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Boston Society of Architects

Target Feature

Health, safety,
and provision

An inventory of adaptable spaces and sites, Make/Shift exemplifies how architects can aid with civic mobilization during crises

TARGET April-June 2020

Make Shift Hero 03

Photos from Unsplash by Anders Jilden, John Macdonald, Laurent Venerosy, and William Daigneault

Stop video. Unmute.

“Happy Friday,” I spoke into my laptop’s microphone in an attempt to implement some semblance of a casual workplace routine. “Is it Friday?” replied Dan Arons, principal at Perkins Eastman. “My wife refers to every day as Blursday now.” I chuckled, reminded that for the past several weeks I’ve started these Friday calls with a team of architects, engineers, and healthcare design experts in the same blurry way: in an ad hoc office 10 feet from my bedroom, donning sweatpants, overwhelmed by a flood of information, and yearning for a moment of clarity to discern the appropriate next steps in response to COVID-19.

Urgency and ambiguity have characterized a growing ledger of calendar blocks labeled “Zoom: Make/Shift” with this Boston-area team. This working collective has been an opportunity for design professionals to offer and apply their knowledge in response to a crisis that just two months ago seemed distant, observable only in news reports from faraway locations. The process of reconciling spatial supply to spatial demand demonstrates the latent potential of architects and allied professions to labor in the pursuit of a public good.

As a name, Make/Shift describes the project, the process, and (hopefully) some of the bigger ideas embedded within. Makeshift solutions are typically quick fixes—provisional maneuvers that respond to immediate challenges, often working with what exists or what is on hand. Like the shims and jigs that respond to the contingencies of tolerance and time to hold a building together, the Make/Shift project offers temporary provisions. An inventory of existing but adaptable spaces, sites, and infrastructures attempts to fill in the gaps and hold together a healthcare system that threatens to rupture under the pressures of COVID-19. As an idea, Make/Shift might also suggest a redirection, a shift beyond the immediate response to crisis, in how we work as architects and spatial designers to address some of the more persistent challenges we face in the city.

The work began on Monday, March 23, with an email, a call to action from Mark Reed, principal at Lab Architect Group:

“Inspired by Anthony Monaco’s Dunkirk-style offer to use Tufts University buildings to assist in the pandemic, it occurred to me that the design and construction industry of Boston is expertly situated to envision buildings’ reuse in an emergency mode. . . . The current construction moratorium in Cambridge and Boston will free up creative capacity in our industry to strategize a new avenue for response. I am hoping that collectively we could organize ourselves to take on this challenge.”

At the time, there wasn’t an exact understanding of need but an urgent sense of responsibility. The quantitative projections of the scope of the response shifted daily: How many spaces for how many additional beds will be necessary? Should we plan to identify spaces to take on the overflow of acute-care patients? If we can optimize spaces to take on newly infected patients or postacute patients, might we relieve some of the pressures on hospital infrastructures?

Over the course of several days (and several scrolls worth of emails and Zoom calls), the recognition of need expanded to include spaces for testing, operational staging, and even temporary dwelling for healthcare workers. We’re now just one month into the process, and we’re still waiting for the “peak” of COVID-19 cases here in Massachusetts. Many of these questions still lack definite answers or affiliated timelines. The duration of the work is a moving target but has been conceived to have a life span beyond its immediate utility.

It might be too early to tell who will find the work useful. A recent Boston Globe article offered some hopeful news. According to Massachusetts General Hospital, COVID-19 patients are not expected to overwhelm the system during the anticipated surge of infected patients needing care in the last two weeks of April. The inventory that’s been collected exists beyond the concentrated need of city limits and offers opportunities for healthcare providers across the state and the region to make informed decisions when and if necessary. The Make/Shift team designed the information to be accessed by public health and private healthcare sector officials at the city, regional, and state levels. To that end, the work presents an important and notable point of concern: the challenge of trying to get this information into the hands of decision makers speaks to the murky, if not obstructed, channels of communication between local and regional government, and the architects, engineers, and designers entrusted to preserve the “health, safety, and welfare” of multiple publics.

