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Community engagement 2.0

We’ve all been to the public meetings with endless Powerpoints and a few very vocal citizen-activists who dominate the conversation. Perhaps you even presented at one such forum or sat in the audience wondering, How much of this is seeking public input, and how much is placating the public? How can community-engagement efforts become more ... well, engaging? A growing number of planners, designers and technologists are exploring social media, multiuser virtual environments and other interactive technologies to increase participation in the planning and design process. How do these new technologies complement the traditional public process, which values the immediacy of face-to-face interaction? And how can planners and designers make the best use of the gads of information generated from these technologies?


One class of participatory technologies is helping planners and designers better communicate the complexities of planning issues to a wider public, freeing them from the tyranny of Powerpoint presentations, flipcharts and a rigid workshop format. Interactive workshop tools such as the Envisioning Development Toolkits, created by the Center for Urban Pedagogy, enable laypeople to participate in conversations about changes in their neighborhood by teaching them about planning and design concepts and terminology.

Information Gathering

Another class of technologies seeks to turn members of the general public into information gatherers and tap into their local intelligence as the basis for sound planning interventions. Mobile applications such as Boston’s CitizensConnect allow people to easily report the state of their city; OpenStreetMap makes it easy for the layperson to represent features of his or her built environment that a map surveyor might have missed. Both are already having a huge impact in terms of better municipal service delivery and operations, and it’s not difficult to imagine the potential kinds of collectible data that will give designers a better sense of what they are designing and who they are designing for.

Some practitioners have found promising ways of integrating these technologies into traditional analogue public processes. In a recent planning workshop in Somerville run by Denver-based PlaceMatters, participants walked in groups to take pictures of their neighborhood and sorted them into subjective categories such as “desirable use” and “needs improvement.” These then composed a large online photo database and acted as a catalyst for small group conversations. The end result is not only a rich visual repertoire of the residents’ local knowledge but also a great deal of mutual purpose that arose from discussions among neighbors.

Participatory Chinatown, developed by the Asian Community Development Corporation, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and Hub2 of Emerson College and funded by a MacArthur Foundation grant, aims to create the same sense of mutual purpose within a community—but through gaming. Community members explore a digital replica of Boston’s Chinatown as one of 15 avatars, each of which represents a certain set of interests. For example, one avatar is an elderly Chinese immigrant who wants to live near other senior citizens, and another is a Tufts student. By taking on the guise of an avatar, participants come to understand the concerns and interests of others.

To some practitioners in the area, the mainstream adoption of participatory technologies simultaneously holds great promise and demands thoughtful and critical attention in their use. Rob Goodspeed, a PhD student in planning at MIT, says that innovations in participatory planning must be well grounded by effective “offline” ways of working. The recent Internet & American Life Survey by the Pew Research Center seems to bear this out. Although people of all ages, races and incomes are moving online swiftly, the access level is greatest among the younger, the wealthier, and the whiter. This raises valid questions about disparities in access to web-based public participation and the troubling image of a new sort of “echo chamber,” as the technologically fluent dominate virtual public-discourse forums.

More immediately, how will planners and designers operate in a progressively more egalitarian and participatory online environment? Do things such as Next Stop Design, where a worldwide audience shares their opinion and votes on a future bus stop’s design, mark the dissolution of boundaries between experts and the public? Goodspeed doesn’t think so. Design professionals, he says, still have a role in putting forward assertive and creative solutions, but innovative participatory planning could ideally turn that into more of a two-way street, where the public, in the process of finding solutions to common problems, builds cohesion and a sense of inclusion, and design professionals, by tuning into the collective intelligence of the public, become more astute, dexterous and therapeutic in their problem solving.

Meera Deean is a designer in Boston.

Siqi Zhu is an urban planner and information designer at Utile. Prior to joining the firm, he studied urban planning at Harvard Graduate School of Design, where his work focused on the intersection between urban design, innovative visual communication, and environmental and social sustainability. At Utile, he has been involved in several public-realm-enhancement projects, including a streetscape study for Acushnet Avenue in New Bedford, Massachusetts; a study of a pedestrian mall in Salem, Massachusetts; and the ongoing Boston Complete Streets initiative. As part of the latter project, he worked on developing aspirational design standards for future Boston streets and devised visual and information design strategies that seek to better inform and involve a wider public.

