It doesn’t matter where the term “public interest design” came from—it only matters where it’s going. That’s what Design Corps founder Bryan Bell, Assoc. AIA, wants people to know about the Public Interest Design Institute, which is heading to Mexico. Bell, just back from a planning trip there for the first international institute location, says he’s ready to take the institute overseas. A long-time fledgling movement, public interest design is now coming into its own, and it’s building a critical mass both here and abroad.
Bell launched the Public Interest Design Institute in July 2011 as a way to package his ideas about designing for the public. “The problem with individual projects and people is that they come and go—we don’t want this to come and go,” he says. In just two years, Bell has helped oversee 13 different institute meetings nationwide. Over the course of each two-day institute, participants—ranging from architects to students to urban designers—learn about public interest design through national and international case studies, including hospitals, schools, and parks that have been developed using the Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) framework. The architects or designers behind the projects present them to attendees, who also get to test-drive the SEED Evaluator, a tool used to define goals for projects seeking SEED certification. Bell is the SEED Network’s co-founder.
“For 10 years we were hosting these conferences and people would come and see cool work, but we never defined the parameters of what made these cool practices,” Bell says. “So we realized we had to define it to ourselves in order to explain it to the public. Now we can say, ‘These are the five principles that these projects being presented have in common.’ ”
Those five principles, as defined by SEED’s mission, are organized around the idea of community. They include advocating for those with a limited voice, being inclusive and engaging stakeholders, and designing to help conserve resources. (The full list can be found on the SEED website.)
Rachael Stamps, a senior at Metropolitan State University in Denver—where one of the most recent U.S. institutes was held in April—used the five principles to better focus her work at a Kenyan orphanage. Stamps first started helping with the orphanage a few years ago after hearing about it through her church. Working with other volunteers, she was able to raise $30,000, which the orphanage put toward starting a chicken farm. When Stamps flew to Kenya to witness the project first-hand, though, she saw how the farm was much more than the staff could handle.
“We’d inadvertently created a lot of work for a small staff,” she says. “I immediately saw all these things that were wrong.”
The idea behind the chicken project was to make the orphanage financially self-sustaining. But tending to 1,500 chickens in a coop on the outskirts of the orphanage was taking staff away from their duties with the children. After studying the situation, Stamps returned to Denver and met with Metro State professor Lisa Abendroth, the other co-founder of the SEED Network. Under Abendroth’s guidance, Stamps decided to scale down the project. Realizing that they didn’t need nearly as many chickens to provide a revenue stream for the orphanage, Stamps and the team sold off the chickens and repurposed the two-story concrete building. Instead of housing for chickens, the children and staff moved in to the building, allowing them to save exponentially on rent.
Now Stamps is planning designing-thinking workshops for the children and staff, which she will run on her trip to Kenya later this year after graduating from Metro State. In the workshops, they will talk through what went wrong with the chicken project and how they can solve those issues in the future. Eventually, Stamps says, the kids will design a new chicken coop that they will manage—but it will be a lot smaller this time around. If all goes well, Stamps says, this project will turn into a full-time job.
Unlike for Stamps, the idea of designing in the public interest wasn’t mentioned even once while Bell was in school, he says. But it’s a lot easier for people working in the field today than it was just 10 years ago. “I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s getting easier,” Bell says. “This is a career. We want people to see that there are jobs.” With Abendroth’s help, he says he’s committed to training 800 people per year starting in 2014. The next institute will be held in Atlanta in July.
Bell is not building a public-interest design network in a vacuum. Other organizations such as Architecture for Humanity and Architects Without Borders are doing similar work in the public realm. And individuals such as John Cary, the author of the blog publicinterestdesign.org, and Michael Murphy of MASS Design in Boston—who presented at the institute in Denver—are spurring growth in the field.
These efforts, Bell says, are working. It’s not just large firms winning big in design competitions anymore. Professionals are starting to recognize public design as part of the core practice—not just fringe work. And, he adds, public interest design doesn’t have to be resource-depleting pro-bono work—it can be part of a firm’s revenue stream. “Maybe what we had before was just a bad definition of architecture?” he muses. “When you expand the definition, there are a lot of people who are doing public interest design.”