Archive for the ‘architecture + design’ Category

Design For Good: The Controversy

Written by Lee Schneider, Director of SHELTER

The Haiti SOFTHOUSE is described by its creators as “a flexible and sustainable approach to shelter that provides immediate transitional housing.” It’s steel-framed housing with fabric on top. The SOFTHOUSEgroup, which is behind the project, reports that it’s currently working in conjunction with The Rural Haiti Project to deploy the project in Haiti. In other words, they are outsiders trying as best they can to work with locals to create a project that is relevant and which fills a need.

That’s not always so easy.

Bruce Nussbaum, a design commentator, recently asked in his blog if humanitarian design might be the new imperialism. It’s a good bomb-throwing concept that has people talking. Certainly, Nussbaum has shined a big flashlight on the problem of outsiders coming in with design solutions that locals don’t always want. Why don’t locals want these solutions? Well, they don’t always employ locals. They don’t always work well with local infrastructure. There’s a general grumbling to the effect that “what makes these outsiders believe they can just come in and solve our problems?”

It’s a question that sometimes comes up for Nathaniel Corum, a self-described nomadic architect who has just started working with Architecture for Humanity on Haiti reconstruction. Corum has recently worked on a Navajo reservation, where he designed and helped residents build solar-powered homes made from straw bales. To protest the wasteful use of plastic, he’s made a 130-day voyage across the Pacific Ocean in a boat called Plastiki. It was made from 12,500 recycled plastic bottles and he designed the cabin.

As quoted by the Times, he answered the charge of design imperialism like this:

“The richer the dialogue you have with the people you’re working with the better,” he said. “I spend lots of time with them, and learn so much, especially from people living close to the land. Humanitarian design isn’t the new imperialism, it’s the new compassion.”

Many would agree that compassion as a design concept is a good idea. But what about execution? Another story. Tell that to the people who are working – and failing – to get the One Laptop Per Child design into India. The mission is to put inexpensive laptop or notebook computers into the hands of children in developing countries. But it hasn’t worked in India – because the Indian educational establishment has blocked the one-laptop movement. They know there are problems with their schools, they say, but the problems are not technological. The system is dysfunctional for other reasons. So they don’t need a technological solution like a laptop.

Designing for good can start with good intentions – but for those who practice it, deploying good design in the field requires diplomacy and a truly personal sort of compassion.

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Michelle Kaufmann: An Architect Driving Change

Written by Lee Schneider | Director of SHELTER

Michelle Kaufmann is a pioneer in the prefab housing movement. You might think that happened because she started a factory to manufacture architect-designed homes, or because she has showcased full-sized replicas of her homes in prominent museums like the National Building Museum in Washington, or the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Those are big achievements and do identify her as an innovator and a culture shaker. But, for me, what makes her a pioneer and a leader is something else.

She is making sustainability not only a way to build, but also a state of mind.

“It’s not just looking at using eco materials and choosing production and systems that are energy efficient and can save water,” she said in interview. “It really goes beyond that by thinking about outdoor spaces as much as indoor spaces. It’s thinking about what makes a sustainable community that goes beyond the materials themselves. It’s about shared resources.”

This is a holistic view of architecture and design, and it makes good sense. No building exists by itself – there’s a relationship to the people who use it, to the land it is placed on, to the resources it uses.

She has a project going in Denver called aria that illustrates this. The construction is prefab, which means that much of the construction is happening off-site, in a factory, where the homes are put together in a modular fashion, then brought onto the site and completed there.

Construction is more efficient and green this way. The homes themselves use recycled materials and alternative energy sources like solar. The community features roadbed made from recycled concrete and water-conserving native plants. The design also calls for a community pavilion in which residents can learn about organic cooking, using food grown from the on-site garden.

“We’re thinking about things in a more holistic way.”
-Michelle Kaufmann

Over the course of her career, Michelle has championed the use of recyclable materials in the 53 green homes she has built. She’s corrected some assumptions along the way, too, such as the belief that a house made of recyclables would have to be made of old tires or that it wouldn’t be possible to take a hot shower while living in one. The homes she designs not only look good, but they make us feel good.

Early prefab homes designed by Michelle and others were expensive and one of a kind, but they established a necessary proof of concept. They showed clients it was possible to build green and make it beautiful. Today, the Denver site represents the next generation of prefab, as it mixes affordable and market rate housing. It’s not meant to be “one of a kind,” but to show that a design can be replicated at other sites, making it more accessible. This can be a path to healthier buildings, a path to architecture that is part of an ecosystem and a path to change.

