Architects and Social Workers

(Or other ways of doing architecture)

By Maggie Ma and Mark Kingsley
DOMAT community & architecture

(First published in the HKIA Journal, Issue 69: Social Innovation; December 2014)

Architects and Social Workers

(Or other ways of doing architecture)

By Maggie Ma and Mark Kingsley
DOMAT community & architecture

(First published in the HKIA Journal, Issue 69: Social Innovation; December 2014)

Social Worker…

“What do architects do?” the social worker we work with asked us. “I understand doctors, lawyers, teachers etc. But I have never worked with architects before and never really understand what architects do. “

For the next half an hour we tried to explain the work that we do, but by the end she still wasn’t exactly sure. We draw things and make sure that our drawings follow a prescribed set of regulations. For buildings to stand up we may need to work with a structural engineer; for constructing the building there is builder…
We discussed how a doctor treats people who are sick, a lawyer gives people legal advice, and a teacher educates people, so how does an architect relate to people? How do we think about people’s needs?

We were surprised that the work of architects was so difficult to explain, and how socially detached our profession must be that the social worker had little idea of what our job involved. Are we so out of touch with society? In the end, we had raised many more questions than we had answered.

A not-for-profit social practice…

At school, we had learnt that architecture is a practice embedded within society, exposed to all kinds of forces (social, political, economic, environmental and so forth). We explored designs for unique users, researching the communities around our sites in order to understand its social situation. Our teachers encouraged us to think about the impact that interventions have on communities, making sure that our designs responded to the everyday context. We read about Rural Studio. Being socially responsible could be exciting!

Going out to work for the first time we faced a disparity between our aspirations from school and the work that we were now doing. Outside, we were designing for wealthy, powerful clients, working on projects that were often indifferent to their location and with generic users at best. Our efforts went into aligning façade cladding or ceiling layouts. We worked towards making buildings into as many different shapes and slick renderings as our software skills allowed, with online magazines providing inspiration and things to copy. Architecture had been reduced to technical exercises and visual aesthetics, and our care was directed towards chasing salaries and promotions.

However, our influence from school remained, and we had a desire to do projects with social agendas again. We were lucky enough to have chances to participate in academic practices that were challenging the existing boundaries of architectural work. One of our inspirations, Samuel Mockbee, said “it will take the subversive leadership of academics and practitioners who keep reminding students of the profession’s responsibilities.” Having experienced the ‘academic’ part, we wanted to see how we could act on the ‘practising’ part ourselves. What might this kind of practice be? Could young graduates have choices other than working in commercial offices?

Money, and working with poor communities…

Social projects tend to be commissioned by charities or not-for profit organisations using private donations, or with government funding. In setting up a social practice, one of the biggest challenges we face is asking clients or donors to pay fees for an architect’s service. The reality is that the yearly salary of an architect in Hong Kong is more-or-less equivalent to the total construction cost of a small rural school in China. Often, as with Project Hope schools (希望工程), this means that projects operate with little architectural input, and with minimal attention given to design and coordination. Other community projects that do have architectural input are commonly undertaken on either a voluntary basis or pro-bono. However, there can be disadvantages with each of these approaches.

Firstly, with rural projects funds are sometimes lost to corruption, and buildings may be abandoned part way through construction (爛尾樓). More serious effects have led to shoddy, ‘tofu-dregs’ buildings (豆腐渣工程). As architects, we can see how these issues relate to a lack of adequate, professional supervision during design and construction stages.

Secondly, from our experience we understand that volunteer architects provide professional benefit to a project, but the nature of volunteering means that commitment is limited, affecting the continuity of the process. In addition, building up trust with contractors and other parties takes time and perseverance; leaving important negotiations to a volunteer is unlikely to be in the best interest of the project. Volunteering is a vital practice and a valuable supplement to social projects, but by itself it cannot sustain a movement in the profession towards working with social responsibility.

Our approach to this dilemma is to position ourselves between a regular practice and one that offers pro-bono work, proposing a reasonable fee to the client for providing a professional service. We are aware that such an idea may be divisive, and that some people will disagree with charging fees for such work, but we consider that it is necessary in order sustain professionalism in the social field. Our belief is that by creating a sustainable workforce to work with poor communities we can provide greater benefit than by giving money directly to the poor.

Compared to working on commercial projects, where controls on GFA and market demand can dehumanise architecture, working with communities allows us to realise inventive ideas and humane designs. Our practice goes beyond bare-minimum remedies to improve people’s lives; we believe that good design should be available at all levels of society. Through being both professional and resourceful, we can expand our role to rural development or acting as an implementing agency within communities. Working in environments that desperately need attention, we can return to one of the core values of the architect: to design for people.

