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Turning points

Ten essays that celebrate the problem-solving capacity of design


Toward an ideal

By Justin Crane AIA

A sphere from folded circles, by Learning Beautiful, an education start-up chosen for the first class of DesignX, a new MIT accelerator. Image: Courtesy of Learning Beautiful

The divide between architecture school and practice is well known. Coursework typically focuses on original thinking and creatively presented concept designs; the real world rewards a well-functioning building delivered on time and under budget. Unlike high-tech or the life sciences, our country’s notoriously conservative building industry rarely allows for implementation of exciting research. Yet as Karsten Harries writes in The Ethical Function of Architecture, “Architecture has an ethical function in that it calls us out of the everyday . . . . It beckons us toward a better life, a bit closer to the ideal.” Creating that better life feels slow going when we can’t easily incorporate new research into what we build.

The most diligent studies in the construction industry, including invaluable experimentation on energy-efficient systems and assemblies, have been at engineering societies and Department of Energy national labs. But how can we seamlessly integrate this into the profession as opposed to simply responding to its results? Ultimately, all the research carried out within schools or labs is advantageous only if it is understandable to those in practice and beneficial to a broad audience. This requires our rigorous research to be available to those architects with access to clients and builders.

In response to this divide, firms are exploring ways to make research part of their office practice. For example, Katherine Darnstadt AIA of Latent Design spends an atypical amount of time analyzing clients’ needs. This allows her to better understand relevant socioeconomic issues and expand the value of architectural practice by providing services that range from grant writing and developing stem (science, technology, engineering, and math) curricula to programming and, finally, building design. Payette has a paid research director who spends half of her billable time on formal research, allowing the firm to confirm manufacturers’ claims and make more knowledgeable choices of materials and systems. An instance of this is its comparative study of triple glazing and double glazing with room-side low-e coatings in order to build a “glazing and winter comfort tool.” Gensler, a giant in the profession, has a staff of five researchers and a firm­-wide rfp process through which approximately 30 employee-led teams complete studies every year.

Is the profession as a whole benefiting from the firms that have committed to research? These offices often share results on their websites or, in select cases, via annual publications. Yet it remains difficult for practitioners to sort through information coming from multiple sources and completed to varying levels of rigor.

Two recent initiatives are catalysts for the weaving of exacting research into practice. The first is a partnership between the AIA and the National Institute of Building Sciences to create the Building Research Information Knowledgebase, aka BRIK. This clearinghouse of architectural research, launched in 2013, harbors publications created through partners with rigorous review processes, rang­ing from private practices such as Perkins + Will to nonprofits like the International Academy for Design & Health. The goal of BRIK is to make research transparent and accessible; it also focuses on research that can be directly applied to professional work — from techniques for creating resilient archi­tecture to best practices for coatings on historic buildings — with topics organized broadly into design, economics, and practice.

The second initiative is the design profession finally taking advantage of techniques pioneered in other industries. In 2016, MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning started an accelerator, called DesignX, that will speed the growth of start-ups — strengthening the connection between academic research and viable design businesses or nonprofits. DesignX selected its first class in December, supporting proposals ranging from virtual reality technology that enhances communication between project teams to sensors that monitor human behavior and may assist firms with postoccupancy studies. The curriculum of the accelerator program includes several criteria, two of which are typical for start-ups: user-friendliness and the ability to handle the complexity inherent in the design process. A third criteria stands out, however, for its idealism: a commitment to social justice and mind­fulness of the diverse society in which we work.

The original thinking that comes from academia and rigorous research is necessary to create “a better life, a bit closer to the ideal” — and one that is not circumscribed by the constraints of time and profit. Yet this research will be effective only if it is implemented in the real world multiple times and at a large scale. Architectural practitioners and researchers need one another. The more opportu­nities there are for sharing ideas, the more likely we are to influence not only the lives of well-heeled clients but also the lives of all those who inhabit the world we build. ■

Justin Crane AIA is an associate at Cambridge Seven Associates.


When walls get in the way

By Carl Solander AIA

Drawing of Building 20 from the MIT Museum collection. Image: Courtesy MIT Museum

By the time I arrived at MIT to study architecture, Building 20 was already a much-eulogized place of legend. It was often referenced in studios as a place where the occupants could reshape space according to their needs, a place of innovation where the building served as a catalyst for collaboration and experimentation. This was considered desirable, even radical, for budding architects: a place where the walls are not fixed, a place that breathes with dynamism, a building conceived not as composition but as infrastructure for events and interactions.

