Lessons from the Front Lines of Social Design

Source: http://places.designobserver.com/feature/lessons-from-the-front-lines-of-social-design/31998/

“So far, my career, like the places I’ve worked, is hard to quantify. I’ve dug septic lines, chain-sawed tornado debris, shoveled gravel, mixed concrete, and spread manure. I’ve code-checked drawings, drafted into the night, surveyed sites, graded tests, started an online business, and counseled students. You can count the buildings constructed, yards of concrete poured, and GEDs earned, but the real results are intangible — relationships, experiences, memories, lessons learned. I would like to call myself an architect, but I haven’t made any progress towards my license. The work I’ve done since graduation qualifies me for, at most, 1,016 out of the 5,600 hours required by the Intern Development Program. [25] But lacking the supervision of a registered architect or engineer, none of my professional experience is deemed suitable by NCARB, even though it includes managing budgets, creating drawing sets and building designs. This situation is of my own making, and I don’t regret any of the steps I’ve taken — forward, sideways or backwards — but I do wish there was more allowance in the licensure process for unconventional paths like mine.

In the last decade, much has been written about architecture for the greater good, and it would seem that the field, as a whole, is invested in bringing design to underserved communities. Yet all of this talk — at conferences, in the press, at universities — has focused hardly at all on how to put together a career in social design. I have sought out and pursued a suite of unconventional experiences, all the while finding it difficult to make a living and advance professionally. The careers of those I admire, from Soleri to Mockbee, all seem to end in up in the same place — starting a non-profit of one’s own. Some folks are doing just that. An acquaintance of mine from Alabama, Auburn graduate Jack Forinash, started Epicenter with a group of friends in Green River, Utah, in 2008. A community development center, it aims to revitalize the town through architecture projects, business incubation, and dialoguing with residents. Emily Pilloton’s Studio H, in Bertie County, North Carolina, is taking design/build education to the public school system. Their first year, ending this past summer, produced a farmer’s market for the town. 

Forinash and Pilloton exemplify the entrepreneurial bent of my generation, trying to find the opportunities buried in the recession. I hope, deeply, that their ventures succeed, but fear they may fall into similar traps — struggling for funding and depending on a workforce of unpaid idealists. My own experience has convinced me that long-term engagement with a place and a community is the best way to effect change, as long as it is approached self-critically and strives for iterative improvement. I am skeptical of prescriptive, outcome-based projects that garner a lot of press and then disappear once the participants drift on to newer, more exciting things. Change is messy, it’s hard, and it doesn’t resolve itself in neat timelines. 

Before I set off for Arizona, four years ago, I still thought, in the back of my mind, that my professional destiny lay with a regular architectural firm. Now I’m not so sure. I’ve met people from all over the world and established lasting friendships with folks of all ages, classes and races. I’ve built furniture, buildings, landscapes and futures. I’ve traveled the width of this country, experiencing a broad swath of cultures and climates. I feel I’ve earned some stripes in this emerging field of “social design,” whatever that may be. I’ve debated if my work with these organizations was right, or even good, but, as soon as I abandon that debate, I’ve betrayed this meandering education of mine. I’m not sure what’s next for me, for architecture, for the economy, or for the country, but I do know I’ll be on the ground, pushing forward.”

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