Mission-Driven Architecture

Mission-Driven Architecture

It's not unusual for architecture and engineering firms to work on a pro-bono basis or for a reduced fee on "mission-driven" projects. In such cases, firms often are willing to trade profit for the reward of doing work that is rewarding in other ways. Some firms also take on such projects because the work is likely to raise their profile and, down the road, benefit their bottom line. Most importantly, populations in need also benefit. Schools and clinics are built where there were none, local people are employed and taught marketable skills, and the project — if planned well and executed efficiently — gives a boost to the local economy that is felt long after the construction dust has settled and the architects and engineers have moved on.

That said, I believe communities in developing countries would be better served if my fellow professionals and their NGO partners approached many of these projects differently and incorporated, from the outset, new thinking about how they are budgeted.

In the traditional budgeting model, firms wait for an RFP to come in over the transom or for an organization to come calling with a project (and budget) in mind. The problem with that, more often than not, is that the budget is woefully inadequate: whether it's a school, a clinic, or some other piece of critical local infrastructure, it typically includes only enough for the "basics," with little or no thought given to the kinds of "nice-to-haves" that would enable the project to serve the community in a more sustainable way. Systems for recycled rainwater, thoughtful waste management, proper siting to take advantage of passive solar — all too often, such considerations are non-starters in the budgets we see.

It's a mistake that can and should be rectified. My firm, Sharon Davis Design, was established nine years ago to do mission-driven design in the developing world. Since we opened our doors, we've designed and successfully completed Women's Opportunity Centers in Kayonza, Rwanda, and Pristina, Kosovo — both of which were done in partnership with Women for Women International. In Rwinkwavu, Rwanda, we designed the Partners In Health Share Houses commissioned by the Rwandan Ministry of Health to provide temporary housing for visiting medical professionals working in country. Another of our projects, the Baylapata Regional Hospital in Achham, Nepal, is being built in partnership with its operator, Possible Health, and is scheduled to be completed next year.

These projects have been successful, in part, because we take a proactive approach to the project from its inception. Rather than wait for an NGO to come to us, we approach organizations with an idea for a project and work with them to develop a plan and budget, identify likely problems and obstacles, and then develop solutions to those problems. Most importantly, we work closely with our partners through the entire process, from initial planning to the project's completion.

In Rwanda, for example, we knew that a reliable supply of clean water was critical if local women were to fully benefit from the center after it was completed. So we designed a building with a corrugated roof that would efficiently channel rainwater during the rainy season into waiting receptacles, and then partnered with an NGO to obtain top-quality, durable cisterns in which to store the reclaimed water for year-round use. We also trained local women to make bricks, which, in turn, has enabled a number of them to create their own businesses. In Nepal, the high cost of shipping building materials to a remote location was prohibitive, so we used materials at hand to construct rammed earth walls on site. Our master plan also included a comprehensive approach to water management that included the creation of a graywater irrigation system and various features designed to manage run-off and erosion during monsoon season. And we designed the facility to be energy neutral by strategically placing windows and skylights to maximize natural lighting and added solar panels.

While buildings can and should be built as inexpensively as possible, our experience has taught us the value of a broader approach to design and budgeting that takes into account every aspect of a project, from the water and sanitation systems required to the size of its carbon footprint. Yes, it might cost a little more, but such an approach ensures that every project we complete is a beautiful, dignified space that adds value to the lives of the people it is meant to serve.

Thinking globally but acting locally, always a good philanthropic game plan, is the best way to effectively address potentially disastrous threats like climate change and the increasing scarcity of water in countries such as Rwanda. At the ground level, that means thoughtful planning, well-funded budgets, and a conscious effort to impart skills to the local population that will help power the local economy long after the project has been completed. Moving forward, it falls to philanthropically minded architects and their teams to devise a foolproof template for the comprehensive coordination of all phases of a project, from concept to completion. Working collectively in this way will avoid waste, duplication, and/or the failure of any one phase, and go a long way to assuring the positive, lasting outcomes that investors want.

Sharon Davis is the founding principal of Sharon Davis Design, a New York-based architectural firm committed to mission-driven architecture that improves the way people live and respects the environment. Davis has served on the boards of several nonprofits, including the High Line, the Van Alen Institute, the Fresh Air Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.