Lessons from the Front Lines of Social Design

Left: Arcosanti, central Arizona. [Photo by Doctress Neutopia] Center: Rural Studio, H.E.R.O. Playground, Greensboro, Alabama. [Photo by Timothy Hursley] Right: YouthBuild Community Garden, Greensboro, Alabama. [Photo by Will Holman]

I guess it was about 1993, though it’s hard to remember the exact year. Browsing the stacks of the Stoneleigh Elementary library one day, I came across the Kid’s Whole Future Catalog, a sort of Whole Earth Catalog for children. This bright book introduced me to Buckminster Fuller, Michael Reynolds and Paolo Soleri. At the age of nine, I decided to become an architect, and one day to travel to Soleri’s experiment in the Arizona desert, Arcosanti. As I went on to high school, and then architecture school at Virginia Tech, I kept reading about “alternative” builders and green design. My research was fueled by a growing sense of unease about my chosen profession, as the early aughts boomed with flashy towers in Dubai, Shanghai and New York. Everywhere I looked, suburbia was eating up the landscape — my hometown of Baltimore inexorably crept toward Washington, and Blacksburg, where I went to college, became a widening sea of blacktop and cheap garden apartments.

In college, I spent summers working for a large firm in Baltimore. 1 I worked primarily in the healthcare studio, drafting elevations for nurse’s stations, editing door schedules and inputting revisions into floor plans. The days were long and dry, bookended by an hour-long commute on the city bus system. After graduation, I had a chance to walk into a job at that firm, but decided not to apply. I just couldn’t picture myself at that desk again, headphones on, redlines looming, working on corporate buildings. I thought the economy would keep on booming indefinitely, and, while young, I ought to have some adventures. Once I worked the restlessness out of my system, I could settle down and get a job at a good firm somewhere.


Three months after graduation, I found myself piloting my secondhand Corolla up a dirt road leading away from the Shell station in Cordes Junction, Arizona. In the distance, silhouetted against a clear sky, were the concrete vaults and cypress trees of Arcosanti. I was headed for a three-month internship 2 in the construction department; I stayed for a year, hired to lead a construction crew after my internship. My first month, I lived in a dorm with other interns. After that I moved into a concrete cube at the base of the mesa, one of the original pre-cast cabins that served as worker housing at Arco. There was a communal bathroom built into the back of a greenhouse, with a shower under a lemon tree. A fire ring in the center of all the cubes served as the evening entertainment. The small group who arrived that August for internships and workshops, including me, quickly became friends, as we spent nearly all our waking hours working together.

Arcosanti pool
Arcosanti pool and greenhouse. [Bottom left photo by Nadia Begin for the Arcosanti Archives; top and bottom right photos by Jason Reibold]

Each morning, I rose around six and hiked up to the top of the mesa for breakfast at the café — toast, hard-boiled eggs, coffee. The construction crew had a brief meeting, and then we went to work. During most of my stay, I worked on a four-story retaining wall to shore up the shifting foundations of the pool, which cantilevered over the edge of a cliff. Over the decades, the cliff had eroded, so we used pre-cast concrete panels and poured-in place elements to hold the cliff in place while also providing a series of platforms, stairs, benches, planters and other elements that interacted with the landscape. We usually poured concrete once a week, spending the other four days preparing or stripping formwork and digging foundations. I learned to build formwork, mix concrete, siltcast 3 and weld. Once a week, Paolo Soleri would make the trek up from semi-retirement 4 in metro Phoenix to direct the placement of the next few pre-cast panels. Eventually I was allowed to design small parts of the project in the same improvisatory manner, sketching out ideas on scraps of wood. I loved the physical work, being in the sun, joking around with the ever-shifting crews, gaining strength, confidence and skills.

