants to work at a place where they can feel and see the impact they have in the world.” I consider myself a young design talent striving to be part of this new breed; and I very much believe that designers need to be considering the social impact of their projects – much the same way that they would consider the environmental impact.

This outlook led me to the 2010 Architecture for Change Summit, held at the University of Illinois-Chicago in September. The summit’s description was more of a rally cry: “join architects, developers and affordable housing activists to address the affordable housing crisis.” Appropriately, and very refreshingly, almost all of the speakers focused on actionable strategies for change.

One such speaker was Maurice Cox, whose career includes being an architecture professor at UVA, former Director of Design at the NEA, and former mayor of Charlottesville VA, in addition to leading a few community-oriented design and planning firms along the way. A major highlight in Cox’s career is his work with the rural village of Bayview on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The project started with providing access to clean water but ultimately resulted in a multi-year, multi-million dollar community redevelopment project. A strong advocate of participatory design, Cox discussed Bayview and his other work in a way that encouraged the shift from client-focused to community-focused design. Clearly much of the audience agreed – one of the most repeated lines of the summit was a South African proverb that Cox shared in his presentation: Nothing about us, without us, is for us.

Completed houses in Bayview, by David Tulloch

Equally eager to listen and engage with communities, though more likely to go a bit rogue in the process, were speakers Dan Pitera and Sergio Palleroni. Pitera, Executive Director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center and professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, introduced us to a few projects, including the guerrilla and admittedly permit-less FireBreak project. FireBreak “reclaims public space within the burned houses of Detroit” and brings “attention to structures in need of demolition.” This goal is achieved by wrapping abandoned houses with everything from hay to plastic wrap, among other design actions. While cities like Detroit currently have daunting revitalization goals, Pitera encouraged the audience to “insert at the scale in which you can engage,” whatever and wherever that might be.

In-progress photo of ”HouseBreath” from FireBreak

Sergio Palleroni, co-founder and Director of the BaSiC Initiative and professor at Portland State University, definitely agrees with having an active and optimistic approach, even admitting to being known for “quixotic behavior.” The Alley Flat Initiative is one of Palleroni’s numerous educational design/build projects that I admire, and it also happens to be a project where his work “in the margins” became unexpectedly high profile almost overnight. Luckily Palleroni is experienced at working out solutions relatively quickly and using the resources at hand (see projects like the Katrina Furniture Project and Solar Kitchen), qualities that he is committed to passing on to his students. Another key lesson comes from Plato, who Palleroni referenced at a recent Structures for Inclusion conference: you don’t become a citizen unless you act.

Rendering from the Ally Flat Initiative

The final group program at Architecture for Change was the presentation ‘Affordability Through Preservation.’ While historic preservation didn’t start as a community building tool, it has absolutely become one, in part because of the smart usage and re-usage of available resources. Rather than demolishing in order to rebuild from scratch, there is increasing support for renovating and revitalizing existing structures. Royce Yeater, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, spoke broadly about how the rehabilitation of historic homes can be a viable solution for affordable housing. One of many reasons is the ability to renovate existing structures and therefore minimize materials costs. Another is the opportunity to minimize disruption of the existing neighborhood fabric, including the inconveniences of the construction process and the mixed consequences of introducing new buildings to a historical area.

John McDermott, of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, and Charles Leeks, of Chicago’s Neighborhood Housing Services, both spoke about specific Chicago neighborhoods that are relying on historic preservation as a way to support affordable housing initiatives. McDermott shared the history and the current political dynamics surrounding the Julia Lathrop Homes, one of the nation’s first public housing developments. Uniquely, the Lathrop development has never had market-rate housing and has also never had any new construction projects throughout its entire history (though that may be about to change). Leeks spoke about North Lawndale, an area filled with historic “greystones,” an astonishing 1,714 of which have been documented in North Lawndale. Leeks and McDermott both touched on how the process of formal historic documentation can garner new support and stakeholders, and can therefore be a fantastic tool for revitalization in a neighborhood.