The reality of Building 20 is that it was poorly constructed, a generic space built quickly in 1943 to house research facilities for weapons and defense systems — essentially a warren of rooms off of corridors with exposed piping and conduit. It lacked the preciousness that would cause one to hesitate before bashing holes through the walls. When my structures class toured the site during the construction of Frank Gehry FAIA’s Stata Center, which replaced Building 20, we marveled at the massive concrete transfer beams, hanging columns, and other structural acrobatics. This had been designed as a highly specific space where the needs of the occupants had been studied, cat­e­gorized, and then fit into a master scheme; where the spectacle of architecture would be the organizing principle; and where the occupants would be part of the spectacle. Visiting the occupied building a few years later, I found it hard to imagine the architecture adapting easily to needs that may not have been considered.

Is contemporary institutional architecture, which often revels in spectacle and refinement, able to provide the catalytic influence so celebrated at Building 20? Or were the scientific breakthroughs achieved at Building 20 simply a result of a time of particular innovation?

I recently visited the Novartis buildings in Cambridge with a scientist friend who conducts research there. Walking the halls of the newest additions to the campus, designed by Toshiko Mori FAIA and Maya Lin, I could see ideas that had bounced about in my MIT architecture studios finding expression. Hallways are wide and populated by niches and nooks; intimate glassed-in rooms allow for private phone calls or small conferences; tables and kitchens provide space for coffee breaks, chance meetings, or larger informal gatherings. The monumental stair that projects from the façade of the Mori building connects many of these informal spaces and provides balconies for contemplation with a view of the courtyard designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh FASLA. An elegant and dramatic atrium off of the main entrance offers a private agora for the Novartis polis.

The design seems to have developed from a notion of urban space, with public ways for chance encounters flanked by more intimate spaces with varying levels of privacy. Yet my scientist friend emphasizes the importance of the lab space. His desk, like most, is 4 feet long and sits in a big open work space with dozens of other desks organized in neat rows. Lab benches and standing desks that are shared within this space are the places where experimentation and collaboration occurs for him.

Would this utilitarian setup — modular, secure, and circumscribed — in another building generate the same discoveries as the scientists at Novartis hope for? Is it the responsibility of architecture to project a sense of creative inquiry? Whether the spaces provided for spontaneous meetings function as intended may be immaterial, as long as they embody the institution’s desire to foster innovation. Maybe ideas hatched in these corridors would not have taken shape in a more constrained and uncomfortable space, ideas that then inform discoveries made in the lab.

My friend talked about his collaboration with a scientist at Harvard Medical School, exploring ways to use a technology developed by one to research the biological systems studied by the other. This collaboration, sanctioned by both organizations, is something that hatched through a chance meeting at a local conference and was incubated in local pubs. Perhaps more so than the buildings that provide a place for research, the dense community of scientists in Cambridge and Boston is crucial to collaborations that can lead to scientific discovery. In that light, the interiorized urbanity of the Novartis buildings is appropriate. A privatized extension of the city, where invited collaborators can come to be among peers, they provide semiprivate spaces for casual interaction and private spaces for serious work. Knocking down walls is probably not neces­sary; multimillion-dollar pieces of equipment are. The funny thing about Building 20 is that the architecture was actually in the way. ■

Carl Solander AIA is a principal at Reverse Architecture.


Open a new window

By Kordae Henry and Rose Florian

Figures from Just Nøt The Same, a database featuring scale figures of color, provided as a way for the design world to acknowledge underrepresented communities. Images: Courtesy Just Nøt The Same

Think back to a moment in time that changed the way you perceived the world. A single moment may not come to mind. Instead, a combination of elements is what more likely makes up that moment.

Henry: I remember leaving the studio at 3:00 am after preparing for a design review. Riding my bike across the South Street bridge, I was met with red and blue flashing lights, hit by a police officer in his issued truck, and viciously laid out onto the ground. Next thing I knew there was a pistol pointed in my direction.

Florian: Growing up in a Dominican household, I was told to act a certain way, do my hair a certain way, and speak a certain way. It was all to hide our blackness while embracing white culture. At some point during graduate school, I realized I was imitating the idea of someone. I didn’t even know what being me meant.

