Daring A&D Dreams

AFHSF_2015-02-25_2329-discussion_Colleen-Mohan_1200Bay Area architects and designers sketch destination for pro bono network and profession at large

Night has already fallen by the time the Escape From New York delivery reaches the entrance of 501 Second Street in San Francisco. Like the smattering of discreet professionals before him, the courier is ushered through a crisp lobby into a cavernous office space – giant columns straddle white workstations, a fishbowl, and a plush dining area. This space, this evening, has been donated to Bay Area architecture and design professionals to talk about the future of Architecture for Humanity. The standard SF Chapter meeting has been tabled in lieu a salon of emerging leaders dedicated to ensuring an organization’s values outlast it. Pizza is served as a matter of course.

Since the world-renown nonprofit Architecture for Humanity (AFH) announced its closure in January, its volunteer-powered Chapter Network has been challenged: close shop or spin off. Immediately, 30 of the AFH Chapters committed to continue their work. The architecture industry’s response has been equally positive, if San Francisco is any indication – Project Frog, this night’s host, is one of several firms and individuals who reached out to the SF Chapter expressing solidarity for the tradition of participatory-design-for-vulnerable-communities that AFH had popularized across the globe. Chapter Network leaders have organized a steering committee of regional delegates to identify partners, galvanize support, and forge ahead, while individual chapters turn to their communities for further thoughts and aspirations.

Attendees this night hail from the likes of SOM and McDonough + Partners, Oakland’s DIG Cooperative, and Perkins + Will’s Social Responsibility program. They include a former board member of Architects Without Borders – Seattle, a Rose fellow embedded in nonprofit East Bay housing development, a duo of longstanding AFH collaborators from tech, former AFH staff, a former volunteer with AFH’s Haiti Rebuilding Center, and transplants from the London and New York chapters. The diverse group held a common understanding: that on one hand, the organization’s best practices need to be saved, and on the other, it’s now time to ask what an AFH 2.0 could deliver for a maturing – thought not quite mature – ecosystem of Public Interest Design. This group would come to find more, potentially, to be gained from this transition than lost to it.

The power of sheer will

After introductions, the table touched on the personal and community value of the Network, and drew out some compelling anecdotes. The SF Chapter alone has launched members into new careers, and has proven socially supportive through a hard hitting recession. Community projects have rooted designers to their neighborhoods, the city and our surroundings, and through design, given nonprofts and neighborhoods finely-tuned spaces for life, work, and play. And the Network has built uncanny international bridges: members eagerly connect across continents, host one another, and stay accessible to fellow volunteers even beyond ‘retirement.’

There’s a common glimmer in the eyes of a Chapter Network member – a yearning to build a better world, even a better profession, despite tremendous difficulty. While AFH deserves much credit for building online platforms and matchmaking project grants for the network, operations and fundraising were largely left unaddressed, chapter staffing was practically unheard of, and the circumstances stressed capacity of many of the volunteers. Yet, in the true spirit of resilience, the most active groups found ways to get community-led projects and installations built, support professional development, organize lecture series, co-run design competitions, host community events and even conferences.

All of this activity was spurred by the “beacon of hope” AFH once provided – hope that perhaps there was a successful model for a humanitarian-driven office. But the time has now come, as Oakland-based Chapter Network chair Garrett Jacobs remarks, to build out the processes allowing every AFH adherent participate in just such a model.


Because there is more to build with the design profession. More even than one percent (“Just not enough!”), or adopting the LEED-inspired SEED rating system and seminar for social responsibility. The nature of socially responsible design demands its ubiquity in the profession.

Consider Perkins+Will’s precautionary list of building materials and substances, a policy in place since 2009. The 1500-staff 24-office firm has ecological standards for their projects, and adopt the responsibility to inform clients to make the right decisions for user and environmental health. Imagine, first, an industry-spanning adherence to such standards – which seems more of an inevitability as time goes on. Now, how could the architecture industry adopt similar terms for socially responsible design? It’s certainly not a new idea – but could the AFH Chapter Network build a critical mass in the profession?

The table brainstorms a menu of advocacy and implementation options – from low-hanging digital resources to accredited consultants to standardized positions coordinating participatory design in each office.

Despite an architect’s intentions for this element of practice, participatory design is far and away the most expendable. It’s “the piece that’s pushed aside” habitually, for cost or complexity. The embedded AFH design fellow, observes the AWB-Seattleite, was perhaps the most effective enforcement of participatory design in the industry – that structure, and their experience, are invaluable assets to the PID community and the profession at large.

The AFH Haiti volunteer in attendance affirms this assertion. She had spent months working with the Rebuilding Center and collaborating with rural and urban Haitian communities on extensive data- and feedback-driven designs. The fact that these stories may not have made their way out of the island nation reflects the difficulty of supporting advocacy of this work – which is nearly as important as the work itself.

