If you've ever wondered how you can have a bigger impact on your community, region, nation and the world through the power of design, you're going to love today's episode.
Today we speak Mia Scharphie and Gilad Meron, 2 researchers who have spent the past 3 years studying the world's leading social interest and public interest design firms.
They share their findings about the inner workings of these processes and these firms in a series of case studies which they have published at ProactivePractices.org.
You'll also discover:
- How to use the power of community-based design to make an impact
- Leading architecture firms making a difference through community-based design
- The challenges and opportunities of community-based design for architects and designers
Resources for today’s show:
Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:
Enoch: Practices are defined by a set of values rather than an orientation towards profit or towards a certain type of designed outcome that they’re producing.
Speaker 2: Business of Architecture Episode 183.
Enoch: Hello, I’m Enoch Sears and this is the podcast for architects. Where you’ll discover tips, strategies and secrets for running a profitable and impactful architecture practice. I’d like to invite you to discover how to double your architecture from income and create your dream practice of freedom and impact by downloading my free four-part Architecture Firm Profit Map. As a podcast listener you can get instant access by going to freearchitectgift.com.
If you’ve ever wondered how you can have a bigger community impact with your design work you’re going to love today’s episode. Today we speak with Mia Scharphie and Gilad Meron, two researchers who’ve spent the past three years studying the world’s leading social interest and public interest design firms. They share their findings about the inner workings of these processes in these firms in a series of case studies which they’ve published at proactivepractices.org, without further ado let’s jump in to today’s show. All right Mia and Gilad welcome to business of architecture.
Gilad: Thank you, happy to be here.
Enoch: It’s so good to have you two on today. During these group interviews when we go back and forward sometimes it’s a little bit more difficult because you might not know who’s going to answer the question. Don’t be afraid to talk over each other, we’ll get this figured out. First I want to direct my question to Mia to start off with. Mia tell me about your background how this new effort has come to be.
Mia: I’m a landscape architect by training but I have a lot of experience in the community impact, social impact world and I knew that I always wanted to do architecture work related to that. I right now run two companies, I run Creative Agency which is a design and research firm focused on social impact and place-based change. Then I run Build Yourself, which is an empowerment boot camp for women in creative fields that I teach actually at the Boston Society of Architects.
For the last three years I’ve been working with Gilad and with Nick McClintock our third research partner on a project called Proactive Practices. Which is looking at business models of social impact design and really looking behind the fancy projects to really understand how these businesses sustain themselves.
Enoch: How did this collaborative effort between the three of you come together?
Mia: We all met through Public Architecture, which is a social impact design firm, architecture firm located in San Francisco. Nick and I met there, at this point seven, eight years ago. Then Gilad also was affiliated with them and we all came together, realized we are interested in the same question, wanted to understand how we could build careers in social impact design and what the mechanisms were for sustaining that and just started to work together. This is really a self-initiated project to begin with.
Enoch: What I find interesting about it is that you’re actually getting into a little bit of the business behind these social interest firms and we look forward to diving into that. Gilad I’d like to ask you in terms of your perspective how did this research project initiate?
Gilad: My really hit the nail on the head, we had all been just interested in how this area of practice was emerging and evolving. Being each of us having spent some time at Public Architecture, we really were engaged with a lot of firms and non-profits that were doing this work and we just started noticing this common trend of focusing on projects and celebrating the great work that all these practitioners were doing but not really talking about the business behind it, not really discussing what the organizational strategies were or even what the design methods were that underlied all these practices in these projects.
We were really just trying to understand for ourselves how would we run a business that focuses on this kind of work. That led us to see case studies as the format that would allow us to best explore all the different elements of a business model and start to see trends across different businesses and try to identify larger strategies and approaches that seemed to be very effective in building businesses and really focused on social impact.
Enoch: What is proactive practice?
Mia: It’s a term that John Peterson of Public Architecture came up with. His story is that he was running a small architecture firm. They had some downtime, usually when architecture firms had downtime they say, “Oh let’s do a competition or something we can learn from.” He was really not interested in competitions because he felt like they were a waste of a lot of architects’ time, a lot of smarts and information goes into them and then maybe one project gets picked and maybe it doesn’t even get built.
He decided to flip the concept on its head and come up with his own version of a project that he thought there should be a competition for it and then basically to do the work of a competition for that project. The neighborhood they were in South of Market in San Francisco has very little open space. They developed a project that looked at how you could put more open space into South of Market and it was really a percolate strategy.
Then it caught on, there was interest from city hall and it was really this proactive approach to doing work instead of waiting to be asked to do that work. Well, not every firm that we’ve looked at has as clear of a kind of proactive approach. A lot of the firms that we’ve looked at are thinking really actively about social impact. Thinking actively about how they can make that impact through design services and not just waiting for the phone to ring with someone saying, “Hey, we really could use your design services on social issue like care to take a try?”