For us, the experiences that led to those moments laid the groundwork for the digital exhibition Just Nøt The Same. We created a series of architecture cutouts — an entourage for renderings — specifically highlighting people of color, human beings with skin complexions between that of the night and a shimmering penny. The exhibition is science, psychology, architecture, and art all wrapped into a digital conversation.

Our purpose is to increase our sensory reach, break down social structures through art, and allow for a window into new worlds — to help us all see things differently. When architects take on projects, each one requires a sensitivity to space and narrative. We should always want to broaden our definition of the practice.

Traditions restrict innovation in our profession. We believe we are now at a tipping point, where architecture not only seeks an aesthetic value but also strives for equity. With Just Nøt The Same, Latinos and African Americans can have a place in architectural history. We made these cutouts as an effort to focus on the role of architects as narrators. How do we imagine the future, and who occupies its domain? When we speak of equality, what factors are in play? We strive to dissolve the constructs of the 18th-century Three-Fifths Compromise, which is still prevalent today and in too many cases continues to affect the thinking of architects. With Just Nøt The Same — free digital cutouts of people of color that students and architectural firms can place in their imagery — we see new opportunities for the profession to become more inclusive and sensitive toward a collective design process.

Designing a building requires the study of the practice and ourselves. We can give new meaning to our intentions by understanding that what we create and how it is executed has an impact. A digital exhibition and catalog invites us to approach architecture in an intrinsic way to achieve better ways to tell stories.

Just Nøt The Same is not just a response to the underrepresented ethnicities displayed on architectural cutout web­sites; it is also a way to empower individuals. When giving designers a new architectural tool, we open oppor­tunities for change. By using the cutouts, we invite participation in a written and visual narrative that we hope will evoke systemic change in the way we speak to the world, where we no longer use the word “them” but change the narrative to “us.” ■

Kordae Henry, a design associate at mass Design Group, and Rose Florian, an architecture and urban design student, are the creative directors of Just Nøt The Same.


We can move markets

By Russell Perry FAIA

An Investigation in Materials from Perpetual Motion, an installation by Studio Dessuant Bone for the Biennale Interieur 2016, Kortrijk, Belgium. Photo: Courtesy of Studio Dessuant Bone

The more you probe the design process, the more you discover that, though architects and designers have access to a lot of information on the building products they select, they generally know little about the constituent chemistry of these materials. With food or personal care products, by contrast, detailed ingredient disclosure is common, likely influencing consumers’ purchasing decisions. These disclosures over the past several decades have changed buying patterns and created major market segments. While some shoppers blissfully load their cart with peanut butter containing 25 ingredients, others make the informed choice of a product made from just two: peanuts and salt. Both products are perfectly legal, but consumers can at least make a choice based on useful information.

Happily, we have been steadily moving into a building-product economy where designers will have this kind of information and will be able to add it into the complex calculus that is product selection. We can see examples in the industry where shining a bright light on problematic, even hazardous, substances has led the market to change in favor of greener chemistry.

Look at the now-historic example of formaldehyde in insulation. In June 2001, the newly published LEED version 2 flagged urea-formaldehyde in composite wood and Agrifiber products as a substance of concern. Interestingly, this was the first substance specifically identified within LEED for a phaseout related to installer and occupant heath. It led to designers and specifiers paying more attention to formaldehyde in its many uses in building products. In 2003, the Green Guide for Health Care introduced a credit for the use of formaldehyde-free insulation products. By 2007, when the Living Building Challenge Red List targeted added formaldehyde in all building products, many designers and specifiers were already searching for alternative products free of this known human toxicant. By 2013, the early drafts of LEED version 4 began to address a wider range of formaldehyde avoidance, specifically related to insulation.

The response from the market was swift. In 2015, when the Healthy Building Network surveyed formaldehyde releases from domestic residential insulation factories, they saw a precipitous decline in releases by 90 percent between 2005 and 2014. In the absence of state or federal regulation, the correspondence of toxicants being designed out of building products with designers taking interest in avoiding specific hazardous substances represents a virtuous cycle that can be accelerated through material ingredient disclosure.

The cycle of product chemistry improvement runs through several specific steps: inventory (what’s in it?), screening (what hazards are associated with those ingredients?), assessment (where are the greatest opportunities for improvement?), and optimization (how do we develop better products for the market?). Of these steps, designers are most interested in information associated with inventory and screening. This is where the Health Product Declaration (HPD) comes in. Developed in 2011 as an open standard, HPD provides a format for manufacturers to communicate a product’s chemical constituents and associated hazards. While designers can use this information to shun certain hazards — such as formaldehyde — these disclosures, more important, provide an impetus for manufacturers to reformulate their products in light of public disclosure by competitors using cleaner chemistry.

