Places Journal, Field Notes on Design Activism: I, 2022
“Field Notes on Design Activism: I”
How can the client-driven model of architectural practice more fully engage the urgent challenges of our time, foremost among them climate change and social inequity? The most important and frequent decision our firm makes (about once a week) is whether we will pursue a potential project. For many years, a key aspect of our mission and business development strategy was to seek like-minded clients. But as social injustice and the climate crisis accelerated in 2020, we realized that we needed to more rigorously assess each new business opportunity in its larger physical and social contexts. This led us to make crucial adjustments to our mission statement and to create a wholistic rubric for vetting new work.
As architects and citizens, we have a responsibility to address environmental and human impacts beyond the apparent limits of our work; our strategic vision to create architecture for a healthy planet and a just society is grounded in an ethos of inquiry, collaboration, and engagement through design. In conjunction with revisions to our mission statement that more fully articulate this vision, our Business Strategy + Communications Director led the development of more robust criteria for evaluating the diverse range of potential projects that we typically consider.
As in the past, this inquiry includes questions about the client, program, site, and budget, as well as possibilities for innovation and research. To these were added questions about the client’s goals and the embedded power structure: who will benefit from, or be served or impacted by the architecture, as well as how it will be implemented. Such questions frame further research by our Business Strategy + Communications team, the results of which are assembled into a concise briefing document. This evaluation process includes assembling a diverse team of consultants. Through this early information-gathering and discussion, we come to understand whether a particular project is right for us, and if the office as a whole and staff members as individuals would be proud to work on it. If so, we are better prepared to respond and, we hope, to be shortlisted or selected. Importantly, this research also helps us to leverage opportunities to address environmental and social issues, even if these are not explicitly included in the brief.
This new framework for business development is consistent with our belief that our practice is itself a design project that continuously evolves through how we shape our methodology and culture. This is one of multiple aspects of our operations that are changing, together with our design work for clients. Many of these initiatives are generated and led by employees, a participatory paradigm that helps our firm to weave together process and projects.