Enoch: Tell me about the research project, tell me that what went into it. You’ve give me an overview, let’s get into some of the specifics and some of the details.
Gilad: Definitely, it evolved over the course of about three years and we really started the research project by thinking about how we could more rigorously examine both the business models and organizational structures and financial back-ends of different firms. Really trying to understand how we would put together all the pieces to run a business.
As we started doing that we produced some early prototypes, some sort of beta versions of the case studies and we had a group of advisors who gave us a lot of really positive feedback but also gave us a lot of constructive criticism around what else needed to be included in these from the perspective of a sort of mid to late career professional who really knows what they’re doing in terms of the business of architecture.
We slowly refined those and developed a pretty in-depth research protocol. In terms of the research itself we would start by doing a large review of the firm’s portfolio, tying to understand who they are and what they do, really digging into any writing they’ve done about their practice or about their process. Once we feel like we have a really good handle on what they do we setup interviews with the firm leaders, usually the founders or design principals of each of these firms.
We have a whole long list of questions that we ask them and we really try and dig in to all the details of how the practice is being run. After we complete a series of two to three hour long interviews, we convene as a research team and really discuss those. We try and pick apart the details, what’s most important?
Then from there we do supplemental research, we’ll talk to other practitioners who know about those practices. We’ll do further research about their specific projects we’re looking to highlight. Then we move forward into the writing process and that includes some survey data, gathering financial information from them as well as following up with detailed questions about specific projects or things like that.
Enoch: What were the firms that were studied during the project?
Gilad: We looked at about 20, 25 firms total but the 10 we chose … I can just list them if you’re interested.
Enoch: Yeah, just go ahead read them off.
Gilad: The 10 firms are Inscape Publico, which is a hybrid firm based in DC. Emerging Terrain, which is a non-profit that closed its doors. It was operating out of Omaha, Nebraska. Mass Design Group and Utile Design with both operate out of Boston. Public Workshop which is a small non-profit in Philadelphia. Latent Design, which is based in Chicago. Ideo.org which is the non-profit spinoff of the large design firm Ideo. The Baltimore office of Gensler and Proximity Designs.
Mia: Andrea Cochran landscape architecture which has a subsidized, they’re a more traditional firm that does subsidized work as part of their portfolio and they do high-end work as well so there’s an offset.
Enoch: Interesting, you both talked about going into this with the idea that you wanted to adventurly create a firm like this. Is that in the future, is that still a conversation of you guys coming together to create a public interest design firm?
Mia: I’m already running a business and I would say that I am very influenced by what I’ve learned from the case studies. I’ve been thinking a lot about business lessons that you can take from it. Gilad and I especially collaborate on a couple of other things. We have very similar interests. Whether it’s a formal company or a kind of informal new economy collaboration we’re already doing that.
Enoch: Fantastic, let’s get into the discoveries, the insights from going to this process. Obviously when you started out you probably had a very vague notion of what would be a successful way to structure something like this. Let’s jump into the models that you think work, what are some of the challenges of running a public interest design firm? Let’s start with that.
Gilad: There’s many, maybe we can start with a broad macro level and hone in on some specific ones. We’ve found that practicing in a community engaged way, in a public interest manner achieving social outcomes really requires expanding the scope of what a design project looks like. In many cases that means a lot of pre-design research, it means a lot of work that goes into the project long before you ever even get to concepts. That’s something that we’ve seen very consistently across all the firms that there’s a willingness and a proactive nature to what the firms do.
They want to explore all the contextual issues around design project. To really reframe the project brief from day one and go back to day zero a little bit and spend a lot of time in that period before ever moving into the design process. That’s really helped a lot of these firms reframe some challenges. They start thinking differently about what the project aims to achieve and less so focused on a specific design outcome or a specific solution to one problem and more looking at the broad, more holistic approach to what is the organization we’re working with, who are our partners and how do we assist them beyond just a one off design solution.
Enoch: Can you give me an example of this, of this pre-design research and more in-depth. Give me an example of that from one of the firms that you studied.
Mia: Mass Design is the perfect example. When I first interviewed Michael Murphy who’s one of the founders. He said that they considered their partners … They don’t work with clients they work with partners. I originally thought that it was just like nice marketing speak and I was like, “Okay, let’s get to the real deal of your firm here.” Overtime I started to realize that it’s actually true.
They often times will fundraise with their partners. They’re going out and finding funding together, crafting a narrative together. With their work with the Equal Justice Initiative, they’re working on a monument but they didn’t just get the brief, “Hey we want a monument that covers the history of lynching in the American South.” Instead they worked with them on a project that you could argue is pre-design or a kind of coming soon sign for this really huge project they’re proposing.