What’s more – any kind of participatory design/social responsibility industry-wide policy would require a globally accessible infrastructure for tracking these best practices, and measuring their impact, ongoing professional training, project auditing, monitoring and evaluation. Again, this isn’t new territory, it is the culmination of the organization’s pursuit of advocacy that only began with an Open Architecture Network. Perhaps a different model is needed to build this system.

A widely-implemented standard of community-driven design would revolutionize the revitalize the architecture industry about as quickly as it would revolutionize the built spaces all around us. Design education would fundamentally shift – a migration that many argue is long overdue. It’s a narrative that seems inevitable to many of us who have lived the successes. This group is asking who could possibly take it on – and would it be up to volunteers?

On deck

The Chapter Network delegation has been meeting weekly to build the framework of whatever this autonomous entity will become. Large questions remain and the group is branching out to create a multidisciplinary advisory board to help identify the best legal, financial, branding, and organizational fit for the peculiar makeup of this collective.

Here in San Francisco, the chapter is moving ahead with its self-assessment. The next meeting, set for March 25, will be diving into local leadership structure, soliciting interest for officer positions and committees, and collecting feedback on their project vetting process.

2015 is a year of new beginnings for those tens of thousands once and still associated with Architecture for Humanity.


Detailed discussion notes follow

6:30 Arrival and pizza
7:15 Introductions
7:30 Open discussion:
How has participating in AFH Chapter been a benefit, or how have you seen it benefitting others?
7:37 Open discussion: What was your (or the surrounding) perception of the AFH-HQ closure?
7:45 Event recap: 2/7 Chapter Congress – and AFH-SF application. The chapter leaders held a conference in New York with global online participation.
7:50 Visioning exercise. Prompting attendees to project the opportunities of the Chapter at local and global scales.
8:30 Practical tasks / next steps
8:40 Announcements
9:00 Adjournment

Open discussion:

How has participating in AFH Chapter been a benefit, or how have you seen it benefitting others?

Chapter’s been instrumental in her development as designer, introduced her to opportunities in permaculture.

Great coming up through tech seeing how people interface with new technologies, finding an outlet for geekery.

Already mentioned, but can add: it’s a way to interface with people, and learning so many other ways of working on a project. Potential to change the architectural system. Let’s get back to work!

Finding a community of friends, and supporting one another as a team. Ability here to connect with SF neighborhoods, meeting their community advocates and running into them. It roots you to your city and surroundings, makes you feel a part of the place.

It opens doors. And understanding the power of a network. The Network had no HQ support for 10 years, and we’re still here!

Being able to connect with chapter members around the world!

Even the retired members. The profession is still hungry for something different. Time to build the processes to train people to do what they want to do.

Open discussion:

What was your (or the surrounding) perception of the AFH-HQ closure?

Everyone asked me about it the day after the SF Gate article.

A surprise! Colleagues were in shock – AFH was always something there to depend on (though most were in London, and it’s still pretty alright there).

HQ was a beacon of hope for rendering socially based mentoring design work into a living – if not profitable. It generated a curiosity for models of how such a thing could work. Had an inside source that there was a ‘thing’ coming; there was a real sadness to know that this is still work that’s not well supported. How do we transition the field of design services to support this? The 1% is not enough! How do we take a stand for what this profession does, and enable talented people to serve in a more productive capacity? What the world sees is this model doesn’t support the designers.

Has everyone received today’s note from Matt Charney? Yes, in general.

Event Recap: 2/7 Chapter Congress – and AFH-SF application

The chapter leaders held a conference in New York with global online participation.

It was an eight hour event, and we watched it on a projector from Seth’s (SC member, not present) living room. About 30 chapters are wanting to stay viable. HQ was never really funding the Chapters, so they can persist as they were, except without the name (in the U.S.), and cannot fundraise under the AFH name. The order of the day included visioning exercises, IDing stakeholders, determining self-governance models.

“What we can do.” In times past we would bring projects through schematic design, and then maybe loop in an architect to sign off, or have the SF DPW sign off (#circumvention). MB sees us as a “network hub” – matchmakers between projects and licensed designers. We can also do competitions, set up professional development seminars, and study groups, conduct research and be advocates. Similar groups are SPUR, BAYA, AIASF, the 1% Program. We’ve worked on Rebuilding Together projects (as far back as when it was still called Christmas in April). One of our members was running RT Oakland. We have the network, we need to continue the spark. We COULD be support for independent projects, ie Lava Mae or NOMADgardens.

Visioning exercise

Prompting attendees to project the opportunities of the Chapter at local and global scales.

