(Summer ’17) Olivia Huang, G
4 Closing Time
August 18, 2017
And so my summer with MASS comes to a close. The last few weeks I was also able to work on a project we call Mass & Cass. It’s concerned with the opioid crisis, particularly how it manifests in Boston. T he epicenter in our city is at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, where services and institutions such as Boston Medical Center, homeless shelters, methadone clinics, and drug treatment centers converge with neglectful and exclusionary urban design. I am glad I’ve been able to work on MASS’s local projects as I’ve also been able to learn a bit about Boston’s history and how issues manifest here compared to other parts of the country. I was also able to get a glimpse of how Boston tackles these issues by sitting in community and working group meetings. In affordable housing, for example, building in California is great because you don’t have to worry as much about climate! So California is kicking our butts in beautiful affordable housing design. It’s hard to buck the system though – our developers have their formular and ideas of what kind of design works and which materials are affordable, and we had a challenging time designing with those constraints.
Witnessing how MASS operates as a nonprofit architecture firm has also been a rewarding part of this summer. It is already shaping how I consider firms to work for after graduating in a few months. When you work for a firm that is so mission driven and thoughtful about the types of projects it takes on, you search for others like it and wonder why there aren’t more.
I’ve also learned I probably don’t have the capacity to be a community organizer but that I should surround myself with people who do. It’s such an important role and skill set for any social enterprise work. I want to find ways in which I can participate more too, perhaps by joining architecture associations or simply volunteering at small events to build my experience in working with communities. There are so many possibilities. Fortunately I now know PKG is a great resource for such things – and I better take advantage of it while I’m still at MIT!
3 What happened at our community meeting?
July 20, 2017
So we had one of our community meeting this week! We had our presentation ready, I helped make a model, and we were excited to show the community our designs. The Article 80 consultant started the meeting off by explaining the public process and timeline. Essentially, we file a Letter of Intent to the city, and following that we submit our proposal. There is then a window of time for the public to read and comment on our document. It’s a very dry topic full of official phrases and took a while to go over. Our developers presented next, to explain what affordable housing is. A median income level is defined and affordability is based on percentages from that. But the system’s definition of affordability is convoluted, technical, and certainly doesn’t get at how people feel what’s affordable. In fact this part took up most of the meeting and we never got around to presenting design. People wanted to understand what rents would look like, demanded to know how this project wasn’t going to gentrify the area, and wanted their thoughts heard.
From this meeting, I realized how communities rarely have opportunities to learn the complicated processes of how projects happen or to voice their concerns. The community meetings feel like their one venue, a catch-all for any neighborhood concerns they have. If there isn’t a meeting to attend, they don’t know how to get their voice heard. It was challenging to hear people bring up topics that we could not address, because it was really a policy issue or a city-level concern. While it’s not explicitly the developer’s or architect’s role, there should be someone who can explain and walk the public through development process and show them how to advocate for themselves along the way.
There was a turning point in the discussion when someone pointed out the developer was only required to create 15% of the units as affordable but instead our project was creating 50%. The developer also said they were trying to make as many of those affordable units for the lowest percent income as possible, depending on financing. The crowd’s tune shifted from critical to rallying, asking the developer’s to let them know what they could do to help secure financing.
The public doesn’t intentionally try to be challenging. But they have a lot of emotion and passion, especially when their neighborhood has historically been disenfranchised. They want to participate and advocate but the systems in place are discouraging and unfriendly. As it stands, their only way to do so is attend a meeting that other officials have scheduled, which is not always the most accessible or even the most effective. What are other ways we can teach them and empower them to participate on their own?
2 How does the diagram I’m making in the office help anyone?
July 7, 2017
Architecture is a challenging field to work in for social enterprise, especially if you’re the type who likes instant gratification. There’s no clear, direct way to measure the value and influence of design, and architecture is hard to test. You don’t often see prototypes for buildings, and when you do it’s typically for construction methods, not social impact. In addition, it takes a long time and quite a bit of money. A firm can spend years working on a project, and another few years to have it built. Then you need another few years to understand how people and the community use it.