You can call it an art, an installation project. They’re going to sites across the south and EJI the Equal Justice Initiative is really running this art but Mass Design was involved in designing it. They’re collecting soil from the different sites in which lynching has happened across the American south because in many cities it’s never really been memorialized. It’s a multiple stage effort and Mass Design is working with them as creative thought partners and also as designers throughout the process.
Mass Design also doesn’t talk about its projects in terms of commercial work, residential work, the kind of typical typologies. They’re talking about it in terms of the impact they produce and often times when they can raise the funding they’re going back to see whether those impacts were actually met. Right now they’re working on a study of a project that they did a few years ago which is in the healthcare space, to try to understand whether the decisions they made lead to better health outcomes than other properties with similar conditions.
There’s really, sometimes we think of design as starting with pre-design which is a pretty short period, which we often don’t get paid a lot for and sometimes we’re even doing it for free because we’re trying to land the client. Then it ends with construction admin but a lot of these firms pre-design has expanded and some of them have also been doing post-design working on capacity issues, continued relationship building evaluation.
Gilad: Another really great example of what we’re talking about in terms of expanding the scope of services is Latent Design in Chicago. Just a quick example to explain that is a project they were working on with a small non-profit in Chicago who wanted a new building. That’s how the project started, with, “Hey we need a new building, this is going to increase our capacity and we’re going to be able to host more programing and series.”
As Latent Design got further involved in the project and really started to understand the mission of the organization, what their organizational issues were. They started to recognize that this is more than just a building, you need new types of programing, you need new sources of funding, you need more capacity on staff and a list of other things that they really needed to achieve the long term goals of the organization.
Rather than diving into just designing the building for them, Latent Design really focused on grant writing, on strategic planning and doing a host of services that would traditionally be seen outside the scope of the design process, but ended up leading to achieving the long term goals for the organization beyond just a physical built form.
When we talk about the services and the scope of work being outside of what traditional architecture focuses on, it’s really towards the long term goal of helping that organization’s mission. Rather than as an architect might traditionally approach it simply designing a building or designing a finished outcome.
Enoch: What is the financial model behind say for instance Latent Design in terms of her getting paid?
Gilad: That’s a really good question and a difficult one to answer. What we found is a lot of firms tend to piece together multiple different sources of funding and maybe this speaks to a larger macro level insight, there is no one right way to practice public interest design, there is no perfect business model that’s a lot about each firm, each firm directors, connections, networks, their capacity to find partners within their city or within their region that want to work with them.
They often have to be very creative in the way that they fund the projects, a mix of grants, public sources of funding to achieve things that a department of public works or department of transportation is already working towards and need help with. Also self-funding in parts, some firms will do short portions of a project for free because they know it’s going to lead to something in the long term. Unfortunately, I don’t have a very clear cut answer this is the business model, this is how the finances work but I think … Yeah go ahead Mia.
Mia: Inscape Publico which is one of the firms we studied. What we hope is emerging is a set of typologies of funding. I’ll run you through a few that have emerged for me. Inscape Publico was a firm that has basically two companies, a for profit and a non-profit sitting side by side. The for profit is a traditional firm, it’s called Inscape Studio, Inscape Publico is a spinoff company that is a non-profit, it can take donations.
Inscape Publico works with non-profit clients and works with them for about 30 cents on the dollar taking them from pre-design to schematic design that’s details enough to get bids from contractors and also has imagery that you can go and fundraise with. They did it because they found that non-profit clients needed design services the most when they could least afford them but then they’re able often times to raise the money to go then pay for more design services.
If you’re able to raise money you can take that package and work with any other architect in town you want to work with or you can take it to Inscape Studio and go through design development all the way through construction admin. They can subsidize the subsidized services that they give to non-profits by raising money. In practice it’s hard to raise money because architectural firms are not necessarily built to be fundraising development engines but it’s something that definitely can be done and we’ve seen firms that are very, very good. Mass Design is amazing at fundraising.
There’s a couple of practices that have been figuring out how to do fundraising really, really well. There’s one model. The second model we call it the Robin Hood model [Andrea Cochran 00:19:11] Landscape Architecture does really, really high-end work and often times has a subsidized project on the boards. It has a lot to do with her relationship with the local affordable housing architect but her work in affordable housing is award winning, beautiful.
She says that it gives her staff a chance to practice their design skills on smaller budgets than they usually get to work with when they’re doing really high-end work. Then there’s a whole set of models that are somewhere in the middle and are really about finding partners, funding partners who want the kind of outcomes that your firm delivers and then learning how to speak their language and scope projects that meet their needs.
Gilad: I would add that sometimes these aren’t necessarily financially profitable practices. The Baltimore office of Gensler is engaged in a long term experiment right now about how do we make this financially profitable. To this point all the community engagement work they’ve done haven’t presented many returns in terms of revenue but they have documented a lot of other gains from it. For example, they’ve gotten a lot of awards that brings visibility to the office and positions them as a really community oriented service provider.
