Social Design: Straight Out of School

Founded three years ago by six Harvard GSD students, MASS Design Group has transformed the lives of 400,000 Rwandans.

Courtesy Iwan Baan

It’s an early-morning meeting at MASS Design Group’s headquarters in Boston’s South End. A team member fresh off the red-eye from San Francisco forces himself to focus as one of the firm’s founders, Michael Murphy, brings the seven-person group up to speed on a new research project funded by the World Health Organization. Murphy holds forth in a heady patois of design- and development-speak as images of African plateaus alternate with elegant flowcharts and tuberculosis-infection statistics on the conference-room screen. From the presentation, you’d think Murphy and his not-yet-30-year-old colleagues intended to change the world.

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“Why is the category of humanitarian architecture even necessary?” he asks, as a photo of the group’s flagship project, the Butaro Hospital in northern Rwanda, appears on the screen. Built by MASS for Partners in Health, the 150-bed facility opened its doors this month. “The two terms should be synonymous. Because sound building practices can and should lead to social justice.”

Barely three years old, MASS Design Group is a new breed of firm that believes architecture can do a much better job at being good. Founded by six students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design—Murphy, Marika Shioiri-Clark, Ryan Leidner, Alda Ly, Alan Ricks, and David Saladik—MASS works with aid groups, governments, and donors to make architecture a prime element in development, recovery, and health-care operations.

Courtesy MASS Design Group

It began in the fall of 2006, toward the end of Murphy’s first semester at the GSD, when he went to a talk by Dr. Paul Farmer, the cofounder of Partners in Health, which provides health care and constructs facilities in many of the world’s most distressed communities. Murphy was particularly interested in the PIH’s hospital-building program. Yet when he approached Farmer at the end of his speech, he was astonished to learn that PIH did not employ architects; Farmer himself had sketched the group’s most recent hospital in Haiti on a napkin. “That meeting was a moment of huge disconnect for me,” Murphy recalls. “We were talking about building in one of the world’s most challenging environments, for people who truly need our expertise. Yet here he is doing the drawings himself. And here we were in school learning how to design museums.”

One year later, Murphy received a call from Farmer, who asked whether the second-year graduate student might be interested in designing a hospital for the organization in Rwanda. Murphy assembled a core group of GSD students and procured a travel grant from the architecture firm Hart Howerton that sent him to the Burera district, a Rwandan state of 400,000 people near the Ugandan border and the proposed site of the hospital. The learning curve was steep for the students (who joined Murphy on subsequent trips), and so were the barriers for entry. “Our initial reaction to having a young architect here was somewhat negative,” says Dr. Michael Rich, the PIH country director for Rwanda when Murphy arrived in 2007. “We didn’t see what an architect, especially a student-architect, might contribute.”

Rich wasn’t the only skeptic. Many of the group’s professors doubted that they had the necessary expertise. “I got great grades my first two years at GSD,” says Ricks, current creative director. “During my last year, the professors kept asking why I had a hospital on my school server instead of the YMCA I was supposed to be designing.”

But the students warmed quickly to the opportunity to apply their skills and studies to the Rwanda project. Dozens of volunteers contributed. “It’s no coincidence that so many of us wanted to work on the hospital and on other projects with MASS,” says Elizabeth Timme, a GSD graduate and frequent MASS collaborator. She arrived in Boston two days earlier from Los Angeles, where she works in health-care and laboratory design. “There is a conversation here about what architecture can do that doesn’t really take place anywhere else.”

Courtesy Iwan Baan

The Butaro hospital was also a proving ground for one of MASS’s central tenets: that architects must build community and capacity along with infra-structure. Scores of local stoneworkers honed their technique constructing the hospital’s finely crafted volcanic-stone walls. “This was a design decision,” Murphy says, as a close-up of the masonry appears on screen. “We liked the way the stone looked. But it helped prepare a whole team of masons who are now highly skilled and sought after. And it created a sense of ownership among the people there, a sense that this is their hospital, not some prefabricated structure that an aid group dropped by parachute from an airplane.”

Few firms, let alone one staffed by students and recent graduates, realize a project as ambitious as the Butaro hospital in their first three years. MASS Design’s headquarters—a sunlit fifth floor in a refitted warehouse tucked in among trendy furniture stores and art galleries—seem to resonate with that success. Five people staff the Boston office; five more work full-time in Africa. The group’s ranks swell and shrink with specific projects and include architects, urban planners, landscape architects, aid workers, and public-health professionals. To date, more than 40 people have collaborated.

But the firm is hardly on solid ground. The new digs were loaned to MASS by a local construction firm in the throes of downsizing. Before April 2010, the group maintained a virtual straddle of home computers and Harvard cubicles. And revenues are scant. MASS logged 22,000 hours on the Rwanda project alone, all of them pro bono. Ricks and Murphy, who has yet to finish his GSD degree, both received their first paychecks from MASS this summer.

Still, MASS has attracted significant attention and equally significant—if not remunerative—work. The Rwanda collaboration led to another assignment with PIH, this time to design a vocational and agricultural school in Corporant, Haiti. The firm has also received a $25,000 grant to build a model house near the school site. MASS staffers in Rwanda teach at a newly opened institute in Kigali. The firm’s proposed “learning hubs” for the Haitian capital won the top student prize at last November’s World Architecture Festival, in Barcelona. And MASS is collaborating with the Clinton Health Access Initiative on a ten-year program to build health infrastructure in Liberia.

Courtesy Iwan Baan

Most significantly, MASS is collaborating with the World Health Organization and USAID on TB CAP, a five-year global program that aims to curb the spread of tuberculosis. But this time MASS isn’t being asked to design a building. Instead, it will create an online assessment tool and database to assist both architects and health-care professionals tackling problems of infection in diverse environments around the globe. “The hospital and Haiti work are meaningful,” Murphy says, as an incomplete grid of multiple-question categories appears on screen. “But this may end up being the project for us.”

Times are still difficult for architects, and especially for start-ups. Yet Murphy and his partners believe that the firm can eventually subsist on a 50/50 blend of pro-bono and fee-based work, and that much of it will take forms other than conventional design: project assessment, capacity and community building, asking questions that lead to sustainable solutions extending far beyond the built environment. “There are so many vital services that we as architects are uniquely capable of providing,” Ricks says, a bit sadly. “But too often people simply request a manual or ask if we can’t just send them some plans. No, we can’t do that. And that’s the problem.”

The designers at MASS believe that their novel approach can expand the province of architecture and, more important, enhance the quality of relief provided to the world’s neediest. But their idealism isn’t blind. They know they may have to wait years, perhaps many years, before their ideas gain traction and the business can sustain itself. “What they’re doing is figuring out how to contribute,” says Maryann Thompson, a Cambridge architect and an instructor at the GSD. “It’s similar in spirit to how architects of my generation first moved into sustainability. But the strategy hasn’t yet reached the same level of acceptance. Michael and Alan are talented, committed, and completely sincere. But I don’t think either of them fully knows what this is going to involve, or where it might eventually go.”

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