The name Arcosanti is a mash-up of architecture, anti and cosa (Italian for thing) — an architecture against materialism. The physical Arcosanti is also a mash-up of ideas: a living laboratory for a pedestrian city that would produce its own food and energy while occupying a compact footprint to preserve open space. In his writings, Soleri describes his theory of “arcology”: “The problem I am confronting is the present design of cities only a few stories high, stretching outward in unwieldy sprawl for miles. As a result of their sprawl, they literally transform the earth, turn farms into parking lots and waste enormous amounts of time and energy transporting people, goods and services over their expanses. My solution is urban implosion rather than explosion.” 5 Begun in 1970, Arcosanti is currently built out to about 5 percent of the master plan. The permanent population hovers around 65 6, augmented by transient crews of workshop students, interns, tourists and dreamers. Funding for operations comes from the sale of bronze and ceramic wind bells produced on site, as well as from tourism, event hosting, organic farming and workshop fees. Ten five-week workshops are held every year, combining classroom learning about ecological design with hands-on building. According to Arcosanti spokesperson Andrea Speed, over 7,000 people have completed a workshop since 1970, including several prominent architects, among them Will Bruder, Richard Register and Jon Jerde. Most positions in the six departments — Landscaping, Architecture/Planning, Maintenance, Construction, Agriculture and Café/Hospitality — are minimum-wage jobs, supplemented by the labor of unpaid interns and students. The Cosanti Foundation, responsible for administering operations, strives to stay self-funded to preserve organizational independence.

While it cost very little to live there — the Cosanti Foundation charged a small co-op fee to cover building maintenance and utilities — I needed some extra money, so I began guiding tours and washing dishes in the café. After Christmas, I moved up the hill to an apartment. The original workshop class that came in with me, in August, drifted apart. Some returned to school. Others couldn’t hack the remoteness — it was a 70-mile round trip to go to the bank, or the nearest Home Depot for supplies. At first, the steady influx of new people was exciting, but over time it became difficult to invest energy in developing friendships with people who might be leaving in a month. As winter turned to spring, I became one of the semi-permanent residents, loosely defined as anyone who stays longer than about six months. I spent weekends building furniture from scrap wood, giving tours, and exploring Pueblo ruins in the desert with my Italian roommate, Alfonso.

Arcosanti. [Top photo by Alfonso Elia; bottom photo by Jason Reibold]

In my experience, there was a genial esprit de corps among the community. Everyone who lived there believed in the idea of Arcosanti: a city on a hill that could be a viable alternative to America’s sprawling, unsustainable land-use models, exemplified by Phoenix, just an hour south. Everyone who lived there wanted to be there, helping create the reality of Arcosanti, one wind bell or shovelful of concrete at a time. But inevitably, the isolation, the low pay and the lack of opportunities led to a high turnover rate. “I hate it when people leave. It’s one of the worst things about the place,” Dave Tollas, the construction manager, told me. “The economics and the housing scarcity are the sad and simple truth when it comes down to it.” 7

Arcosanti was my first experience with social-design practice: a client-less, self-defined project designed to galvanize change by presenting a prototype to the world. “The process is more important than the product. If you always look at the end for the answer, you miss what’s along the way,” said Dave Tollas. 8 Back in the ’60s, Soleri had synthesized a lot of ideas that had been around a long time; he was influenced by the compact cities of his Italian youth and by experiments with solar power and greenhouse farming that he discovered when he came to America to live in the 1950s. It’s easy to dismiss Soleri as a dreamer, and Arcosanti as a failure; but I’d argue that the project has succeeded in serving as a laboratory for radical sustainability and ecological urbanism.

Still, tourists all asked the same questions: Is Arcosanti a commune? When will it be finished? What will you do when Paolo Soleri passes away? At first irritated by those questions, I came to realize their importance. While not exactly a commune, Arcosanti certainly was a company town, as we were all employees of the Cosanti Foundation. While a city is never truly finished, the pace of construction was glacial and the budget miniscule. And Soleri, now 92, has always been the organization’s figurehead, intellectual foundation and chief fund-raiser; it remains to be seen how the place will fare as his presence recedes and new leaders take over. 9

Rural Studio

Lehman Brothers went bankrupt soon after I left Arcosanti. It was the fall of 2008, and my hopes of walking into a job at an architecture firm swiftly evaporated. Broke, I moved back in with my parents, spending a year building cabinets in Baltimore. That winter, I put together a portfolio and applied for the Outreach program at the Rural Studio, Auburn University’s architecture program in Hale County, Alabama. It was a shot in the dark, but, encouraged by my parents, I reasoned that going back to school would be a productive way to wait out the recession. Accepted into the program, I once again loaded up the Corolla and drove southwest, in mid-summer 2009. Two days later, I arrived in Greensboro, Alabama, the Hale County seat. I parked under an obligatory pecan tree and met my landlady, Miss Hazel Livingston. I had rented an apartment in her small antebellum house, furnished with a mattress, a desk, a hot plate and a toaster oven. After a musty weekend spent transferring my few possessions inside and stocking the fridge, I showed up for school in Newbern early Monday morning. We students were divided and dispatched to various work sites as part of Neck Down, a week of physical labor that begins every semester. I was sent to Lion’s Park, where I was tasked with replacing the concrete parking stops, staking them into the pavement with rebar spikes.

