Interdisciplinary Design and Social Architecture

Reimagining Our Common Life Together

Stephen Bau


Fern root cross-section, Gary DeLong, Adobe Stock

We shape our living spaces and thereafter architecture shapes us.

The built environment is the physical infrastructure that contains and directs our social and economic relationships in patterns designed before we became aware of more effective and beneficial alternatives and opportunities, or the toxic effects of our legacy structures.

If capitalism has come to be understood as a system we have designed that better serves its own purpose of perpetual economic growth, it may no longer be serving the human needs it was designed to serve. Does the machine serve us or do we serve the machine?

We have together built a machine into a form that reflects the fragmented and siloed intellectual disciplines that we model after educational institutions, corporate organizational structures, and political systems that divide our thinking and work into discrete categories and disciplines.

If we have come to understand anything about the nature of creativity and innovation, it is that we discover and invent new and better ideas at the margins and intersections of different ways of thinking. The movement toward multi-, trans- and inter-disciplinarity is a sign of our recognition that design matters but also has the unintended consequence of solidifying human behaviour into structures that reflect the worst characteristics of human nature.

If we have come to understand anything about human nature, it is that humans are tribal creatures whose implicit bias has been formed by the ability to recognize patterns and to categorize, and the instinct to favour the familiar and safe and to avoid difference and risk.

Diversity has become our greatest asset but our politics, our economics, and our built environment favour homogeneity and separation.

The global political climate suggests that we live at a crucial crossroads in time to choose whether past models of human interaction and production are sufficient to meet the needs of the future of our species and the future of our planet or we need new models.

The evolutionary survival and success of our species threatens the biodiversity of our planet and is resulting in the rapid extinction of vast numbers of species.

The tendency of the system we have designed toward homogeneity is destroying the delicate balance of the earth’s diverse ecosystem.

Biology provides the model for a sustainable future. The symbiotic relationships of the various organisms that form our own bodies are a model of systems that have been proven to survive and thrive on earth.

Individual cells are part of an interconnected body, a complex design that requires every part to function well for the health and well-being of the whole.

The interdisciplinary nature of a biological organism has been proposed as a metaphor for understanding the ecosystem of the planet, involving both physical and biological processes. (See the Gaia hypothesis.)

Physics and biology are the basis for a new movement in engineering and design called biomimicry. By modelling architecture after biology, we can create living systems that can live in harmony with each other and the natural environment, in a symbiotic relationship with the earth rather than parasitic.

Diversity and multidisciplinary work are the best models we have for our survival and for the continued flourishing of the human species.

The concept of the adjacent possible suggests that the opportunities for innovation and the creative possibilities that technology now affords will lead to a new way of building our social architecture that transcends older models of social, political, and economic theory.

The Bauhaus initiated the modernist design and architectural project with a synthesis of art and technology to rebuild society after the Great War.

However, in the service of industrial models of social and political engineering, art and technology have been coopted to participate in a military-industrial complex that is a synthesis of our worst human characteristics: greed and hatred.

We are caught in a dialectic of opposing forces, in the politics of thesis and antithesis, right versus left. We need a new synthesis that transcends the old paradigms.

Unity in diversity is the model for both the organism and the planet. University is our best model for learning. Pixar and Apple are our best models for the architecture and social physics that generate the best ideas and economic engines.

The new synthesis is integrating biology and physics. The term biophysics was originally introduced by Karl Pearson in 1892.

While some colleges and universities have dedicated departments of biophysics, usually at the graduate level, many do not have university-level biophysics departments, instead having groups in related departments such as biochemistry, cell biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, medicine, molecular biology, neuroscience, pharmacology, physics, and physiology.

The future of design and architecture may be in the integration of the separate disciplines to learn how interconnected systems work and model the built environment to imitate the processes of living organisms.

We are beginning to see these changes happening through the self-organizing principles of biological adaptation.

The following is a collection of the best of the interdisciplinary work that is leading to new ways of fulfilling the basic human needs of food, clothing and shelter. This is the best project to also fulfill our need for transcendence: meaning, purpose, and belonging. This is all the motivation we should need to find a new unity and a new synthesis.

Beyond STEM

Although this is in the context of digital design, the case is made for developing diverse teams of multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary problem solvers for next-generation challenges that go beyond STEM.

Driverless City

Given AI and autonomous vehicles, there is surprisingly little thought going into the implications for urban design and architecture. “A team of architects, designers, engineers and lawyers teamed up to produce IIT’s Driverless City project which includes multiple videos worth a look.”

Decolonization and Sustainability

If building is happening on unceded territories, it would seem that a multidisciplinary team should include consultation regarding indigenous land development and the decolonization of urban planning. How does reconciliation work within the design-build practice?


The minimalist and tiny house movements offer us a different way to think about living spaces and one of the most effective ways to lower our negative impact on the planet’s resources and ecosystems: doing more with less.

Urban-Think Tank

Necessity is birthing the invention of new organizational and creative models as a more holistic approach to the complex interactions that define our social architecture. Consider the work of Urban-Think Tank to create a culture of interdisciplinary learning and collaboration.

We are an interdisciplinary design practice dedicated to projects that focus on social architecture and informal development, and through teaching, exhibitions, film, and publications, we research, make, and communicate strategies to improve cities around the world.