Architects can drive change, but I think we have to rethink ourselves and our role as architects.”

While the world celebrates star architects like Frank Gehry, it’s been useful for me to remember that architecture is for the most part a conservative profession. Innovators like Michelle Kaufmann (and Gehry) are rare. Michelle told me during our interview that fewer than three percent of homes are actually designed by architects – most are done by builders, but builders are not trained to innovate,  instead simply to execute. But now we are at the start of a new chapter, one that features collaboration as a critical tool for success. Michelle cited the Open Architecture network as an example of this. It makes design open and free, and promotes designs that conserve both water and energy. It’s a part of the holistic view of architecture bringing us better homes and better communities.

“We are in a very interesting time. our values system is now shifting more towards community, but also community in our businesses. We’re collaborating, and that’s where real change is happening,” Michelle said.

To learn more about her latest projects, check out her website.

This interview was made possible with the generous participation of one of our valued sponsors, Zipcar.

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Upward Bound House Family Shelter

Written by Lee Schneider, director of SHELTER

Image courtesy Vanos Architects

The power was off during the grand opening of Upward Bound House’s new Family Shelter, but there was a lot of daylight in the eighteen brand-new rooms. And, as though to compensate for the lack of electricity, while on a walk-through to meet the designers of each room, a visitor could feel the buzzing energy of community and of creativity.

The idea for Family Shelter was simple enough. Upward Bound House, a Santa Monica-based agency, is experienced in providing transitional housing for homeless families with children. They have a 21-unit facility in Santa Monica that helps homeless families get back on their feet. The families can stay there for as long as a year. The success rate for those families later obtaining and keeping permanent housing? Ninety-five percent, according to Upward Bound’s numbers.

Sounds good. But could you achieve similar success over a 90-day period instead of a year? Upward Bound has “beta tested” that idea already, by giving families in need of housing special vouchers to live in motels for 90 days until they get their lives together. Living in motels, though, doesn’t always address a family’s need for counseling and support. Upward Bound specializes in supported housing – you get a roof over your head, but you also get case workers checking in on you to see if you’re stable and thriving. The motel plan was a good beta test but it wasn’t the perfect path to a comprehensive plan to address family needs. There had to be a better way.

Well, why not buy a motel, redesign it from the outside in and start a new Family Shelter in Culver City? That’s exactly what Upward Bound did. The Family Shelter grand opening happened last month and attracted a crowd of social activists and politicos and some of LA’s best-known designers. Take a look at this short video to hear the designers speak about the experience in their own words. Each of the eighteen rooms was designed by a different designer with a singular vision.

The event was inspiring, but now it’s down to business, finishing up the exterior of the building, and settling the eighteen families into Family Shelter for the first 90-day cycle. Upward Bound has a screening process to pick the right families. “We work with partner agencies, like Beyond Shelter and St. Joseph Center. Case managers with those organizations know about Upward Bound and they refer people to us,” says David Snow, executive director of Upward Bound House. After the initial referrals, Upward Bound does another level of candidate screening to insure a good fit. To get into Family Shelter you have to have a job and be free of substance abuse issues or receiving counseling.

“The people we serve have the fundamentals. They need a safe place where they can recover. These are families with kids. They are not looking for a hand out. They want their own home. That’s who we serve best.”
— David Snow, Upward Bound House

Children, as David Snow has found with Upward Bound, can be the innocent victims of misfortune or bad decisions made by their parents. “For us it’s about kids. We are geared toward the kids in family dynamics. We offer parenting management and anger management to help with kids going through crisis. We offer tutoring and mentoring, arts programs and enrichment programs. Not many programs out there focus on kids.”

Focusing on kids makes economic sense. Truancy, public health services and incarceration can make for a big bill for all to pay. Catch problems early, it’s a good deal for society. “Wait until later, and you’ve got bigger problems,” says Snow.

Snow sees an opportunity for Upward Bound to provide more emergency and transitional services. These services, he says, are the missing link to families receiving permanent housing. He’s looking at partnering Upward Bound with developers or buying existing facilities to get that going. Upward Bound should find a welcome reception – its facilities look like high-end town homes or apartments.

The grand opening of Upward Bound’s Family Shelter received good coverage in inhabitat and the Los Angeles Times L.A. at Home blog. You can follow along on new developments on the Turquoise blog.

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