Left: Proceed and Be Bold! The war cry of the Rural Studio. [Poster by Amos Kennedy] Right: Samuel Mockbee in the documentary Citizen Architect. [Photo by Big Beard Films]

The Rural Studio was founded in 1993 by architects Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth, around the same time I was dreaming away afternoons in my elementary school library. Both professors at Auburn University, Mockbee and Ruth set up shop in Newbern, Alabama, three hours away from the main campus. Greensboro, ten miles north, along with nearby Moundville and Tuscaloosa, were at the center of James Agee and Walker Evan’s Depression-era study of sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. 10 Mockbee and Ruth hoped to expose students to three things usually missing from modern architectural education: construction, clients and social engagement. “Rural Studio is what architecture should be about, not what it should theoretically be about,” said Danny Wicke, a former instructor and student. “Engaging in practice makes school real and gives it context.” 11 Mockbee died in 2001, and Ruth in 2009, but not before the Rural Studio earned Mockbee a MacArthur “genius” grant and a wave of positive press from around the world. Now directed by British transplant Andrew Freear, the studio has concentrated on raising standards of professionalism and building larger civic projects. “I want to get students to dream about our society,” says Freear. “Architects are not just playthings of the rich.” 12

I first learned about the Rural Studio in 2003, at a lecture presented by Keith Zawistowski, then a thesis student at Virginia Tech. Instead of going abroad, the typical option for fourth-year students, he had been one of the first Outreach students at the Rural Studio, designing and building Lucy’s House. In the darkness of the auditorium, I was transported again, just like that first brush with architecture in 1993, excited to leave studio and build something with my own hands. I got my first chance two years later, participating in a design/build studio in the Appalachian foothills just off campus. Four years after that, I found myself in Hale County, inhabiting another place that I had seen only in photographs.

It was August in Alabama — viciously hot and humid, the screen door rattling with mosquitoes. Our studio was a converted barn, cooled only by a handful of anemic ceiling fans. When we worked late, we could hear the bats in the walls, squeaking in their roost. I collaborated and carpooled with a tall, glamorous Swede, Penny, and her equally glamorous British roommate, Clem. The Outreach program is a strange animal — a post-grad program, open to anyone with a design-related degree, conferring only a certificate. We paid tuition, but, absent a degree, we would be relying only on the Studio’s good name and the quality of our project for employment after graduation. Our project, the 20K House, had been undergoing iterations since 2005. The program each year was the same: to design a dignified, sustainable house on a permanent foundation for about $12,000 in materials and $8,000 in assumed labor costs. Hopefully, these prototypes would be franchised across the rural South to replace the dominant form of low-income housing, trailer homes. This franchising has been slow to get off the ground, mainly because of quality-control concerns. 20K 8, the house completed the year preceding ours, was copied by a local contractor in 2010 as a test. 13 That test was ultimately unsuccessful, and the house had to be finished by a student team. A new staff member at the Studio is now dedicated to finding partner organizations, training contractors, and figuring out the logistics of distributing the 20K concept.

Rural Studio Red Barn
Auburn University Rural Studio, Newbern, Alabama. [Top photo by Will Holman; bottom photo courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation]

We began with research — visiting previous prototypes, collecting census data about Hale County, examining building methods, visiting a mobile home sales lot, and compiling a material cost database. “The 20K House is at the forefront of the idea that all people deserve design,” Wicke said. 14 We designed from September through March, under the direction of Freear, Wicke, and a distinguished roster of guest critics. The long design process, working out (conservatively) to about 6 man-hours per square foot 15, afforded us the rare luxury of carefully considering every minute detail. “You’ll never have a two-hour conversation about the most powerful place to put a refrigerator anywhere else,” says Freear. 16 We began construction in April, just days after meeting our client, MacArthur Coach. We finished Mac’s house two months later. It was a simple structure, with a tin gable roof, cementite siding, and pier foundation. We came in over budget, and a little over schedule, but ended up with an architecturally resolved, dignified “shelter for the soul” 17 for about $27 a square foot.