They’ve also said that it helped to retain the staff which is really important because onboarding and training takes a lot of time and resources. In that way there’s a couple other supplemental non-financial benefits that a lot of firms have noticed that can justify investments in these type of work even though they don’t always show direct financial returns.
Mia: One of the things I will add on to that point at least is that architects are often giving their time away for free, to land a client or because we just can’t help ourselves. While I think that there are models to be doing social impact design work if you’re smart about it and if you’re really being antithetic about what your partners/clients need, what your funders need. I also think that there’s a lot of opportunities for regular firms to do socially impactful work, to do mission based work especially if you run your own practice you have a lot more agency than you think and there are ways to actually make it be a smart business decision if you’re thinking about that relationship strategically.
For example, Latent Design in her early years which were during Katherine Darnstadt early years which were during the recession. She was doing low-bono and pro-bono work but she was writing contracts for it. She was actually writing in to the contracts that one of the terms was that she would be able to present to the board of directors of the non-profit she was working for. It was a way for her to think strategically about marketing.
Enoch: Why would she present to the board of directors?
Mia: I don’t specifically know but I assume the project she’s working on, her portfolio as a firm. She was doing blended work, she was doing not just socially impactful work but also work on the commercial side as well. It’s a synergistic point, actually Utile is another firm that does not consider itself a classic public interest design firm but they do a combination of urban planning work. Often focused on urban redevelopment, economic development and then they do architecture.
They’ve got a great synergy where they’re often working with cities upfront on what their big priorities and big issues are. Then when developers are working on that project, Utile also has an architecture planning practice. They know what the issues are, they’re informed by the planning side of their practice. It helps them stand out from the crowd in terms of being selected with the developer side of those projects.
Enoch: I want to go back to the example of Inscape that you brought up earlier. You talked about their public arm working for 30 cents on the dollar. How do they make up the difference, how does that business model work?
Gilad: That came out of a recognized gap that they saw in the field that there were a lot of non-profits that needed to have concepts and some rendering and schematics to be able to go to funders and say, “Hey this is the project we’re fund raising for.” They recognized that non-profits didn’t have $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 needed to produce schematics. They said, “Hey, if we could offer those services at a subsidized rate from a non-profit arm. We could then fundraise to make up the difference by saying, “Hey we’re a non-profit that’s providing services to other non-profits.”
They have a development director that works across a number of platforms in terms of fundraising through events, fundraising through individual donors. They’re also seeking more fundraising through major manufacturers and other companies and corporations in the building and design trade industries who they feel should be providing some sort of small amount of support for non-profits in the field. It’s essentially saying, “Hey we have this non-profit, we’re going to fundraise to make up the difference and provide services to other non-profits at a subsidized rate.
Mia: I would say that they haven’t cracked that nut 100% yet but they’re on their way. One of the things that stood out to us as we were doing it because we’d never really studied business modeling before. This was a really great schooling for us. Is that it can take a couple of years for an idea to get to proof of concept. Doing development work, doing fundraising development work in the built environment is something that a lot of funders haven’t necessarily been approached for.
They don’t think of the built environment as being a place to help the same way we can give medicine or public health or social services doing that. Building those relationships with funders can take time and it’s a little bit of a long road but if you can get there and start to get good at it and be able to have that core competency on your team, there’s a real possibility that it can work.
Gilad: The core competencies there are very important too, something that we notice not only in Inscape but in a few other models as well. Is that the skills needed to do development work in terms of fundraising and building relationships with donors and outreach. Those are very different skillsets from what you’re taught or trained as an architect in school or even what you learn on the job. That’s just something else we’ve started to recognize. There’s this whole other set of complimentary skillsets that architects don’t traditionally have that are actually critical to successfully running a public interest design firm.
Enoch: What would you say those skillsets are?
Mia: It’s empathy and paying attention. I actually think that they’re really similar to the marketing skillset which not a lot of architects do that well either. This is going to sound silly but it means getting beyond your ego as a designer and really trying to listen carefully to the way other people frame things and the way other people see things and what they care about.
Enoch: I’m just going to pause you there for a second Mia because I want to dig into what you’re saying. I’m sure a lot of listeners because every single architecture firm website that I ever visit tells me that they listen to their clients.
Enoch: All right, won’t you agree and I’m sure a lot of people listening right now are thinking, “Well, that doesn’t apply to me because I do listen to my clients.” However, there’s obviously something you’re seeing here that there’s some sort of disjuncture and I want to dig into that.
Mia: There’s a great book called Architecture and Ethnography of Practice by Dana Cuff. Which really looks at architecture, the field as a culture. It’s amazing and was central to the way that I started to think about this work. The way that we’re trained, it’s the studio model, we do beautiful work. We then are critiqued by peers and it’s about, we’re taught to talk about our work in terms of the way it fits into a canon. Professional training and development is really important but architecture is also a service and needs to provide value for other people.