All of us can remember specific health hazards being designed out of our lives through consumer action — individual shoppers making choices one at a time: nitrites in processed meats, trans fat in prepared foods, volatile organic compounds in paint, phthalates in children’s toys, or bisphenol A (BPA) in water bottles. Informed designers armed with disclosure documentation can provoke the same kinds of reforms to building products, leading to the day when we can easily design a building free of phthalates, halogenated flame retardants, BPA, or formaldehyde, to name a few of the most notorious. That day will come when the power of transparency definitively alters the building materials market.

A fundamental difference between this transition and those under way in other parts of the economy is one of our leverage as designers and specifiers. In a $10 million project, we may be specifying $6 million worth of building materials, perhaps more. Our reach is significant. By insisting on the universal use of HPDs and other disclosure tools, we can change the industry where we have the most impact. ■

Russel Perry FAIA was director of sustainable design for SmithGroupJJR from 2005 to 2016.


What the heart sees

By Coco Raynes

Stained-glass windows, Chartres Cathedral, France. Photo: Fredrik Rubensson/Creative Commons

As designers, we have all experienced the delicious moment when nothing can be added nor deleted, when the design has reached its final form — the “I’ve got it!” feeling. It can be the perfect spacing in typography, the utmost simplicity of a logo, or the harmony of an architectural space. It is done, there is no return, it is looking at you. And we are delighted.

The attempt to reach perfection is what designers would like to do daily, if not for the mundane but necessary administration attached to each project. And when we come close to achieving it, we feel exhilarated because we strive to excel, regardless of the project scale. Perfection, when encountered, can trigger very strong emotions.

I still remember entering the Cathedral of Chartres, France, for the first time. Following the tradition of the annual Catholic student pilgrimage, which goes back to ancient times, I had walked the nearly 50 miles from Paris. As I am from another faith, I had primarily gone for the promenade with my pals from the ENSAD— the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. Quite a promenade, indeed! A walk of two and a half days, with the spring heat and the accompanying blisters.

As I entered the majestic Gothic nave, my eyes raised along the ribbed vaults to the 120-foot arcs, I discovered the soft light coming through the intricate stained-glass windows, warming the chiseled stone work. I was in awe, covered with goose bumps.

I was surprised by my intense physical reaction: The nature of my shivering was nonreligious; the cool temperature of the nave was certainly welcomed after the march in the afternoon heat but not cold enough for shivering. I had been touched and overwhelmed by the harmony and architectural beauty of the cathedral. I was witnessing perfection.

The confrontation with this architectural tour de force was heightened by the underlining of its legends and secrets: the esoteric beliefs from a sacred druidical temple on which the present cathedral rests, the sacred geometry, the legend of the Templars, the luminescent enigma of the stained glass, which has been lost and never duplicated.

This colossal work had been accomplished in a mere 26 years (1194–1220) with the rudimentary construction equipment of the time, to glorify eternity and the power of the Church. I had experienced exactly the purpose of this cathedral: to intimidate by making you feel insignificant!

Yes, architectural spaces around us trigger different emotions. It can be feeling claustrophobic in the dark subway of New York City or almost nostalgic in a grand hotel lobby — the Plaza maybe —where the decor and armchairs look so comforting that you want to sit down for tea and conversation, the old-fashioned way. A well-designed hospital lobby can make you feel secure: It conveys efficiency. Bank lobbies are stern and expected to be: Your money — or no money — is a serious matter.

Or you might feel protected in the interior patios of Spanish Colonial houses, where very thick walls isolate you from the outdoor heat and commotion. The labyrinthine streets of Venice prompt curiosity: You want to get immersed, discover, and maybe resurface tomorrow.

The architect cannot predict nor control people’s reactions: Once public, buildings and spaces take on lives of their own. The public may not be that interested in the academic architecture diagram, but people do respond to the emotional experience. Unfortunately, architecture is losing its distinct identity around the world, starting with airports. Everything will soon look the same, and our emotional encounters will also be diminished. ■

Coco Raynes is president of the environmental graphics and universal design firm Coco Raynes Associates.