It is important to note the differences between our project, which was a site-adaptable prototype for multiple possible client groups, and the thesis projects, pursued by fifth-year students as the culmination of their undergraduate careers. These thesis projects form the canon of iconic buildings for which the Rural Studio is best known. Clem, Penny, and I worked alongside the thesis students, participated in their critiques, and helped them on their jobsites, but we didn’t have the same deep community and client engagement. Thesis students, on the other hand, have to manage clients, city councils and committees, both to get their designs approved and to solicit donations. The Rural Studio has been in Newbern for almost 20 years now, and while the cast of characters turns over, the institution remains. “To have enough impact in the community, it takes years,” said Evan Dick, a Rural Studio alumni. 18 Dick lived in Greensboro for two years while building a skatepark at Lion’s Park, a perfect case study for the kind of community interaction Mockbee was trying to foster. His team had to triangulate the town government, the baseball association, and the Lion’s Club, all while raising a substantial construction funds.

While providing shelter to the folks in Hale County is a noble mission, some critics accuse the program of turning modern architecture into a political vehicle. Patrick Parr, a local resident, writing in the Greensboro Watchman a few years ago, said “The citizens of Greensboro deserve traditional home structures … [that] enhance the community to show that we, the citizens of Greensboro, are trying to make Greensboro an attractive place for citizens to live.” He was reacting to the sharply modernist buildings that characterized the early efforts of the Studio. While there wasn’t any way to figure out how broadly this opinion was shared in the community, anecdotal evidence suggested Mr. Parr wasn’t the only Rural Studio critic among the locals. These opinions came up frequently in our critiques and shaped our design. We gradually moved towards a new rural modernism by refining vernacular forms rather than inventing something new. “Ultimately, I want Joe Public to like the houses just as much as architects do,” said Freear. 19 For instance, we decided not to use galvanized tin to clad the exterior because the community regards galvanized tin as a cheap material, not suitable for houses. We used siding, which is an aspirational material, seen on antebellum houses. The 20K preceding ours used factory-painted tin, which doesn’t have the same connotations as galvanized. While certainly not perfect, our architectural solutions sought to bridge local tastes with a clean, contemporary aesthetic.

Rural Studio Houses
Top: Rural Studio, $20K House 9.0, by Will Holman, Clem Blakemore and Pernilla Hagbert, 2010. [Photo by Danny Wicke] Bottom left: Rural Studio, Harris (Butterfly) House, 1998. Bottom right: Rural Studio, Glass Chapel, 2000. [Photos by downtownBLUE]

This agonizing debate over details is indicative of my experience at the Rural Studio as a whole, as well as the culture of the school. It is an immersive, consuming method of education that questions everything while building on a collective body of knowledge accumulated over years of working in the same community. As a 25-year-old, unlicensed architectural designer, with a grab-bag of life experiences, I was thrust into a team of strangers, given a budget, and set loose. The design-build pedagogy and fiscal responsibility, coupled with the community engagement, forces students out of their comfort zone. Like Arcosanti, it relies on a stream of idealistic young folks working for little or nothing, then pushes them out the door armed with skills they can use to redesign our world. It has also inspired others, and in the past couple of decades the idea of design/build architectural education has spread to other institutions, like Studio 804, at the University of Kansas, and Design Build Bluff, at the University of Utah.

Mockbee’s outsize personality and the groundbreaking aesthetic of the early projects generated a lot of buzz in the architecture world, provoking discussion about the responsibilities of designers in today’s world. However, in many ways, the Rural Studio is like any other architectural practice (minus the profit), delivering design and construction services to a client. After turning over the keys, the commitment to that particular client ends. The studio continues to serve the overall community, which, in some ways, is one giant client. This seems to me the Rural Studio’s greatest strength: a long-term commitment to place as well as space, investing in the relationships that make design real and galvanize a new generation of leaders.


After finishing Mac’s house, my teammates and teachers escaped the heat, heading to Europe for the summer. In debt after a year of school, I got a job fixing up a neglected antebellum house on Main Street in Greensboro. I borrowed a ladder and bought some pails of Kool-Seal, a mixture of aluminum flakes and tar used to re-coat galvanized roofs. It was foul stuff, reeking of naphtha, sticking to everything it touched. I sweated out the summer on that hot tin roof, browning like a rotisserie chicken. Once the roof was sealed, I opened up the interior walls and found torrents of ants, cockroaches and wasps. In the attic, I cleared out a century of old magazines, newspapers, law books, and an antique racing bicycle with wooden wheels.