The process of constructing Make/Shift demonstrates the catalytic potential of collaboration without compensation but has also shed light on the ways in which information can be territorialized, sequestered, and trapped in silos of economic and political power. The Boston Society for Architecture’s efforts have rallied more than 150 individuals from a variety of professional sectors and varied levels of expertise and experience. Working groups act nimbly, recognizing and deferring to the myriad sets of knowledge required to address the social, economic, and cultural consequences of the pandemic. At the same time, conversations with officials in Boston’s City Hall underscore the lack of access to information and expedient decision making at the federal level; and the plans of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to convert the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center into a full-fledged COVID-19 care site were nascent as recently as the end of March. Moreover, an attempt to reconcile Make/Shift’s efforts with the concurrent agendas of those in Boston’s commercial real estate sector have often been met with nonresponses, a sidestepping of work in favor of convening “steering committees,” and a general dismissal of expertise that originates from outside entrenched insider networks.

“Designers have a role to play as institutional and private entities in concert with public officials,” said Arons, but “we’re still not connected in the ways we need to be.” Perhaps, in light of these challenges, architects and designers might be encouraged to reflect on the agility of Make/Shift and its potential lessons for collaboration and potent civic mobilization. Three working teams—led by Jeff Galvin and Danielle Santos of Lavallee Brensinger Architects, Susan Blomquist of Payette, and Nate Peters of Autodesk—coordinated a process for establishing feasibility metrics, developed criteria to understand spatial needs and capacities, and built a digital platform to host a robust repository of data. In less than a month, working tirelessly and remotely, the Make/Shift collaborators created a process and product from the ground up. Effective and deliberate decision making, bolstered by the rigorous knowledge base of the profession, might be best deployed in distributed, improvised arrays rather than top-down, megascale planning.

The Make/Shift process anticipates the way we might design for accommodated or adapted occupations in the future. John Swift, an engineer and principal at Buro Happold, suggests that architects might demonstrate the value of design with the “foresight of planning for a multitude of future scenarios.” Conceiving of alternative spatial occupation, and the spatial infrastructures required to accommodate alternative occupants, might also encourage us to work more closely with experts outside the design, engineering, and construction sectors. Could we engage specialists in the consideration of spaces that mitigate the traumatic experiences associated with vulnerability and persistent crisis? Could we consult material fabricators to help negotiate the tensions between the sterility of a hygienic future and the haptic tactility of surfaces that ground us to our bodies in space? Could we enlist the storytellers of neighborhoods to remind us of the persistent, systemic structural circumstances that codify social, cultural, and economic inequity?

In light of these expanded platforms for practice, Kristi Dowd, principal at Stantec, suggests reconsidering the conventional modes of working that evade collaboration: “What we used to see as competition should be left by the wayside. Be aligned with the mission rather than individual or company ego. It takes all disciplines and perspectives to provide the most comprehensive needed solution, not the one we think individually is right.”

Dynamic and nimble collaboration from within our professional alliances has benefited the work of Make/Shift. Perhaps these alliances can be broadened to make the work even stronger.

A web-based digital table for identifying, collecting, and evaluating inventory is up and running—waiting to be operationalized as soon as needed. Beyond the promise of its immediate use, it has also catalogued a type of regional “spatial surplus” of buildings that might make themselves available for accommodation in the near or distant future. There’s optimism about maintaining access to the information procured by Make/Shift in the event of another health crisis but also as a measure to relieve the lingering pressures of housing instability, displacement, and the effects of severe weather and climate change. Addressing these pressures will require acknowledging the vulnerabilities that precede and persist past the inflection point of crisis. It will require ways of working that affirm the expertise of architects and the power of collective efforts to offer provisions beyond the temporary.