A plan takes root

By Matthew Urbanski ASLA

Brooklyn Bridge Park, New York City, by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, landscape architect. Photo: © Elizabeth Felicella/Esto

Brooklyn Bridge Park has been an experimental, paradigm-shifting project because the vision for the park was audacious at its very roots. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, created through a joint agreement between the City and State of New York, gave our team the responsibility to address a broad variety of issues that aren’t typically directed by landscape architects. These included revenue planning, development guidelines, urban infrastructure, homeland security, environmental sustainability, and sea-level rise. We were given unusual tools to create a new urban context in which the park would thrive — a city-making project as much as a park-making project.

We saw a complex, resilient, dynamic water’s edge as the core park experience. So, through planning and design, the idea was to vary the things that happen along the 1.3-mile waterfront: bringing people down to meet the water’s edge and also creating opportunities for raised prospects. Other features — such as a remnant pile field, a spiral tide pool, and a salt marsh — called attention to the unique ecological context of an urban tidal estuary.

At the time, we were also working on another waterfront park where tidal surge was a concern, and we had been contending with tight constraints that limited our ability to manipulate the grade, which had been a source of frustration. We were in the schematic design level, with an already developed grading plan for Brooklyn Bridge Park, when — clichéd but true — I was in the shower when I realized that although we were constrained in the other park, at Brooklyn Bridge Park we actually could raise the overall elevation.

By starting with a higher base elevation, the bottoms of the root balls of the trees we were planting — or at least the vast majority of them — would be above the 100-year flood line, which at that point was set at 1 foot higher than any flood ever recorded on the site. Even though the surge from Superstorm Sandy came in higher than our extreme flood benchmark, my shower epiphany turned out to be fortuitous because when the storm came, the only trees that suffered were the ones planted at the park entrances, which were low points because the park needed to meet the grade of the city streets.

Raising the park was an intentional strategy for protecting it against sea-level rise, but other more intuitive aspects of the design were also helpful when it came to the park’s performance in an extreme-weather event. For instance, we replaced long extents of relieving platforms and retaining walls along the water’s edge with riprap, which is a wall system of large irregular stones stacked on one another. Whether built of wood, metal, or concrete, a system of waterfront-relieving platforms and retaining walls relies on tension coming from the land side and compression from the water side to stand. Riprap, by contrast, works with gravity and is fundamentally self-stabilizing.

Although there is a logical urge to worry about the destructive force of floodwater coming in, it is actually the force of the water on its way out that is typically the cause of a wall being blown out. When the flood recedes, the ground is saturated, and hydrostatic pressure can build up behind a solid wall, causing failure. The generous gaps between individual stones in a riprap wall create a porous edge that offers abundant opportunities for the water to flow out. Even if there is some movement of individual boulders, that’s fine because although the riprap system is robust, it is also fundamentally mutable. It will be there until the next ice age.

There was a fair amount of complexity in how this played out, but the way that our team made Brooklyn Bridge Park climate-ready is almost ridiculously simple: We raised the site, especially the trees, and we made our water’s edge a porous gravity wall that doesn’t try to hold the water back. We relied on time-tested and technologically simple solutions. Now that more than six years have passed since the first sections were open, and four years since Sandy, the plants have begun to grow in, and it is amazing even to us the degree to which urban nature has become the image of this highly urban park. This fundamental rebalancing of “natural” and “human made” was part of our strategy for resiliency but also essential to making a welcoming park on this site. ■

Matthew Urbanski ASLA is principal of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, designers of Brooklyn Bridge Park.


Home for good

By Deborah Fennick AIA

Somerville Rooftops, by James Weinberg. Image: Courtesy of the artist

With systemic change on Somerville’s horizon, can the city preserve its soul?

A densely inhabited 4 square miles just minutes from downtown Boston, Somerville is already a highly sought after place to live. With the Green Line extension promising to fill in gaps in mbta service, it will become only a hotter place for development.

As Somerville marches forward, however, many current and long-term residents are left reckoning with an uncertain future. The city struggles with how to avoid a fate that is affecting similar urban communities across the nation: the displacement of the very residents who have helped shape their communities into the desirable places they are today. Somerville hopes to buck this trend, looking at ways to leverage large- and small-scale growth to achieve the community’s goals. But can it hold on to the socio-economic, cultural, and ethnic mosaic of the people who live there? Is it possible to provide affordable housing options targeted at a range of income levels?