I can count on one hand the number of times that I presented my work when I was a student to people who would be using it, decision makers, maintenance staff and facilities. Work that was on an urban scale to politicians or people who are thinking about the public realm. Learning how to have a more thoughtful approach to language and understanding what other people invest in architecture, what are they ultimately trying to produce with it, and being able to talk about those outcomes rather than just the built fabric or the way it looks or the shop top.
I should say not all of this comes from ego and maybe that was a strong statement that I made but we do know that our field does have a little bit of architect culture. Some of it just comes from the fact that the way that we’re trained, I don’t think is as holistic and cross-cutting at it needs to be in order to make us smart business people and people who can go to experts in our culture for how built environment issues actually relate to so many other issues that we care about.
Gilad: Also as we’ve been going through more and more of these case studies and through all the research, we’ve started to identify a few common trends in terms of skills to your question of, what do you need to do? A lot of them are more in the area of soft skills rather than hard skills. That’s arguable but like we mentioned earlier a lot of this work lands in the pre-design phase of work.
It’s not about your technical capacity to do a drawing in a different manner or use different software to do that work but it’s about everything else you’re doing before that ever happens. That relates in a lot of ways to meeting facilitation, going to community meetings or public hearings and being able to listen to a lot of different voices and understand how you might be able to come to compromises. There’s other things like story planning methodology. There’s a lot in urban planning, that relates to this field. Research skills are really important too and research more closely related to sociology and economics and organizing then to design and construction.
We’ve also seen communication and information design be really important since so much of this work is rooted in community engagement, in the idea that getting input from a more diverse and more inclusive group of people allows for better design outcomes. That means really understanding how to communicate with a very diverse range of people. Architects are typically trained to use architect speak and use a certain type of language that other architects and their clients often really recognize and resonates with them but that’s not always the same type of language that will resonate broadly with the public.
There’s a lot around diagramming, visual communication and means of storytelling that can resonate with broad groups. To the point about Inscape Publico grant writing and understanding fundraising is another skill we’ve seen as being really critical because in many cases this requires a slightly different business model that isn’t just based on [inaudible 00:30:50] for service work. There’s other streams of funding that are coming in and the skills to access those funding are also very important.
Mia: One thing I’ll add to this is that the flip side of all of this is that we have some incredible skills as a field that are under-represented in the change making professions. We have a way of making things that are just ideas feel real. Our ability to visualize things, to create a world before it actually exists. We have the ability to think through multiple options and make them clear to people using our visualization skills.
We have ways to think about phasing and multistage processes and break them down in a way that makes very complicated processes feel more feasible, understandable, comprehendible. There’s so many ways in which I think that the creative professions have been squeezed out a little bit and the built environment profession has been squeezed out of change making. I would just love to see us add the value that I think that we’re capable of adding.
Gilad: Experience is another one that’s really important as well. As Mia mentioned earlier Katherine Darnstadt of Latent design did a lot of work pro-bono or low-bono, as we called it, early on in her career that gave her a lot of expertize. Not necessarily around technical aspects of a project but around the value based approaches and how to interact with community members. A lot of that on the ground experience just working with leaders of local neighborhood coalitions things like that.
Understanding the way those interactions play out and the type of work that’s needed to move that kind of thing forward. More than anything it’s just experience doing community based work separate from architecture and design but just being more involved. If you want to be a community based architect. What does that mean in terms of your experience in just community based work.
Enoch: Let’s take a minute here just to define what is what we’re talking about here in terms of community based work. How would you define community based work versus say for instance what we might call a traditional architecture firm that has traditional clients with traditional fee structures? Maybe a hospital wants to add something on. Even a lot of non-profits will go to general architecture firms and say, “Hey we need this new civic building built or we need a little remodel happening here.” What would you say and we’ll have each one of your take but what would be your personal definition of community based design.
Mia: I would say that for the terms of proactive practice as our research we looked at this question early on and decided not to come up with a strict definition because there are so many ways people design social impact design and we thought it would be instructive to actually look comparatively at the set and to have more diversity within our set. When I think about what I want to do and what seems to be socially impactful to me. While public improvement is really important it’s not enough.
I think a lot about who within society has less power and how architecture as a force can actually change power and equity. I’m very interested in economic inequality and very interest and racial and gender inequality. Those are the problems that I tend to focus on and I would say that one of the things that can come up in socially impactful design is that sometimes architects will define social impact in a general public improvement way, but that’s not how the social impact world and funders around it are thinking about it.
