People and planet (and profit, too).

March 29, 2011 at 10:47 pm Leave a comment

Another recurrence at the Structures for Inclusion conference was a sense of uncertainty around economic value. In the sometimes bleeding heart field of public interest design, it’s regrettably common to find people that are so enthusiastic about making a difference that they’ve failed to consider how to financially support (or even gain from) their efforts in a sustainable manner. As you may know, I’m a big believer in making a living and a difference simultaneously, but I also readily admit that that’s not yet a straightforward process.

image by Christian Guthier

Andrew Freear is the director of Auburn’s Rural Studio program, and he touched on a few unique financial components of their ongoing $20K House project during his presentation at Structures. Part of the students’ research has been determining the cost of living in a $20K House; the current estimate is approximately $608/month, including the mortgage. (The studio has also reached out to local banks to see what can be done to further improve the mortgage rates.) Another interesting, and yet to be answered, challenge is what to do when a $20K House is so well designed and built that it’s appraised for more than $20K. When that happens, can you still justify selling it for $20K? And if you sell it for the higher rate, how could you most effectively use that profit?

Either way, part of Rural Studio’s work is not to give the product away for free. Quilian Riano, co-founder of the critical research and design collaborative DSGN AGNC and studio professor at Parsons, also noted that the most effective public interest designers are not merely providing charity. By selling products, services, systems, or anything else to a community (along with a loan structure that will also generate economic activity, for example) you can improve the impact of your work both on your beneficiaries and on yourself.

dusk photo of Windsor Super Market, a farmers’ market structure designed and built by students in the Studio H program

Emily Pilloton, founder of Project H Design, also applies the converse in their new design/build Studio H program in Bertie County, NC. While the program is primarily educational, offering high school and college course credit to juniors in high school, the students are also paid for work done during the summer (when they build their projects that have been designed and workshopped throughout the previous months). While the students are obviously beneficiaries of the program, the value of their design and construction work can also be grasped that much better with the additional perk of a paycheck.

March 29’s daily design idea is design for people, planet, and profit (and document your contributions to all three).

This is post 4 of 7 re-capping Structures for Inclusion 10+1, a conference promoting the design of socially, economically, and environmentally healthy architecture.


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“Human capital is one of the best assets we have.” The experts of public interest design.

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