The city’s political leadership and a smart, engaged citizenry have become partners in envisioning the Somerville of 2030, with a focus on housing affordability as a particularly urgent challenge. The City’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development is recrafting its zoning ordinances around the 100 or so comprehensive goals and priorities articulated by the community itself during its three-year-long “SomerVision” process. The values and personality of Somerville permeate the new code, which is designed to address the quality of urban life, in part through several ambitious provisions that will support the construction of inclusionary housing.

Although the zoning overhaul will primarily expand the city’s robust housing affordability efforts for new construction, much of Somerville is already built out. Consequently, a brain trust of community groups, led by the Somerville Community Corporation (SCC), has looked to existing housing stock in established neighborhoods as a source of affordable units. Most of this stock is two- and three-family dwellings, and much of it is being lost to speculation.

Enter Somerville’s 100 Homes Initiative. This entrepreneurial strategy captures existing properties available on the open market, competing for them like a serious buyer, which in this market means acting nimbly and paying with cash. Once acquired, these units are modestly rehabbed and become permanently deed-restricted at various affordability rates. With an initial goal to create 100 new affordable units, the initiative was launched two years ago with enthusiastic backing from the mayor’s office.

The 100 Homes program — funded primarily through subsidies provided under the Community Preservation Act, adopted by Somerville voters in 2012 — preserves not only individual buildings but also a community’s character. With a credit line from the Massachusetts Housing Investment Corporation (an affordable housing lender), the scc can make an offer on a property like a cash buyer.

The program is working. After a two-year pilot phase, five properties have been acquired and a sixth is under agreement, with a yield of 14 new affordable units scattered around the city.

As a result, many current tenants can stay put after the sale of their building rather than face eviction as the property is renovated to capture higher rents or be resold. A model scenario for the program is for scc to buy a property occupied by tenants who qualify for affordable rent. No one would be displaced. An ideal scenario is to purchase an owner-occupied three-family with income-eligible tenants in two units and maintain the owner’s unit at market rate. The result would be a property with a financially sustainable mix of affordable and market-rate units.

With progress to date, the program is now being evaluated and tweaked. 100 Homes delivers units quickly, in contrast to the slow-moving process that encumbers state-funded and federally funded housing initiatives, though the group is still working out how to efficiently and fairly place tenants in the new units. Eventually, scc hopes to transition some units to homeownership as affordable condos.

What is the future of 100 Homes? Given the urgency, the scc is contemplating how to scale up the program. Could a 500 Homes initiative be sustainable? As Somerville continues its building boom and home prices skyrocket, it will become increasingly difficult to acquire and create affordable units for the program. Let’s see what Somerville leadership comes up with next. ■

Deborah Fennick AIA is design principal at Fennick McCredie Architecture.


A measure of impact

By Sam Batchelor AIA

Trellis for the outdoor learning center at the Dennis C. Haley school in Roslindale, designed and constructed by the Community/Build Studio at MassArt in summer 2011. Photo: Peter Vanderwarker

“It’s not about your greatness as an architect, but your compassion.”
— Sam Mockbee

The Rural Studio was born out of the design/build movement that was part of an architectural counterculture in the 1970s. Steve Badanes, a former teacher of mine who runs the University of Washington Neighborhood Design/Build Studio, is often referred to as the “godfather of design/build.” He and a group of colleagues from Princeton University, who called themselves the Jersey Devil, were looking for an authentic process that connected the designer and the maker more closely when they did their first project together in 1972. They built single-family homes and lived on site in a nomadic existence that was emblematic of the time.

When Sam Mockbee founded the Rural Studio in 1993, he cited the Jersey Devil as a significant influence on his thinking. But where Jersey Devil was a nomadic practice, the Rural Studio is intensely place-based and is now inseparable from Alabama’s Hale County. The focus is much more outward, in terms of the undergraduate studio’s intention to be a change-driver in its community.

When Andrew Freear took over the Rural Studio after Mockbee’s death in 2001, he elevated the charge to a broader goal. Where Mockbee was focused on creating dignity through design with individual houses and community building projects, Freear is trying to address it systematically with projects such as the 20k house — a multiyear endeavor to create a locally built rural home for less than $20,000 in materials. Badanes, no stranger to activism himself, takes a similar approach with the Neighborhood Design/Build Studio. Founded in 1990, it takes on projects with community clients working toward improving Seattle’s neighborhoods.