They’re thinking about who’s the beneficially. Well, everybody. No, not everybody is a beneficiary let’s think about specific groups, let’s think about how to make more equity in the projects that we’re doing through this work. Sometimes architects can take some time to get used to that, those new frameworks and those new ways of thinking. There’s different kinds of impacts, there’s environmental impact, there’s impact on specific populations, there’s health outcomes. In this work it’s important to be specific about what you’re trying to target and what your theory of change is as to how it’s going to change.
Enoch: Gilad over to you.
Gilad: I share a lot of the same ideas as Mia. Addressing power and equity are key parts of this. Those ideas have these larger values that you’re working towards seem to be the common trend in my opinion. That practices are defined by a set of values rather than an orientation towards profit or towards a certain type of designed outcome that they’re producing. Some practices, I’ve heard of architecture firms planning from say, “We want to do work on the scale of a city and that’s the purpose of our practice to do really large scale stuff that’s going to affect millions of people at once.”
In contrast what I’ve seen with a lot of these community based or public interest design firms is that there’s a set of values underlying their practice. They explicitly state those values and all of their decision making goes back to those core values. ideo.org is a great example, they’ve stated … I don’t know if it’s their mission statement or their tag line what they talk about, but they say their goal is use design to improve the lives of people in poor and vulnerable communities.
That says nothing about designed outcome, that says something about values that they hold and how they’re going to approach work. In every project they do when they’re making a decision or they’re deciding, “Do we do this, this or this or how do we approach this project?” It always comes back to those core values of, “We’re trying to improve the lives of people in poor and vulnerable communities so what decision would put us most directly on that path?”
We’ve seen that same type of approach in a lot of different firms, the specific goal around values and orientating decisions and types of projects and all kinds of things within the firm from organizational structure and how much each staff person gets paid to the type of projects they seek out to the type of design methods and processes they used, all being rooted back in those core values that are really more akin to the mission statement than to way of practicing.
Mia: One of the things we haven’t talked about but is a big part of what drew us to this research is that in the wider business world we’re seeing this shift towards social entrepreneurship and triple bottom line business models. We did a lot of thinking about what’s happening in that world and what’s can architecture and design firms learn from that world.
There’s a firm that we haven’t studied but has been on our agenda called Maiden Lower Eastside which is a storefront rental service. It’s an economic development project and they call themselves the Airbnb of storefronts. Where can architects take ideas from other places and then apply them to the way that we do business and do business for good? Latent Design for example is a B Corp which is a benefit corporation. It’s a structure in which profit matters but then benefit and social benefit also matters.
We’re seeing this trend happen in the wider world of business and it’s something really useful to follow because profit does matter. You need to be able to pay your employees or else you’re not going to stay in business to keep making the impact that you’re making. We know that a lot of us are motivated by much more besides money. It’s really about these blended models that allow you think about balancing the different kinds of impact and compensation and benefit that you’re making for yourself and then your employees and then also on specific issues that you care about.
Gilad: I want to second that, that money does matter. As Mia said it’s really important the practice is financially sustainable. While I spoke a lot just about values, what’s interesting or what we’ve seen from some of these firms is that classic, cliché of constraint breeds creativity. Once you have these clear values stated that this is how we want to practice, we want to achieve these types of outcomes, this is the mission so to speak that we’re working towards. Then you get to be a designer and get really creative about, “How do we make the business model work so we can achieve this?”
As Mia mentioned earlier we have a really valuable set of skills as designers and architects and they allow us to see problems in unique ways bouncing between the macro and the micro and seeing how systems level processes affect things across a project. Once you have those certain value based constraints then you really get into the fan part of how do we design the business model to allow us to do this.
Enoch: Tell me a story of during this process something that happened that surprised you or something that’s interesting or maybe challenged you in terms of these case studies. Does a particular story come to mind where you were engaged on this firms and something happened and you had a breakthrough or an insight?
Mia: Latent Design is one of my favorite case studies in the bunch. They’re one of the smartest firms … I admire Katherine Darnstadt personally and I’m keeping an eye on her firm because I just think it’s super, super smart. For example, Katherine Darnstadt started offering a … She found out some of her projects were so small that contractors didn’t want to bid on them and she added general contracting services to her skillset.
She’s working on a very interesting project right now that is changing the way that place making is done, creative place making. Urban revitalization through creative urban interventions. It’s a really, really ambitious projects. She went up against advertising firms to bid on this project which isn’t just design but it’s also operations and management of micro-retail. She had to pay a lawyer out of pocket to rewrite ordinance language, legal language for the City of Chicago in order to allow for the kind of micro-retail spaces that will do the economic development work and urban vibrancy work that she wants to do.
What I’m seeing is a firm that is doing so many different types of things and it’s stretched pretty thing and my take away from that was be really smart, be looking at how to fill the gaps in the market but also be really careful about when you decide what gaps to fill and about what your core competencies are and what you need to partner on versus what you need to actually do in-house.