At night, nursing a cold beer, I shot resumes off into the ether. I had contacts — guest lecturers at the Rural Studio, old employers in Baltimore, friends from college — but the economy was still strangled by uncertainty. Out of 60 resumes, plus a trip to New Orleans to meet with some folks 20, I didn’t get called for a single formal interview. In the middle of the summer, I got a call from Sara Williamson, Director of Community Resources at H.E.R.O., a non-profit in downtown Greensboro. H.E.R.O. operated YouthBuild, a job-training program for low-income students who hadn’t finished high school. One afternoon, I walked my sweaty, Kool-Seal-streaked self into her office and got a job as the new carpentry instructor.

YouthBuild was a local franchise of a national program, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. In Greensboro, it operated under the umbrella of H.E.R.O., a non-profit that provides credit-counseling services, low-income housing development, utility assistance and AmeriCorps internships; it also operates the local Habitat for Humanity. My position was funded through stimulus money, one of the job-training programs that were a centerpiece of that legislation. YouthBuild had 273 affiliates nationwide, each based on a simple model: GED classes for 12 hours a week, construction curriculum for another 12 hours, and six hours of leadership, citizenship and community service education. Each student earned a stipend for the work done in construction class, equal to minimum wage for those twelve hours. “YouthBuild tries to create positive behavior changes, which in turn will enhance the student’s quality of life. In a year or two following graduation, the hope would be for each student to be enrolled in trade school, a post-secondary institution or employed,” according to Williamson. 21 Many of the students hadn’t been able to succeed in a traditional school environment, and YouthBuild provided the discipline, structure, and incentives that ideally would help them to thrive.

Main Street, Greensboro, Alabama. [Photo by Amanda Buck]

I started in early August, planning the curriculum with my co-manager, Dan. A few weeks later, I spent a week in Washington, D.C., earning my instructor’s certification from the National Center for Construction Education and Research. NCCER’s standardized curricula for various trades have been widely adopted, used by community colleges, trade unions, and programs like YouthBuild. We concentrated on engaging students with hands-on activities, like building scaffolding and holding mock job interviews. We cajoled, teased, and pushed, but we were up against a host of problems: intermittent attendance, discipline issues, lack of transportation, teen pregnancy and drug use. “Our students have learned how to survive, not to how to succeed. So, they have an inability to function within the same guidelines, values, and expectations of a contributing society,” said Ramell Ross, Program Director at YouthBuild. 22 Many had been hustling since childhood — scrapping metal, doing odd jobs, committing petty crimes, or selling food stamps to make enough to get by. While their ingenuity and drive was to be respected, we struggled to redirect those energies toward more positive outlets.

After the NCCER curriculum was finished, we spent the balance of each semester building something with our new skills. I generated a list of projects, which were reviewed and ultimately approved by Williamson and the director of H.E.R.O., Pam Dorr. In the fall, we replaced a failing wooden fence around a daycare center adjoining our campus. We built a new frame, facing it with pickets made from old road signs donated by the county government. The signs were cut into strips, sanded smooth, and mounted to the frame, breaking the graphics into an abstract, colorful collage. In the spring, we built a community garden on the H.E.R.O. campus, with raised beds, seating areas, a storage shed and a grill. The garden provided food for a cafe called PieLab, another H.E.R.O. initiative, founded by a collective of graphic designers operating under the auspices of Project M. I had a limited amount of time at the beginning of each semester to design and budget the projects before I was overwhelmed by the daily demands of teaching.

Every day at YouthBuild was a challenge for me. I am a bit of an introvert, most comfortable when buried in my work. I speak in a slow, measured cadence, pausing as I search for the right word. In front of 15 chattering students, I found a verbal quickness I didn’t know I had. Only a few of the students had any interest in construction work, while the rest were in YouthBuild for the GED classes or because they were court-ordered to attend. As soon as the manual labor started, it became much harder to motivate the students. Some hid from me; others got in my face; a few just sat down and quit, paycheck or no. Then again, a couple of them enjoyed the work, staying after class to help me mix concrete or run water lines in the garden. My motivational toolkit was limited, and as a foreigner — in race, class, education, geography — to their community, it took time to earn respect. “As an ‘outsider’ it is always hard to initially earn the trust of the students, but as they begin to see your intentions are good, there’s less of a barrier. Simple as that. Offer respect and you will eventually be given respect in return,“ said Williamson. 23 I was never able to reach some students, but there was a group that I managed to break through to, bridging our differences. Three of my former students have since entered trades, working as carpenter’s assistants in Greensboro, rebuilding damage from the April 2011 tornadoes.