As a student of Badanes’ in the early 2000s, I was inspired by these two studios; they formed the nucleus of what would become the Community/Build Studio at Massachusetts College of Art (MassArt). Founded in 2009, it follows Mockbee’s model of architectural activism and incorporates it with Badanes’ emphases on communication and consensus building. We seek out projects in Greater Boston in which we can design and build a new piece of infrastructure for the public or underserved. We make a conscious decision to work locally because there is no shortage of groups that could benefit from the creative energy and enthusiasm inherent in architecture students, particularly those who are embedded within an arts school.

We also keep our projects small enough to ensure that our group of eight to 12 students can work on them, from concept to completion, in the 11-week summer session. This shields us from engaging in the design/build “arms race” that has taken over many schools competing to design larger, more complex projects by stretching the effort out over multiple semesters and student groups. More important, it allows us to illustrate to students the power and impact their projects can have. Coming to the site when it is blank, they experience the “before” condition as the status quo for our clients. By the end, having transformed the space, students understand that they have created something permanent — something that will become the new normal for the client group that they have engaged with every day.

At the Dennis C. Haley school in Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood, the studio transformed an overgrown corner of the yard into an outdoor class­room to support an urban agriculture program. At summer’s end, our students were proud of the beautiful structure that occupied a once-neglected corner of the property, but the most power­ful moment came a month later when school was back in session and we celebrated the ribbon cutting. Seeing children run up the ramp they had built, play in and around the bridge, and dig in the raised planting beds showed the students the full impact their work could have.

This understanding of impact is the real legacy of the Rural Studio. Born out of its dna, the name “design/build studio” doesn’t fully capture its most important lesson. By creating even a small thing in a place that otherwise might not have that kind of thoughtfulness, students are given a window into the potential of what architecture can do. There’s both a power and a humility embedded in that. ■

Sam Batchelor AIA, a partner at designLAB architects, founded and directs the MassArt Community/Build Studio.


Time to heal

By Kaki Martin ASLA

The Garden Café at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a renovation and addition by Bruner/Cott & Associates and Klopfer Martin Design Group. Portions of exterior walls were removed, allowing light in and providing views to the outdoors. Photo: Kaki Martin ASLA/Klopfer Martin Design Group

Remember the last time you navigated through a hospital for a test? Did your blood pressure rise as you tried to figure out which line to get in, which elevator to take? Have you felt anxious in a waiting room? The link between a connection to nature and improved healing has been considered for centuries but has been substantiated in contemporary culture only since the mid-1980s. Surgical patients with a view to nature rather than a brick wall require less pain medication and recovery time. Nature-focused art and photography offer similar support.

For healthcare facilities to evolve into a synthesized ecosystem of wellness, we need to turn our attention to the interstitial spaces to support the well-being of patients, families, and medical teams.

To create a landscape masterplan, Brigham and Women’s Hospital assembled an interdisciplinary team of landscape architects, wayfinding specialists, and architects, but a eureka moment came later, when Rosalyn Cama joined the group. The president and founding partner of CAMA Inc, a Connecticut-based design lab and studio, suggested a fresh way to package the landscape masterplan that the group developed. The team viewed every square foot of the campus as an opportunity, regardless of how small the spaces were; the idea was that the aggregation of moments would create impact for visitors to the hospital. She aptly observed that the team was focusing on the “times between” — between parking the car and reaching the doctor’s office, between having a medical test and waiting for the results, between watching loved ones be wheeled into surgery and seeing them in the recovery room.

Hospital settings have their share of “times between.” The interstitial spaces where they occur are as important as the spaces specifically designed for direct patient care; if healthcare facilities accept this as a basic tenet, they can make the transition from being a series of isolated places to an integrated healing network. CAMA Inc worked with Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven on a curated show of revolving nature images, shown on various media in hallways and waiting areas. One woman was so comforted by having a painting of a salt marsh to look at that she tracked down the artist so she could share how getting lost in the beauty of the image decreased her anxiety over her husband’s surgery.

At the Brigham, the largest place for a “time between” experience is its cafeteria. Like a dystopian aboveground submarine, its few windows were too high and too small. The menu was not particularly supportive of good health, featuring fried foods and limited choices. The surroundings were grim; it was not a place to feel nourished in any sense of the word.