Top: Photograph by Nathanial Hansen and Matthew Hashiguchi. Reproduced by permission of Engagement Game Lab.

New law grants Massachusetts architects mechanic’s lien rights

On January 5, 2011, Governor Deval Patrick signed into law amendments to Massachusetts’ Mechanic’s Lien Act (M.G.L. c. 254, § 1, et seq.) that provide design professionals and their consultants with lien rights for the professional services they provide on private construction projects. The new law goes into effect on July 1, 2011.

The legislation is the result of successful lobbying efforts by the AIA Massachusetts Government Affairs Committee and AIA members from across the Commonwealth, who supported the bill through advocacy events, including Design Professionals Day, and direct outreach to legislators. The Government Affairs Committee initiated this campaign in 2007 and, since then, worked with allied organizations representing other design professions, contractors and subcontractors to develop consensus and garner support for the bill.

“For years, the mechanic’s lien law has provided an efficient and effective tool for contractors and subcontractors when an owner defaults,” explains John Nunnari Assoc. AIA, executive director of AIA Massachusetts and co-chair of the Government Affairs Committee. “This legislation will help ensure that architects and other design professionals receive full compensation for the value of the work they perform under a contract.”

Who can file a mechanic’s lien?

The law provides lien rights to “design professionals” who are licensed or registered in Massachusetts. The definition of “design professionals” includes architects, professional engineers, licensed site professionals, landscape architects and land surveyors. These design professionals can now place a lien against a property as security for the value of their “professional services” related to that property. The law defines “professional services” as:

“Services that are customarily and legally performed by or under the supervision or responsible control of design professionals in the course of their professional practice, including without limitation, programming, planning, surveying, site investigation, analysis, assessment, design, preparation of drawings and specifications and construction administration services.”

What is the procedure for filing and enforcing a lien?

There are three basic steps for creating, maintaining and enforcing a lien against the delinquent owner or developer’s property:

  1. File a notice of contract. The design professional must file or record a form with the registry of deeds providing notice of the contract for professional services on the property in question. This notice must be filed within 60 days of the Notice of Substantial Completion (this refers to the Notice of Substantial Completion filed or recorded by the owner and contractor as provided in M.G.L. 254 § 2A and not a Certificate of Substantial Completion like AIA Form G 704) or 90 days of the last professional service performed, whichever is earlier. This notice creates a lien on that property. Click here for samples of the statutorily prescribed notice of contract forms.
  2. File a statement of account. The lienholder must file a statement that includes the total amount due or to become due under the contract within 30 days of the deadline for recording the Notice of Contract. There is not a statutorily prescribed format for this statement, but it must include the owner’s name and a description of the property.
  3. Take civil action to enforce the lien. The design professional must file a complaint in the District or Superior Court in the county in which the project is located to “perfect” its lien within 90 days after the filing of the statement of account. Thereafter he or she must record an attested copy of the complaint within 30 days of commencing the lawsuit in the same manner and registry where he or she recorded the other lien documents.

Both the notice of contract and the statement of account must be recorded in the registry of deeds or in the registry district of the land court in the county in which the construction project is located.

What is the effect of a successful lien?

The lien creates an encumbrance on the property, which provides the lienholder with the right to proceeds from the sale of the property and, ultimately, the ability to foreclose on the property and force a sale to collect the professional service fees due under the contract. The lien can secure payment for services that relate to the proposed or actual erection, alteration, repair or removal of a building or improvement to real property only under a written contract. Architects are entitled to a lien for fees related to preparing and furnishing plans, even if the project is abandoned and the plans are never used.

The proceeds from the sale of the property will be used to pay off the owner’s contractual debts that are secured by liens or mortgages, including those owed to the design professional with the lien. Design professional liens have a lower priority than the liens of contractors, subcontractors, suppliers and laborers, and certain types of mortgagees, and will be paid only if money remains after satisfying those liens.

Design professionals must be careful to comply strictly with the statute’s procedural requirements. Failure to adhere to the timing or notice requirements may dissolve the lien and prevent the lienholder from enforcing its rights.

Thanks to Chris Noble, Esq., of Noble & Wickersham LLP for reviewing this article.

