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NC State wants to show design can energize a community – and be a tool for democracy

Bryan Bell's student team envision affordable housing at the site in Wilmington. The project looked at user-based solutions for an area on the south side of Wilmington, where freight lines will be moved to the other side of the Cape Fear River.
Bryan Bell's student team envision affordable housing at the site in Wilmington. The project looked at user-based solutions for an area on the south side of Wilmington, where freight lines will be moved to the other side of the Cape Fear River. Astha Shah

The College of Design at N.C. State – never in short supply of good ideas – is reaching out to communities statewide with a new initiative called public interest design.

Its aims are multifaceted. First, it takes on real-world projects and looks at social, ecological and economic issues. It’s not top-down, client-focused architecture from an ivory tower. Instead, it emphasizes collaboration between architects, students and users – like residents in need of affordable housing. It’s not about the 98 percent against the two percent, but about serving 100 percent of the public.

The College of Design is one of only two schools in the nation with a formal program of public interest design – and it can benefit the citizens of North Carolina. Already, the team at N.C. State has gone to Wilmington to help brainstorm ideas for an area that’s expected to be redeveloped.

“It’s about availability to an underserved community,” says Mark Hoversten, dean of the College of Design. “It’s based on deep stakeholder and community empathy. The question is: Who does the project serve?”

Bryan Bell, who joined the College of Design in 2001, has been tapped to head up the new public interest design incubator at N.C. State.

The incubator here is reaching out to communities in two ways. It has added a certificate in public interest design for its graduate students – but it also offers that educational opportunity to the public.

“If you’re an NGO (non-governmental organization) and want to learn how to do this stuff, it’s open to you,” Hoversten says.

And it’s looking for groups across North Carolina in need of design assistance.

“What we’re looking for are community partners who need to make their built environment more accessible to a broader range of people,” he says. “They may not know what their problem is or how to solve it – and the solution may be research, design, or design/build – but it will always be collaborative.”

Housing for migrant workers

Take the case of migrant farm workers. Public interest design means looking into their housing needs, rather than those who rent homes to them. But its benefits accrue to both.

Bell is an expert on the topic. After leaving his job with a prestigious New York architecture firm in the 1990s, he ventured out into rural Pennsylvania. There, he volunteered in a legal services office to inspect migrant workers’ housing, with new designs in mind.

“You don’t have the right to design migrant housing until you understand their needs, so that was my education,” he says. “My attitude was that I needed to do my homework.”

Bell’s work in rural Pennsylvania during the 1990s was not new. A number of schools – Pratt, N.C. State, Auburn and U.C. Berkeley among them – had been committed to community-based design since the late 1960s.

Bell listened to workers so his design would be meaningful to them. He wanted to address their desires and needs, but also to celebrate their function. He brought with him a strong design background – an undergraduate degree in architectural history from Princeton and a graduate degree from the Yale School of Architecture.

A series of grants – from the A.I.A and the National Endowment for the Arts – enabled him to begin work on simple rental housing. He started with 700-square-foot 2-bedroom units built from basic materials, designed to last 50 years. That met the needs of the farmers who paid for them – and who benefited from 50 percent grants for construction costs, offered by Design Corps, a nonprofit Bell established.

The homes were durable – and respected. “They had incredible insulation, and were easy to clean up, with drains in the middle of the kitchen and bath, and a porch,” he says. “We wouldn’t get inspected because the inspectors knew they met the needs of the farm workers and the farmers – and that was my goal as a designer.”

After a year, he circled back to see how the units were being used and discovered that rather than being home to a four-person family, they more often served groups of four workers. “We asked: ‘Would they rather have one bedroom for four guys?’ ” he says. “And that’s what we did.”

Real-world experience

Bell wants to give N.C. State students real-world experience. He recently traveled with seven students to Wilmington to participate in a North Carolina A.I.A. design charrette, or workshop. Their project was one of two that 35 A.I.A. members tackled over two days. This one looked at user-based solutions for an area on the south side of Wilmington, where freight lines will be moved to the other side of the Cape Fear River.

They met with 50 community members, then conducted interviews in the streets to ferret out what people wanted. The city already had conducted two years of feasibility analysis, but the team wanted to introduce the project to the residents who would use the redeveloped area. In essence, they were using architecture as a tool for democracy.

But easing residents’ concerns would prove to be a challenge. Before the workshop, CSX had announced plans to close off streets in the 10-block neighborhood along the train tracks – and met opposition from those who live there.

“When we started this meeting, people were still thinking about that CSX meeting,” Bell says. “One guy said: ‘Everybody’s got these plans in their back pockets, and we don’t know what they are.’ 

Bell and his students pointed out that CSX may be a business with a plan – but that the neighborhood could have a plan of its own to put on the table.

“That’s when the meeting turned for us,” he says.

The team discovered that the community’s first priorities were affordable housing, public safety and traffic calming. Next up: bike paths and grocery stores, followed by parks and jobs. It was a list of bottom-up wants and needs, all aimed at mobilizing the community.

“Results will happen sooner with support from the residents, because the city can see what their priorities are,” Bell says.

Toward that end, he and his team made a presentation to city officials on the final day of the workshop, complete with survey results and drawings. That was followed by a presentation to the neighborhood itself.

“They’d asked us to give them an architectural view of what our proposal would look like,” he says. “One person asked: ‘What could this do for us?’ And so we showed a building repurposed as a grocery store, in terms of what they wanted.”

The City of Wilmington’s goals with the session were to raise awareness and get more community members involved in the planning process. With public interest design from N.C. State, they got both – plus an energizing jolt of democracy in action.

“There’s a wonderful relationship between design and democracy – if people can be involved in the design process, they’ll understand that they can be heard and that their voice matters,” Bell says. “And that will lead to more voting.”

When this architecture column was established back in 2015, it was with the expressed intent of exploring the concept of architecture for all the people. Here we have an excellent example of that, from one of Raleigh’s strongest fonts of good design. Here’s hoping that we’ll see many more.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com. He is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand (Routledge: 2015). He can be reached at mike@architectsandartisans.com.

Details

To learn more about public interest design, or to apply, go to design.ncsu.edu/academics/architecture/public-interest-design/

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