The following two projects are examples of work we have done with local communities in Hong Kong and China.

Home Modification for low-income families; Hong Kong

Home Modification for low-income families; Hong Kong

SoCO’s ‘Home Modification’ programme aims at improving the living conditions of low-income families in Hong Kong. We are working towards making decent study areas for children at home, helping them to perform better at school so that the family can escape a cycle of poverty.

The homes of the families are small and crowded. In some cases a family of four or five will live in a room of 100 square-feet. Due to their poverty, many families have a habit of collecting material in the fear that they cannot afford things in the future, making the lack of space even worse. Although the families find ingenious ways to make their homes liveable by changing the use of a space throughout the day, this can be disruptive when the children are studying.

It might sound counter-intuitive to add more stuff to a cramped house, but we decided that by building furniture, we could help the families to organise their space better. Many of the families live in subdivided homes in old tenement buildings with high ceilings. We saw potential to use this upper space in order to free up the lower living area, and create dedicated study spaces for the children.
Most families are living in transition, waiting to be allocated public housing, and moving from house to house in the meantime. Some approaches to improving living conditions, such as renovating run-down houses, or giving housing subsidies, risk the adverse effect of landlords increasing their rents, causing the low-income families to suffer more. We wished to avoid a situation where the landlord ends up benefiting from the scheme more than the family. By providing furniture that the family can take with them, we hope that the benefit of the programme can remain with them.

The furniture itself is a simple, standardised design made from blockwood. The families can reassemble it when moving to a new house and it is durable enough to survive several years. The simple construction means that it can be adapted in the future if the needs of the family change. It is produced by a local contractor who can make it repeatedly and therefore at lower cost; by avoiding buying from a large furniture store there is potential to support the local economy.

To date, we have completed 4 cases. We have been working with architecture students from CUHK, who, as part of an elective course with Professor Maggie Hui, have helped us in implementing some of the cases. The project is still evolving, and while there are no catch-all solutions, we hope that the project can develop and have a wide, positive impact.

Home Modification for Low-income Families
Date: March 2013- ongoing
Location: Shum Shui Po, Hong Kong
Initiated by: Society of Community Organization (SoCO)
Donor: South China Morning Post (SCMP)
Scale: 100 families
Anson Wan, Bobby Lam, Echo Xiang, James Palmer, Jonas Tang, Justin Chan, Luka Ng, Maggie Ma, Mark Kingsley, Michael Chan, Rosa Chan, Tanya Tsui, Jo Shen, Jenny Tang, Cecil Xu, Julie Wang, Henry Hao, Pearl Chan, Krystal Lung, Johnny Lau, Rosalia Leung, Iris Andreadis, Flora Wong, Justin Yip, Wanting Yim, Calvin Liang, Adeline Chan, Lok Tin Fung, Vicky Lee

Waste Recycling Point; Hunan, China

Waste Recycling Point; Hunan, China

Waste disposal in villages throughout China is a visible, yet neglected issue. As urban influences have spread to rural areas, old habits of dealing with waste haven’t adapted well. Piles of non-biodegradable — largely plastic — waste is often dumped in streams and rivers, or burned within villages. The problems of consumption, disposal and burning will take years to change, but in the meantime what can we do to minimize the environmental impact of the discarded waste?

This project was commissioned by the Institute for Integrated Rural Development, Hong Kong (IRD). IRD is an established charity dedicated to rural development projects in Baojing County, Hunan Province. They wish to highlight the issues of waste within the rural community, and we have been interested in waste and recycling for more than 10 years. We worked together to design and implement a waste collection prototype for a primary school that encourages pupils to engage with the process of consumption and its side effects. The project demonstrates how it is possible to be creative with low-cost design.

The collection point is designed with separate compartments for waste and recycling, with a sloping floor to facilitate hygienic operation. The two compartments are stacked vertically to reduce the footprint; this creates distinct routes for the activities of recycling and dumping, and makes dealing with waste more fun. By separating the disposal and collection processes of waste, we hope to increase the children’s awareness of the flow of the earth’s resources.

Waste Recycling Point
Date: July — December 2013
Location: Wanmeibo Village, Baojing County, Hunan
Initiated by: Institute for Integrated Rural Development, Hong Kong
Donor: Fu Tak Iam Foundation
Size: 11 sqm
Cost: RMB17,000
Design: Maggie Ma, Mark Kingsley

DOMAT is a not-for-profit architectural practice…

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