YouthBuild Road Sign Fence
YouthBuild Road Sign Fence, Greensboro, Alabama. Read the instructable by Will Holman. [Photo by RaMell Ross]

As a design problem, YouthBuild presented a different set of circumstances than Arcosanti or Rural Studio. In addition to my stated teaching duties, I was also taking students to the health clinic, tutoring them in fractions, and driving them to Selma at 5:30 a.m. to take the GED test. This was not design in a traditional sense, creating an environment, building or product; rather, this was designing a future for our students, many of whom were trapped in a web of circumstances they lacked the skills to escape. I began to understand the cycle of poverty, the role of education in social justice, and the complex equation of racial progress in the Deep South. I was trained as an architect, but had to act as a teacher, counselor, and social worker, trying to craft bootstraps for these kids out of road signs and railroad ties.

In May we learned that our grant would not renewed, along with about 200 other YouthBuild programs, victims of a cost-cutting Congress. 24 I was laid off on July 1, 2011. The administrative staff will keep working for one more year, transitioning our students into college, jobs or other trade schools. Unattached to larger institutions, and lacking any profit-generating arm, H.E.R.O. and YouthBuild have been dependent on public-sector grants, supplemented by private foundations and individual donations. This makes them vulnerable to changing political winds, which translates into discontinuity of programs for their client base. Yet YouthBuild is engaged in the hardest of practices: addressing the root causes of poverty and turning the generational tide around, all in a region with little economic development, few jobs and complex historical problems. Short-circuited by Congress, YouthBuild Greensboro was a valiant attempt at a comprehensive, bottoms-up approach to alleviating systemic problems.


Since I lost my job, I’ve moved to Chicago, retracing the steps of so many others who left the Deep South during the Great Depression, searching for opportunity. These are different times, shot through with similar circumstances. The steel mills and auto factories are now shuttered, hulking over the banks of the Chicago River. Since landing in the Midwest, I’ve had some interviews, worked on an architectural competition, and spent time volunteering. My unconventional resume has proven to be a liability in a competitive job market; architecture firms I’ve interviewed at are looking for people with traditional commercial experience and advanced software skills. I eventually landed two part-time jobs at design-based non-profits, the ReBuild Foundation and the ReBuilding Exchange; I’ve also been writing, doing freelance design work and making furniture.

So far, my career, like the places I’ve worked, is hard to quantify. I’ve dug septic lines, chain-sawed tornado debris, shoveled gravel, mixed concrete, and spread manure. I’ve code-checked drawings, drafted into the night, surveyed sites, graded tests, started an online business, and counseled students. You can count the buildings constructed, yards of concrete poured, and GEDs earned, but the real results are intangible — relationships, experiences, memories, lessons learned. I would like to call myself an architect, but I haven’t made any progress towards my license. The work I’ve done since graduation qualifies me for, at most, 1,016 out of the 5,600 hours required by the Intern Development Program. 25 But lacking the supervision of a registered architect or engineer, none of my professional experience is deemed suitable by NCARB, even though it includes managing budgets, creating drawing sets and building designs. This situation is of my own making, and I don’t regret any of the steps I’ve taken — forward, sideways or backwards — but I do wish there was more allowance in the licensure process for unconventional paths like mine.

Design for a $50K house in Green River, Utah. [Image by Epicenter]

In the last decade, much has been written about architecture for the greater good, and it would seem that the field, as a whole, is invested in bringing design to underserved communities. Yet all of this talk — at conferences, in the press, at universities — has focused hardly at all on how to put together a career in social design. I have sought out and pursued a suite of unconventional experiences, all the while finding it difficult to make a living and advance professionally. The careers of those I admire, from Soleri to Mockbee, all seem to end in up in the same place — starting a non-profit of one’s own. Some folks are doing just that. An acquaintance of mine from Alabama, Auburn graduate Jack Forinash, started Epicenter with a group of friends in Green River, Utah, in 2008. A community development center, it aims to revitalize the town through architecture projects, business incubation, and dialoguing with residents. Emily Pilloton’s Studio H, in Bertie County, North Carolina, is taking design/build education to the public school system. Their first year, ending this past summer, produced a farmer’s market for the town.

