Research and the Future of Design.

Excerpted from the BAC's Winter 2018 Practice magazine

MASS Design Group has inspired such worldwide projects as the UK Holocaust Memorial.

Whether enshrined on a lobby plaque or a corporate website, every organization has one - a Mission Statement. Full of lofty aims and powerful language, their goals often fail to inspire, and can even become the butt of jokes: witness the parody of tech start-ups pitching their "world changing" company missions on HBO's comedy hit, Silicon Valley.

There are some organizations, though, who take their mission seriously. It's imbued in everything they do. These organizations set out to effect change, and quietly make things happen.

Mass Design Group, known as MASS, is such an organization. Their mission is to research, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity. MASS walks the walk. Their work for clients around the world is characterized by thoughtful, innovative designs that improve the conditions of facility users, from reducing Tuberculosis infection within a Haitian hospital, to engaging students and their parents in wildlife conservation at an African school. It's no wonder, then, that the firm was attracted to the BAC, an institution known for its commitment to diversity and the benefits of an empathetic approach to design and problem-solving.

After exploratory meetings, MASS and the BAC agreed to a partnership that would help both organizations further their missions. "Both the BAC and MASS see design as a tool for social justice advocacy, culture making, and inclusivity," says Ben Peterson, the BAC's director of Practice instruction. "We're enrolling more and more students who look at design this way," he adds, "it's a more informed generation - one that's having immediate conversations about these kinds of issues." Through its Huxtable Fellowship in Civic Engagement and Service Learning, which Peterson heads, the BAC agreed to provide a diverse group of motivated, talented students to work as interns at MASS, while MASS committed to engaging those students fully as part of the firm's professional research, design, and advocacy teams. By working at MASS, BAC students would gain practical experience in an architectural firm and be exposed to new, inclusive ways of approaching design; MASS would have help from BAC students in tackling new projects and benefit from the students' fresh perspectives and ideas.

Last fall, four students were selected for Huxtable Fellowships: Giovanna Araujo, bachelor of architecture; Daniela Coray, master of landscape architecture; Anna Mezheritskaya, bachelor of architecture; and David Morgan, bachelor of architecture. Over the past six months they worked 20 hours a week at a variety of projects at MASS. Giovanna has been developing a master plan for a college student service center in Haiti; Daniela, who has a background in horticulture, has been doing planting designs for landscape projects around the world; Anna has been conducting research on the state of affordable housing for a course MASS will offer designers later this year; David has been creating models for the Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

Involvement with MASS projects has been an eye-opener for the Huxtable Fellows. "There's real collaboration here among team members," says Araujo. "Everyone contributes. It's been amazing to see young professionals express their ideas and be taken seriously by senior staff." Morgan concurs, "It was great to be part of the team conversations from the start. They encouraged me to jump in and learn while working."

Gaining valuable experience in the day-to-day operations of an architectural firm is only part of what the BAC's Huxtable Fellows get from their time with MASS. Believing research to be critical to effective design, the firm felt strongly that it should be an important part of the students' experience with them. "Because there's very little evidence-based design in the architectural world, we've made it part of our mission," says Chris Scovel, RA, the Director at MASS who oversees the BAC partnership. "Virtually every project we undertake includes research - not only on the front end, to inform design, but post construction, to gauge the impact of our projects on users."

MASS began a project recently with Boston Healthcare for the Homeless (BHH) to address issues related to their facility in the city's South End. Scovel and Peterson felt this would be an ideal opportunity to involve the Huxtable Fellows in meaningful research.

Once immersed in the project, the team realized the issue was larger than merely dealing with homeless people waiting on the street to use the BHH center. The friction they observed between the BHH clients and the local community extended far beyond the immediate vicinity of the facility, encompassing what local residents call "Methadone Mile" - a kind of no-man's land that straddles the Mass Ave Connector and Melnea Cass Boulevard for blocks in either direction. This friction zone separates the affluent South End from the commercial/warehouse district along Southampton Street, and Lower Roxbury, a traditionally African-American neighborhood that is experiencing much new development.

The Huxtable Fellows decided to conduct research on the issues of homelessness and addiction in four other large U.S. cities - Chicago, New York, Seattle, and Washington, DC - to see if they have the same geographic patterns, and if experiencing friction, how they're dealing with it. The team was not surprised to find very similar patterns in each city, where gentrification has spread into areas once populated only by marginalized communities and the agencies that serve them. "You have two very different groups coming together in these urban edges," says Mezheritskaya, "residents and transients." "In each of the cities we studied," adds teammate Coray, "we found residents wanting to isolate themselves from the problems. They didn't want their neighborhood to be a city center for homeless and addiction services."

The team is incorporating their findings from other cities into the next phase of the project: studying these issues in Boston, locating where services are offered around the city, understanding community attitudes and identifying the institutions that are active in those communities. This phase of research includes data collection, interviews, and on-site observation. To help make sense of this, they create maps of each data set and then overlay those maps to identify patterns and connections that can help them come up with design solutions. "Maps are a key part of this process," says Peterson, the team's advisor. "As designers we think visually. Being able to visualize data is critical to developing insight into the problem and explaining our findings to users."

The team's first mapping efforts have already proven their worth.

"Looking at all of the sites in the metropolitan area where these services are offered showed us that the problems perceived by South End residents aren't unique to them," says Morgan. "We're hoping this data will help us in conversations with residents." He adds, "If they see this as an area-wide issue, and not one that they're carrying alone, we think they may be more receptive to working with us to solve the problem."

"Melnea Cass Boulevard, like 16th street in DC, has been a divider between communities," says Coray. "We want to find ways to make it a community connector."

To bring that about, the team has concluded there must be more collaboration between communities and among the agencies that serve them. This will only happen when perceptions change. "The media have given people a distorted view of the issues around homelessness - it's really about housing affordability rather than poor personal choices," explains teammate Mezheritskaya. "When you portray the issue as one of affordability, there's more understanding, more empathy."

Scovel and Peterson are pleased with the progress the BAC students have made on their research, and how it's helped them grasp the power of design to foster communication among disparate communities, and through better understanding, embrace innovative solutions. "Design is much more than form," states Araujo, with real conviction. "Through conversation with users it becomes a message that calls attention to social issues - a message that transcends edifice."

This partnership between the BAC and MASS, conceived less than a year ago, is clearly off to a very good start.

This article appeared in the BAC's Winter 2018 Practice magazine. Click here to read the full magazine.

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Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Office

Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Office

Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Administrative Offices.

Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Administrative Offices