Andrew Baldwin is an attorney at the Law Offices of Richard A. Glaser, P.C. and former public policy manager for the Boston Society of Architects.

Massachusetts State House photo by RightIndex. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution license.

Maine’s building and energy code: So goes the nation. But which way?

As architects, we rarely see ourselves on the front line of foreign policy. Well, we are now, and to deploy our responsibility, as for any conflict worth engaging, requires long and complicated logistics.

The situation in Maine

Over recent weeks, the Maine Legislature and the state’s governor, Paul LePage (who has achieved national notoriety arising from several controversial statements and actions), have been reacting to grass-roots efforts to repeal or severely constrain the newly promulgated Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code (MUBEC), the state’s first comprehensive regulation that became mandatory statewide as of December 1, 2010.

MUBEC consists of regulations that are in broad use nationally: the International Residential Code (IRC) 2009, the International Building Code (IBC) 2009 and the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) 2009, as developed by the International Code Council (ICC).

Although the code was voted by a previous legislature and strongly supported by the previous governor, creating an infrastructure needed to implement the new standards has been problematic and has taken a dedicated group of public servants and volunteers several years to roll it out. Despite their hard work, and partly because of a shortage of funds, the education, training and local preparation required for smooth implementation has been insufficient, and the resulting fears, unknowns and unbudgeted expense have arisen, expressed in the form of bills currently before the legislature and by cries of outrage.

This push-back, though considerable, is by no means universal. Many interests have expressed strong support for maintaining MUBEC’s requirements unchanged, though perhaps to be modified in administration and timing to allow adequate preparation. Voices I have heard favoring the retention of MUBEC, along with architects and engineers (whose lives have long been complicated by the absence of uniform and uniformly interpreted standards), include many builders and their associations, mortgage banks, code-enforcement officers, insurance interests, advocates for social and economic justice, environmentalists, community activists—in short, those you might expect, not just those who could be accused of being pro-government liberals favoring more regulation.

This rich coalition of diverse interests and philosophies reflects the issues society faces more generally, and as in our larger theater of irresolution, decision—or even its direction—remains far from clear, which brings us back to foreign policy.

National issues

Historically in the United States, building codes have been developed largely through a political consensus of means to protect health, safety and property. Construction regulations have not generally been developed to foster long-term economic interests, much less to express national policy related to the exploitation of resources, capital and labor. The efficiency of the market has been given control of these values, largely by default. Even the relatively recent promulgation of energy codes has arisen from an economic desire to reduce operating expense. And though extensive markets and practices in green construction have been developed from enormously successful and largely private initiatives intended to promote and reward environmental values, they have not been driven by national interest or have been related to foreign policy.

Indeed, as in Maine, so many of the regulations that our society has developed are currently being questioned as counterproductive. And few in the construction industry would deny that the complexity of our work expands even more rapidly than information technology can simplify. We experts, and I would argue, the market generally, are losing the ability to develop process and wisdom equal to discharging our responsibility to the public and society we serve.

What to do?

We have examples of how to approach our duty. I am told that in France, one cannot get a building permit for a roof that would last less than a century. The conservation of national resources, as expressed in durability, is a priority. Stripped of its colonies more than a half century ago, the French economy had to make national and foreign policy to integrate its supplies internationally. In the United States, we find ourselves forced to the same end through globalization. But we should decide the result, not simply accept its outcome.

As architects, we are trained to see and privileged in and responsible for seeing beyond immediate need to meet the larger goals of the client, the community and society. Let us consider and aim for what we want to accomplish as a nation and in our world. Though our goals are complex and contradictory, we must not neglect their importance because it is larger than our means.

George Terrien AIA practices from Rockland, Maine. In addition to having served as the president of the (then) Boston Architectural Center, he has been president of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards and the National Architectural Accrediting Board, and has been a member of the registration boards for architects in Maine and Massachusetts.

Photograph by Andrew Lachance. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

Ten questions for Lonnie Laffen AIA of North Dakota

In November, Republican Lonnie Laffen AIA of North Dakota won the 43rd District (Grand Forks) seat on the North Dakota State Senate. As one of three AIA members nationwide to win election to their state legislature for the first time, Laffen recently sat down for a BSA Q&A on his campaign experiences and vision for his public service.

Why did you decide to run for office?