North Lawndale’ s greystones, photo by Eric Young Smith

Community-oriented architecture firm David Baker + Partners is also interested in the preservation of resources, though their stance is firmly rooted in the environmental and sustainable end of the spectrum. The firm’s video “Better Living Through Density”, shared by Baker during his presentation at Architecture for Change, defends this point by showing how well-designed residential density dramatically reduces environmental impact. One of my favorite moments (located at 2:04) is the comment that dense living requires less stuff but offers more for both the individual and the environment. I completely agree with Baker that density is a positive in urban environments, but I should admit that I really enjoy living in New York City, taking the subway daily, and being friends with my neighbors. As Richard Sciortino, the self-declared “developer in the room,” noted during his turn to play devil’s advocate: “density requires demand.” That said, Baker also pointed out that once you make something a standard, it generally gets cheaper to do, which can help previously undesirable construction options become more attractive. The cheaper-by-standardization model has certainly proved helpful in eco-friendly construction (see Philadelphia’s 100K house for one of my favorite examples) and could probably be applied to denser models for living as well.

DB+P’ s stunning and mostly affordable-unit g2 Lofts

While numerous inspiring case studies were presented, some speakers explored the housing crisis from a big picture standpoint as well. For example, Daniel Glenn of environmental works led the program “Too costly for affordability,” which focused on the causes of high costs in an affordable housing project as well as on the diversity of unofficial or illegal, but very real, affordable housing worldwide. The fact is that squatter settlements make up most of the world’s affordable housing stock, with many others living in nomadic shelters, cars, storage spaces, and on friend’s couches. Why then, asked Glenn, is there no cultural or legal standard for these types of housing in America’s longterm private housing market? In an effort to help alleviate the current housing crisis, should we consider providing more at a somewhat lower quality instead of less at the current standards?

Squatter settlement in Durban by Flickr user Easy Traveler

Glenn also pointed out that a typical affordable housing project generally takes 5x the funding sources and 2x the time to complete as a market-rate housing project. So even with low materials costs, there is significant time and money used in supporting fundraising, legal, and other administrative efforts. This was reaffirmed by panel member Peter Landon, an architect and professor who noted that “We don’t build affordable housing. We build housing that’s made affordable through subsidy.” Recognizing the administrative burden of getting those subsidies, they asked: how can we change the business structures and, in particular, streamline funding in order to reduce these soft costs?

Westhaven Park Phase IIB by Landon Bone Baker Architects, a mixed-income development including 45 affordable units.

Bryan Bell, founder and executive director of Design Corps, also asked some hard questions and encouraged the audience to take important (non-design) action. Bell made reference to the work of Howard Gardner, whose research spans topics such as ethics, the human mind, and educational performance. One gem from Gardner’s website is “the key to good work is responsibility—taking ownership for one’s work and its wider impact,” an idea that Bell highlighted while urging architects to continue practicing good design but also to articulate its definition. The SEED Network, established in major part through Bell’s efforts, is definitely a great step in that direction.

Design Corps’ migrant-farmworker housing project, from Metropolis Magazine courtesy of Bryan Bell

Casius Pealer, Regional Director-Gulf Coast for Builders of Hope, also focused on the importance of setting our profession’s standards. With advanced degrees and public interest experience in both architecture and law, Pealer spoke with conviction on the need to get architecture’s Code of Ethics & Professional Conduct up to speed with that of law or medicine. He then opened up the floor by asking if access to design is as important as access to legal representation or medical treatment – leading to one of the most dynamic audience discussions of the entire summit.

Builders of Hope relocating a donated house originally set for demolition, from the Wall Street Journal courtesy of Builders of Hope

Pealer’s kick-off slide read “The design has yet to begin, but the architecture is already there.” While certainly appropriate literally, he also meant it in a broader sense. What both Pealer and Bell seemed to entreat is that, as a profession, we need to start taking thoughtful ownership of our work and its impact. This sense of expanded responsibility in our role as designer was a subtext of every presentation at the Architecture for Change Summit; an idea that is wonderfully summed up by a quote displayed prominently on the website of David Baker + Partners: “looking good only counts if it does good, too.”

This post was adapted from Daily Design Idea for Ecohaven Project from a series of posts on Public Interest Architecture.”

>> October 21’s daily design idea is in collaborations, the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts. Share your ideas and other creative resources!

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