MASS has been part of the Mattapan Station Redevelopment project since 2015, for example, and only this year began to get deeper into design proposals. The building is expected to be completed in 2020. When a project takes over 1,800 days and a single day seems to contribute only .05%, it is challenging to see and feel the impact of the day-to-day work. Part of the reason, I feel, is that what you’re doing in the office every day can feel unrelated to the issues outside. Other community organizations may work directly with their constituents and interact with them on a daily or weekly basis. In architecture, you hear from the client, who is paying for the building, and you may not have the opportunity to hear from the public – the majority of your product’s users. Fortunately, for this project, we at least have a few monthly meetings with the community. Though the drawings and diagrams I’m making in the office won’t directly provide anyone with housing, I remind myself that they’ll help the community and city understand our design intentions and foster discussion for what great affordable housing can be. There’s a lot of problems that architecture can’t solve (such as the insanely complex financing structure behind affordable housing), but as architects, one of our major contributions and skill sets is imagining and realizing what a better world looks like. And that starts with a nice drawing.
(On the subject of measuring design’s impact, MASS Design tackles this by having a Research arm in their firm. While there is a lot of subjectivity to architecture, they work to define clear outcomes from design. In a healthcare facility, for example, they can measure number of patients are treated, the amount of infections spread, and the pace of staff and doctor turnover to measure how well the architecture heals, prevents disease, and functions as a place to work. How their impact-tracking goes, especially as their list of projects grows and expands into other markets, is definitely something to watch.)
1 Introduction! What am I up to this summer?
June 10, 2017
MASS Design Group is a unique non-profit architecture firm based in Boston, Kigali, and now starting in Poughkeepsie. The firm’s mission is to bring beauty and dignity to people through architecture by immersing themselves in the culture and context, training and empowering citizens to build and participate, generating wage and economy for the region via the project. Ultimately they believe in the power of architecture to enact systematic change for social good. Their non-profit status allows them to garner grants and donations which goes into what they call the “catalyst fund.” This fund allows the office to pursue and invest in projects they’re interested and believe will have impact, without having to wait for the right client with money to come by. They’ll partner with local organizations to understand their goals, challenges, and opportunities and how MASS can help.
The firm started out with healthcare facility projects in Africa, then Haiti, and has now expanded to take on a whole variety of projects. Their first project in the US is a lynching memorial in Alabama and currently under construction. They’re also taking on affordable housing and my project this summer is with an affordable housing development at Mattapan Station in Boston. The project is on MBTA land and is being developed by non-profits Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), a national organization, and Nuestra Comunidad, a local Boston group. The project will provide 135 apartments, half of which will be affordable to those making 60% of the area median income or less. It will also create commercial space for the neighborhood – the community lacks sit-down restaurants where families can dine, and community space for local groups to gather. A newly renovated access point to the beautiful Neponset Greenway near the site also offers the opportunity to connect the neighborhood to parks and nature.
I interned with MASS for 3 weeks in January and enjoyed it so I’m excited to be back for the summer! The office culture is friendly, positive, and inclusive – everyone in the office is encouraged to contribute and continue learning and pursuing their interests. MASS had a thorough on-boarding process for the pack of summer interns – talking to us about the firm’s culture, mission, operations, and the work each of the departments is doing. Though I haven’t worked in many architecture firms, MASS sounds and feels different from the other architecture office cultures I’ve heard about – where employees are machines and work long hours with little input – and it is refreshing. I feel privileged to be at a firm whose mission I believe in, who does it well, and challenges the status quo of architecture practice. I will definitely be learning as much as I can about their business and operations model.
I am also excited to be working this Mattapan Affordable Housing project, for multiple reasons. I worked on an affordable housing competition with a team of other students this past semester. We were paired with real developers and tasked with the community engagement, financing, and design of an affordable housing project. Having worked on such a project in theory, I’m interested to see how these decisions get made in practice. Mattapan is one of the lower income and minority neighborhoods so affordable housing is important for such a community. Our project will provide 135 units, half of which will be made affordable for those making 60% of the area median income or less, or about $62,000 for a family of four. It will also provide retail and commercial space – the community wants more sit-down family restaurants and a coffee shop to gather at – and connect to the Neponset greenway, providing park public park access to an urban area. The project is also located right at the Mattapan station so inhabitants of this project will have direct access to public transportation. It definitely has the potential to be an amazing place and I’m excited to be a part of it!
Olivia Huang (G, Architecture)
Olivia will help design an affordable housing project located in Mattapan with MASS Design Group, a non-profit architecture firm in Boston. She and the team will run community meetings and workshops to understand the local needs and desires, use that feedback to inform the architectural design of the project, and, in the end, submit a proposal to the Boston Planning and Redevelopment Agency for approval.
Check back for her updates!