I grew up in a small town where you really had to be involved in everything, so I always knew I’d be involved in public service in some way. But it’s difficult to be involved in our community. My town is small—only 50,000 people—and I’d have conflicts constantly if I chose to be politically active within the community where I am working.

I love our state, and when I looked around, I thought it could use an architect’s help. The state is by far the biggest owner of building space in North Dakota, with 11 higher-education institutions in addition to all the government buildings. Becoming a state legislator seemed a way to get back to some public service.

Was this your first time running for election?

Yes. My name had never been on a ballot before this election. Because of the work we do, I am fairly well known in our community—which was a campaigning advantage. I think people also respect the professionalism of being an architect.

Will you continue to practice as an architect while serving?

Yes, I will. I’m only 52 and have an architecture firm with about 45 staff in five offices, three of which are in North Dakota. It is much less conflicting to be a practicing architect and work at the state level, as the legislators are really acting on behalf of the state.

How does an architecture background help in public service?

It can be a huge advantage for campaigning. An architect’s background helps you plan and organize large projects, which is useful in a campaign. I used my graphic tools and knowledge for designing billboards and postcards, so an architect’s marketing expertise is also perfect for that aspect of campaigning. Going forward as legislators, architects bring a unique ability to see the big picture as well as the skill to organize large projects that can take a number of years. We are also good at understanding and working with large budgets.

What are the top issues facing your constituents?

In North Dakota, the issues are a little different from most of the rest of the country. We have a $1 billion surplus. We have a very good economy, but our surplus is really based on a very frugal populace who don’t live beyond their means. That has been the success for North Dakota: We don’t have foreclosures or banking issues because the work ethic and common sense of the North Dakotans means they don’t take out mortgages worth more than their homes. As strange as it may sound, during our last legislative session, we cut our property and income taxes by one-third.

Meanwhile, all our sectors of commerce are hot right now, and we aren’t a very big state. Agricultural prices are very high. The oil industry in the western part of the state is really exploding.

However, we have infrastructure and natural challenges: The roads in the western part of state are very battle-worn from the oil industry that is just taking off, and we have two huge water problems. Thirteen years ago, the eastern part of the state made the national news when the Red River overran its banks, a fire broke out and 13 buildings burned down. We built a huge dike system and got that under control, but now Fargo is facing similar issues. So flooding is a huge concern in the eastern part of the state. We also have a natural lake that rises and drops almost 50 feet at a time—swallowing up whole counties of land. We are trying to manage that through a pumping outlet system.

What are the top initiatives on your agenda?

The state is a huge owner of building space. In North Dakota, we have an extremely cold climate, so our energy costs are enormous. Yet there’s no statewide program for energy management or sustainability. I think we need to address this, and I know I can help there.

How will you measure the success of your first term?

I would feel successful if I could say that I had helped the state start thinking about the space we own as a whole and that we’d put some management pieces in place to control our energy use. The state of Oklahoma is doing some interesting things with how it manages energy in its higher-education institutions that center on policies, really, not new systems. That would be my starting place. If we could have something like that in place by the end of my first four years, that would be a good first step.

What role can government play in getting the building industry working again?

North Dakota’s building industry has never slowed down.

Was the AIA helpful to your campaigning efforts?

The AIA was not helpful at all. I called them because there is [ArchiPAC, the] AIA political action committee (PAC) that I have contributed to, but the AIA said its PAC won’t offer support at the state level. That was fine. I understood why our PAC money has to stay at the federal level; there just isn’t enough of a voice there, so that’s where we need to spend the dollars.

However, I thought the AIA would offer some sort of campaigning advice from architects who had run for election before. When I called the national office about that, they took my name and said they would have some people call me, but no one ever did. I probably should have called to follow up, but practice and campaigning do take a lot of time.

What could the AIA and its local chapters do to better help citizen architects?

We could do a better job of information sharing. I looked for some kind of guide for citizen architects and never found anything helpful. The AIA could develop policy statements on why architects make good leaders at the city, state and national levels, as well as some speaking points for architects to campaign on. I would be willing to help with that effort, if there’s a way. I think architects could be very successful legislators—we just need to collaboratively help them get elected.

Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers science, nature, animal issues, travel, food and passionate people for acclaimed publications such as Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine, and The Boston Globe. Her website is

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