Options from all points of view — landscape, architecture, engineering, interiors, and wayfinding — were pulled together. To access views to gardens, the team constructed new grounds and worked out a plan that maximized the connection for cafeteria patrons. The garden was split into two parts, with the cafeteria expansion piece pushed between the two green spaces, resulting in two sides of each garden having a glazed connection to the interior space. Low two-top tables now line the edges for close-up views of the small-scale quilt of ground covers in the verdant shade gardens; further away, high-top banquette seating allows for views to the taller, ever-changing seasonal displays of woody plants.

Open only last year, the project continues to receive praise from the Brigham community and people associated with neighboring hospitals who also frequent the space. Going to the cafeteria is now the new healthy way to spend “time between.” ■

Kaki Martin ASLA is a founding principal at Klopfer Martin Design Group.


The road ahead

By David Dixon FAIA

Olli, a 3-D printed 12-passenger self-driving vehicle, analyzes and learns transportation data, integrating IBM Watson’s computing capabilities. Image: Courtesy Local Motors

A new and disruptive technology is close enough to touch. Autonomous vehicles will be mass produced in two years and in widespread use within five. While this will surely mean more self-driving Teslas, for at least the first decade the real disruption will come in the form of shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs) — five- to 10-passenger electric vehicles that can run on schedule or be called on demand via smartphones. Thanks to not having to pay a driver, SAVs will cost half of what shared services cost today.

Autonomous transit will not be an equal-opportunity disruptor. These vehicles won’t be built to speed along highways but instead to travel through dense urban environments (cities but also compact “urban villages” in the suburbs) where a concentration of people and a diversity of activity generate lots of trips. Here, SAVs will outcompete private cars on the basis of cost, convenience, flexibility, sustainability — and never having to park. “Urban” will increasingly signify places where vehicles are shared, not owned. In most suburbs, this process will take longer.

New mobility technologies have always had a transformational impact. The rise of universal car ownership drained vitality from cities for four decades. The rise of autonomous transit can have the opposite effect, unlocking opportunities for urban places to grow simultaneously denser, more livable, and greener. As one of my Stantec colleagues who is managing a test program for these vehicles in California has put it, the SAV is “the ultimate mobile device.”

We could begin to see benefits early on, but we have to start planning now. Today cities host up to eight times as many parking spaces as they do cars. But SAVs drop people off. All these parking spaces take up scarce urban land and push up costs — adding $50,000–$100,000 or more to the development cost of a condominium or 1,000 square feet of office space in Boston. Replacing a significant number of owned vehicles with shared ones will ultimately support new development. Think market-rate and affordable housing, research and innovation space, and other welcome investments.

Autonomous transit will bring density another boost. Public transit authorities are already looking at SAV services to provide critical “last mile” access, connecting people who live more than a 10-minute walk to the nearest transit station. These services will make transit more convenient and enable more distant sites to command the value premiums that transit-oriented development brings.

Planned poorly, this density could mean crowding. Planned well, it will enhance livability and economic opportunity. More households and workers will bring Main Streets to life and jobs to neighborhoods. More investment will produce fiscal benefits to support education, parks, and health. Downtown, improved mobility will attract knowledge workers and the companies that follow them. Citywide, newly obsolescent surface parking lots will become sites for affordable housing, schools, health centers, and other building blocks of livability.

Within a decade, SAVs will unlock unimagined opportunities to green our cities. Redeveloping acres of impermeable parking lots will reduce groundwater pollution. Shared trips will mean reduced emissions. Automated vehicles — shared or not — can travel within inches of one another, requiring far less pavement for vehicles. The resulting opportunity to repurpose one-third to one-half of our existing street pavement will offer a historic opportunity to redefine the fit between urban and nature. Instead of a car in every garage, every street can host a rain garden. Major boulevards will become continuous ribbons of urban trees coursing through the city.

Before we finish painting this picture of urban renaissance, we need to hit pause. Are we planning a next generation of urban development that will be outmoded from day one? Will SAVs exacerbate gentrification, reinforcing trends that have led to an increase in suburban poverty of more than 60 percent since 2000, according to the Brookings Institution? Should SAV services be operated by private companies or as extensions of public transit, with corresponding public accountability? These are only some of the most obvious questions. The first step should be an in-depth conversation that draws together people from every neighborhood and livelihood.

We need to start planning now to anticipate the revolution that’s just around the corner. ■

David Dixon FAIA leads Stantec’s Urban Places Group.