I. Local. What would YOU want to do with the local chapter? What would get you excited to be coming back here?

  • Work on a local project
  • Design(er) lending library
  • Real projects – getting to know SF Bay Area design heads
  • A consistent, reliable voice for Bay Area developments and successes in hum. des.
  • Cooperative biz model
  • “Fee-for-Service” nonprofit community work
  • Play’l Inrecst design advocacy
  • Be engaged in info/design work
  • Doing anything about homeless issue in SF
  • Some local radical design services serving on-the-edge community needs (that…
  • Data visualization
  • Have its own 501(c)3 presence backbone to create platform for mission of public interest design
  • Find projects
  • Design/build with families, students
  • Redesign architectural education
  • Make for-profit development benefit larger society
  • Design to address gentrification
  • Talk to people
  • Connection to community
  • Wine + good pizza & smart people
  • Kickstart or indiegogo funds to non-profit or better social 4pals…
  • Education outreach
  • Opportunities to participate in building out projects (ie, community builds and natural building)

II. Inter/National. How would you like the Chapters to represent you on the international scale? What should the Chapter Network do as a network?

  • Crowd-sourcing solutions
  • Provide opportunities and embed advocates for social design in existing firms
  • Bring: design thinking -> social exports… Bring: social connections -> design projects
  • Encourage NEW MODELS of PRACTICE
  • Designing for “humanity” is the standard.
  • Localized solutions -> international connection & feedback loop
  • Collective: resources; branding; public advocacy
  • Combined resources
  • Engage firms to put the AFH lens on during their work
  • Figureheads FAIL networks LAST (PID 2.0)
  • Compare projects + (success + failure) learn across local conditions
  • Establishing profitable local “chapters” -> invest in local training and economic opportunities – education and advocacy
  • Incubate entrepreneurial practical / grounded design professionals

III. Value-add. What’s the value added to the profession by the chapter network?

It’s localized, for starters.

Can we look to allies in our space – what kind of value can we bring to THEM now that we’re more nimble and driven?  It’s not going to be what it used to be, it’s going to emerge as something new, so recommend taking a step back, taking a breath, and assessing where we can tether our expertise. We’d benefit from mature conversations with our allies. It’s not full-steam-ahead, but looking at real problems with no profit connected to it.

What we do best is projects, and we can use them to tell stories. Chapters were always hitting a ceiling of size and ambition – we didn’t understand, or didn’t have money.

Critical to raise awareness of the importance of this work. Education and advocacy. We could leverage existing chapters. Fellows/chapters building long-term connections in communities – that’s the opportunity to make money doing what they’re doing. It’s a model, not in the design world, called Samasource.

Curious how to make connections between non profit community values and the everyday professionals. P+W’s 1% projects are dilapidated buildings: the nonprofits need to spend money to upgrade, and have no remainder for design. So – why can’t we house them in the other projects we’re working on? It doesn’t have to be black and white. The only way we can deal with the changes happening now is by bringing everyone to the table, and it has to happen on a daily basis, but don’t have the time. If there’s a way to engage at work: provide the connections and the lenses, and there would be a big ripple effect. Intl projects are exciting but there’s so much happening here. Going green now is easy. We have a cautionary list of materials, we use it as a baseline (policies against using PVC, bioaccumulates, etc.). I’d like to see us doing that with social responsibility. We could think broader than volunteers. Or a map of organizations to help address social issues.

Or as an in-house consultant for Public Interest Design.

Lots of gaps, pockets within developers and community groups for an advocacy piece.

What’s been effective: embedded design fellow is the participatory element. That’s not as effective as a market driven vision already mapped out for a given project. A consultant is a way to get at that, but it’s not a real engagement role. AFH needs to take a stand on the educational side of things, a certain piece of design has to be about engaging existing residents – past residents – the piece that’s pushed aside for cost or complexity. I’m a fan of checklists, but it might not address the root problems.

That was AFH’s main strength – the participatory part. To lose that would be to lose the strength of what made the model good.

Great for P+W to be so invitational about having this conversation!

Architects I think have participatory design as a goal. We don’t always do it well. My point: there’s a potential for advocates within the firms – every one could have a card-carrying rep. But it will take training!

And training for clients will be needed as well.

I’m hearing a tiered level of service and diverse revenue stream – engaging people at different levels of willingness in this community based process.

Bronze Gold Platinum. SEEDs thinking about it but it’s arduous.

And the training is once. There’s no ongoing evaluation. Incredible convo. We’ve IDed that it’s really about “with” and not “for.” We need to take stock of who’s already in the network, who’s been drawn to it, who’s here, and who wants to keep moving it forward.

Practical tasks

Our next chapter meeting can be a working meeting. (ie, SF mission statement rewrite; who else needs to be at the table.) We will be having another SC meeting to look at the roles and gaps in Chapter leadership, and help those here pursue their goals.

Findings from Survey – to go out in email, and online.

Q to Chapter leaders – any soul searching, what’s worked, what you won’t go near? Not reinvent the wheel… We thought about how projects even come to the chapter. How do we manage them? How do we assess what to take on? People kept seeing us simply as a cheap labor force!

Q to room – any interest in joining SC? Much. Contacts? Caught through RSVP and Survey.

Date for next Steering Committee – to be determined via Doodle poll!  Plan to regroup in a month.


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