As I’ve been building my business I’ve been thinking a lot about not just moving outwards and taking on more ground like vertically and horizontally integrating but actually niching down and getting really good at what I do. Then figuring out who I need to work with in order to do the larger ambitious project.
Enoch: I’m sure there are listeners out there and a lot of designers who are thinking, “I would love to get involved with the movement, start something, do some public interest design.” What’s the frame, what would you tell them if you were sitting down with them and they wanted to pick your brain so to speak about how to be successful in this field. What’s the framework that you would lay out based upon what you have discovered?
Gilad: The first question that I would probably ask someone is why are you doing what you’re doing? It sounds vague and abstract but it’s actually critical that you start with the core value set you hold. Are you trying to address environmental sustainability, are you trying to address power and equity, are you trying to work with a certain marginalized community? What is the real goal start with that and then work out form there?
Once you identify a certain community or a certain issue or a certain region you want to work in or on, suddenly you begin to identify opportunities and you start to connect with community groups. That would be probably my advice, the next step identify the issue, identify why you’re passionate about doing this and then start connecting with the groups who are already operating in that space whether they’re local community groups, whether it’s a public agency that’s working in that part of the city, whether it’s a none profit, whether it’s just a set of individuals you know in that town who are working on those issues who can help inform you about them.
Going back to that idea of skillsets that are valuable from the field of architecture, who are really good at identifying problems, who are really good at finding little gaps and figuring out how to solve them. One of the most important first steps is just immersing yourself in that world so that you can start to become familiar with what those gaps are and how you could being to envision and design solutions to address those gaps.
Mia: Another tool that you can use if you get to that point that I think is an amazing tool is a reverse RFP. We’re used to responding to RFPs from clients, one of the things that you can do at least internally and potentially even externally is to write out an RFP for design services that you have, that you are willing to put towards a good use. I am not a big fan of pro-bono work. I actually think low-bono work is the way to go at least at first when you’re starting to test out the waters of this.
If there’s not skin in the game on both sides, it’s really like you have a project that’s doomed for failure. You actually have to make sure that even if the other side isn’t giving you the same financial commitment they’re giving you the same commitment in another form. If you’re really just getting started I say started with the project, a lot of this practices start with the project, it doesn’t have to be a huge project, it doesn’t have to be a project that goes from one end to the other of architecture but start with the feasibility study, start with a small intervention and use it as a way to develop the kind of soft skills that we were talking about and really to build your network.
Then step back from it and say, “What have I learned from this, what did I generate from this, how might I want to integrate that into the business that I’m already doing?” Maybe I do a project like this every two years, maybe there’s an ongoing relationship I have or maybe I want to actually more fundamentally shift my practice. Then I’m going to start working at some of the business models in our case studies. I’ll look at Mass Design’s funding structure, I’ll look Inscape Publico’s, I’ll look Public Workshop. I’ll look at the different ways that they find sustaining their practice.
Getting started with a project is a really good way in and also making sure that you tap into other community of architects who care about this kind of work is really important. There’s the open architecture network which is the new variation of what used to be architecture for humanity, there’s impact design hub which is a great online resource because a lot of what we learn, we learn from watching other people do it and talking about it with other people and having community with other people. There is already an existing driving social impact design community out there, don’t go it alone because you don’t have to.
Gilad: I also think it’s important to remember that this is by definition a nascent field that’s just coming into existence and just starting to display signs of future potential. For an architect or any form of designer who wants a career in this field, there’s not a job description out there that’s going to be perfect for you. A lot of the people who have done this have been very entrepreneurial in their approach, creating new opportunities for themselves, writing new types of job descriptions and proposing new positions for themselves to work not only in non-traditional firms but in organizations outside of architecture or in some way related.
Those fellowship that enterprise community partners host is a great example because they place architects in community development corporations, which are federally funded non-profits that do community development work. They don’t traditionally hire architects, they’re working with planners and economic development specialists but by inserting yourself into that type of organization you can show the value that design thinking and architectural expertise can have.
It’s important to remember that it’s a weird nascent field that’s still evolving and there’s still a lot of opportunity to craft your own role and placing it but there won’t be this certain perfect position with your name on it. You’re going to have to go out and create that position for yourself.
Enoch: I have the notes here of your suggestions to, I’m going to read them back to you and see if there’s anything you want to add to someone who wants to go down this path. The first one which is Gilad said, “You need to understand your why, exactly what is it that you want to accomplish by this.” Talked about acquiring those soft skills, learning how to fundraise, developing that part of your person and your skills. Starting with the small project, you just mentioned a feasibility study.
Mia talked about tapping into existing communities of support networks. People are already doing this, connecting with them and then Gilad you mentioned getting involved with an organization like [inaudible 00:48:48] the community design organizations that already existing, they’re federally funded and with the Rose Fellowship. For example, the example you gave getting into one of those organization. Any other suggestions that you would add to those or did we kill it?