Urban-Think Tank (U-TT) is an interdisciplinary design practice dedicated to high-level research and design on a variety of subjects, concerned with contemporary architecture and urbanism. The philosophy of U-TT is to deliver innovative yet practical solutions through the combined skills of architects, civil engineers, environmental planners, landscape architects, and communication specialists.

Consider the Hoograven project

U-TT proposed an array of projects focused on accommodating increased density, cultural-hybridity, and street-level informality. The designs include kasbah-inspired housing, multifunctional culture hubs, and parasitic rehabilitative interventions that plug-in to the existing urban fabric through a flexible, modular system. Clustered into “hot spots”, the intention was that these accupunctural projects would serve collectively as a catalyst for responsible growth, as well as contribute to the improved integration of marginalized immigrant groups.

Solar Aquatics

Given the sewage waste problem in our cities, is there a reason why solar aquatic systems are not being used to solve the problem? Consider the Living Building in Rhinebeck, NY, the Omega Center for Sustainable Living.

Renewable Energy

Biology has already solved the problem of energy production and storage. Photosynthesis is the model for collecting energy from the sun to power life sustaining and reproductive processes.

Residents are joining together to think through problems at the municipal level to adopt renewable energy production in communities such as Wildpoldsried, Germany that have contributed to a self-sustaining economy:

Community as Biological Ecosystem

The short-sighted politically and economically motivated massive, industrial hydro-electric dams and fossil fuel extraction projects fail to address a long-term view of social architecture that recognizes the interconnected nature of biological ecosystems and social systems. A multidisciplinary team is required to think through decolonization, ecology, economics, mental health, family dynamics, social physics, social cohesion, community building, transportation systems, energy generation, food production and watershed protection and management. Biomimicry should be public policy.

New Economic Models

A new economy is arising out of the third industrial revolution to provide models that are being adopted as public policy in the EU and China. The ideological resistance to these ideas will most likely be quickly dispelled with the design of new models that make the old models obsolete.

A New Economy by Trevor Meier, Domain7 Studios

Redesigning Relationships

People intentionally thinking beyond conventions and existing zoning policies generate innovative ideas about the economic and social opportunities for creating affordable housing. Cohousing projects are an effort to find ways to work together to build community, rather than passively accept models built primarily to satisfy economic growth and political expediency.

Installed on the rooftop of the complex are 90 Canadian Solar photovoltaic panels that are expected to provide 25,000 kWh of electricity per year. The array is grid-tied, with no on-site storage, and provides electricity to the building’s common areas. The system also takes advantage of BC Hydro’s net metering program; excess energy from the solar electricity system will be fed into the grid and the grid will supply energy when the panels cannot.

The new multi-family residential development is home to a number of firsts in both British Columbia and Canada, and incorporates a number of interesting solar photovoltaic and electric vehicle features. The 31-unit strata spans three double lots and maximizes shared space to reduce energy requirements. This development takes a pioneering approach to addressing the need for low-impact and affordable housing in Vancouver.

Social Intervention, Psychology and Community Building

More than anything, our cities need an intervention. Mimi Silbert, who has a PhD in psychology and criminology from University of California, Berkeley, has 40 years of expertise in urban intervention development and community building in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, New Mexico, North Carolina and South Carolina. She works with the discarded people of society, convicted criminals, to rehabilitate them and help them become leaders of the community.

The discussion to bring Delancey to Vancouver is in its early stages, but of the potential sites shown to Silbert recently she liked the soon-to-be-vacant Emily Carr University buildings on Granville Island the best, followed by a retail and residential complex in trendy South Granville.

Interior Design: A Psychology of Well-Being

We look inside to understand the things that we build as extensions of ourselves.

Ideologies and religions have been sources of social cohesion that have helped to create more just and empathetic communities. However, technologies have amplified the worst ideas that have been extrapolated from our histories and sacred texts.

Becoming human will require new and better ways of thinking about ourselves and each other that does not lead to harmful and violent behaviours that threaten individual well-being and each other’s very existence.

A Human-Centred Design Approach to Social Activism

I couldn’t help but add this example of political commentary in the form of architecture. From the details that can be gleaned from the article’s descriptions of the experience design details, the conceptual process must have involved a human-centred design process with user personas, empathy maps, user journeys, brainstorming, business model generation, prototyping, and an interdisciplinary approach to design and social architecture.

Sparking Conversation

Credit goes to Mark Busse, Director of Creativity and Engagement at HCMA Architecture + Design, in sparking this discussion on Facebook.

Anyone found any particularly poignant or well-articulated rationales for multi-, trans- and inter-disciplinarity in architecture and design process? If we turn a critical eye on modern architecture practice, what advantage does an interdisciplinary approach bring? Is the current state of architecture too fragmented, focussing on disciplines as discrete chunks of knowledge?

Field Trip

Creative Mornings Vancouver is partnering with HCMA Architecture + Design to offer a field trip to explore the social impact of architecture and design.

HCMA Architecture + Design challenges the traditional boundaries of architectural practice by asking one question. “How do we achieve the maximum positive impact through design?”

Join us at HCMA Architecture + Design where you will be given some context including a tour of the firm’s offices, a look at two case studies of social impact in the built environment, and a group exercise challenging thinking and sharing ideas on how to contribute to our community in meaningful ways.




Stephen Bau
Editor for

Designer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective. We are exploring how we imagine, design, and build the future together.