Gilad: Communication is also a really key one. I mentioned earlier with the Gensler example that visual communication and being a translator of sorts, a code switcher so to speak is really key to be able to understand the needs of a large group of people and then translate those into a design brief, what that means. Also visual communication skills, to be able to share these more jargony terms and technical design issues with a broad group of people who don’t have training in design. All these skills around communication are really important as well.
Enoch: Mia do you have anything to add to that?
Mia: No, I think we got it, let’s not over complicate this. Let’s all build this field together.
Enoch: Fantastic, is there anything else that you want to add to our listeners about this process? What I’d like to know is where is this headed? I know you still have some case study that is yet to be released, what’s the next step for this research project that you have embarked upon together and including your other partner Nick?
Gilad: There’s a lot of different directions this could go and up until now we’ve really just been focused on [inaudible 00:50:28] case studies of the highest quality that we could. Moving forward we’ve seen interest in these being teaching tools. We’ve thought about possibly teaching courses or working with professors of different universities to help develop the educational side of this.
Something that’s come up a lot is that architects and designers need to relearn certain skillsets or do things that they weren’t trained to do in school. Rather than only work with professionals and relearn how they practice. There’s an interest in how do we just train designers differently from the beginning. I would love to see these transformed into teaching tools.
We’ve talked about consulting with small firms, seeing how we could take some of the insights we’ve learned and worked with firms to help them restructure their business models and we’ve talked about just continuing this as a form of a publication, just to keep documenting different models that are out there and keep spreading information, disseminating information around how to practice in this space.
Mia: We have a friend and advisor, she was one of our beta testers for our case studies named [Katie Kropo 00:51:35] who is launching a coaching business for social impact practitioners who want to figure out how to do this and make real careers out of it. Our case studies are just information, we’re also excited about other places in this larger field, other places gaps are being filled to help people move from point A, of being interested in this to point B of actually having careers in it. We’re really excited about what she’s doing.
Enoch: It’s an incredible work you’ve done, an incredible research project, fantastic case studies. How is the promotional attention that you’ve been getting to what you’ve been doing? How is it going? Has that met your expectations? Tell me about that process.
Mia: It’s going well, we have gotten coverage in a couple of places, Impact Design Hub, Fast Company. We’ve got some forth coming pieces that will be coming out in January and we’re getting a lot of people signing up for our email list. We remember being interested in this kind of work and not knowing what to do next about it. I discovered public architecture early in my career and I was so lucky but it felt like this thing that I wanted to do all of a sudden someone else was doing it and I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.
There’s a lot of untapped interest in doing this kind of work because it’s a small field and a young field. There’s not enough in it to kind of … There’s a lot of people who are looking for this kind of work, this kind of insight and don’t quite know where to find it. We are hoping to do whatever we can with this work to help close some of those gaps for people and it’s going well so far.
Enoch: I mean you’re definitely on the top architecture focus interview podcast in the world so congratulations.
Gilad: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.
Enoch: A big shout out to our mutual friend Andrew Goodwin for making the introduction, architect based out of San Luis Obispo. Thanks for doing that Drew. All right you guys, well, is there anything we’ve left out that you want to cover before Bid adieu?
Gilad: I would just encourage all the listeners to go read the case studies and share them with anyone else you know and really get them into the hands of anyone who’s interested in this field and wants to know more about how it works. I would also encourage anyone who read the case studies to reach out to us directly, all our contact information is on the website and we’d love to talk with readers and hear about what else they need, hear about other firms they’d recommend us looking into or just generally chat about the business of public interest design.
Enoch: Mia go ahead.
Mia: Thank you Enoch for having us.
Enoch: Absolutely, thank you very much and of course all the resources that we talked about today, the web links will be on the show notes of this page I encourage all listeners to go check it out there. In addition, where shall we direct them to be able to get on your email list, which I think will be a great resource and then also to read the case studies, where do they need to go?
Enoch: Fantastic, proactivepractics.org. Thank you very much for joining us Mia and Gilad, it’s been a wonderful time having you on The Business of Architecture and it’s really fun to see something that almost, this feels like a cousin to me here where I’ve been focused on the business not necessary the public interest design but the business in general and here you’ve done the same thing which is trying to crack a nut that you wanted to know how to crack and it’s just fantastic, look forward to meeting in person sometime.
Gilad: Definitely, thanks again for you time.
Enoch: Cheers, bye, bye.
Enoch: That is a wrap, thank you listening today. If you’re looking for more time, freedom, impact and income as an architect get instant access to my free four-part architect profit map visiting freearchtiectgift.com The sponsor for today’s show is ArchReach the client relationship management tool built specifically for architects. If you want to systematize your marketing and business development ArchReach will help you do it. Visit archreach.com to learn more.
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