Forinash and Pilloton exemplify the entrepreneurial bent of my generation, trying to find the opportunities buried in the recession. I hope, deeply, that their ventures succeed, but fear they may fall into similar traps — struggling for funding and depending on a workforce of unpaid idealists. My own experience has convinced me that long-term engagement with a place and a community is the best way to effect change, as long as it is approached self-critically and strives for iterative improvement. I am skeptical of prescriptive, outcome-based projects that garner a lot of press and then disappear once the participants drift on to newer, more exciting things. Change is messy, it’s hard, and it doesn’t resolve itself in neat timelines.

Before I set off for Arizona, four years ago, I still thought, in the back of my mind, that my professional destiny lay with a regular architectural firm. Now I’m not so sure. I’ve met people from all over the world and established lasting friendships with folks of all ages, classes and races. I’ve built furniture, buildings, landscapes and futures. I’ve traveled the width of this country, experiencing a broad swath of cultures and climates. I feel I’ve earned some stripes in this emerging field of “social design,” whatever that may be. I’ve debated if my work with these organizations was right, or even good, but, as soon as I abandon that debate, I’ve betrayed this meandering education of mine. I’m not sure what’s next for me, for architecture, for the economy, or for the country, but I do know I’ll be on the ground, pushing forward.

  1. Incidentally, that summer, between my fourth and fifth years of architecture school, still stands as the high-water mark for salary in my career. Annualized, my hourly wage, as a 22-year old intern, would’ve been $34,000. I include this detail as an illustration of several things: wage stagnation and/or deflation as a consequence of the recession; low wages available for social-design-type work in general; and the continuing decline in value of a college degree, even a specialized, five-year program like a B.Arch.
  2. The internship included a five-week workshop, for which I paid a fee, the majority of which was for food (provided by the Arcosanti café), transportation costs, and entry costs for field trips to places like Taliesin West. Everyone who lives at Arcosanti has taken a workshop. The rest of my internship was unpaid labor, subsidized by discounted (but not free) meals at the café and exemption from the co-op fee that covered utilities for the community.
  3. Siltcasting is an ancient technique, wherein damp, sieved silt is used to create forms for slip-cast ceramics production. Soleri, an avid potter, adapted this method to concrete construction. Shaped beds of silt are overlaid with concrete, then excavated to reveal the form. For ornamental applications, damp silt is packed into wooden formwork, carved with a design, colored with dry pigment, and then the concrete is poured against the form. Once cured, the wooden form is removed, the silt rinsed away, and the design is left in relief, tinted with the pigment that was absorbed by the wet concrete.
  4. Soleri has lived at the Cosanti Foundation, in Scottsdale, just north of Phoenix, for several years now due to his age and health. This is his original home and studio, where he lived and worked before Arcosanti was founded. Another bell workshop and gallery operate there.
  5. Soleri, Paolo. Arcosanti website, accessed November 29th, 2011. The quotation on the website is from Michael Katz, William P. Marsh and Gail Gordon-Thompson, Earth’s Answer (Lindisframe Books, 1977). I did not receive a response to requests to interview Soleri directly.
  6. Correspondence with Arcosanti spokesperson Andrea Speed, November 1, 2011.
  7. Correspondence with Arcosanti Construction Manager David Tollas, November 3, 2011.
  8. Correspondence with Arcosanti Construction Manager David Tollas, November 3, 2011.
  9. The new head of the foundation is Jeffrey Stein, former dean of the Boston Architectural College. In an open letter published in the summer of 2011, Stein said “As we now redouble our efforts on site, our intention will be to move forward together in full honor of Paolo. And have fun doing so! The job is to make Arcosanti a place where we can do the best work of our lives, keeping in mind the significant experimental nature of this place and what it may mean to the culture at large.” See “New Leadership at Cosanti Foundation.” Arcosanti blog, accessed November 29th, 2011.
  10. Greensboro is referred to as Centerboro in Let Us Know Praise Famous Men: Agee used pseudonyms for all the people and places. I read it before going down to Greensboro. Certainly not objective, and outdated as reportage, people like me still used it to get a sense of place, which, anecdotally, didn’t agree with some locals.
  11. Conversation with Danny Wicke, November 11, 2011.
  12. Conversation with Andrew Freear, November 23, 2011.
  13. Our team drew up a formal set of construction documents for that house from drawings by the previous year’s team. Construction was delayed by weather, an injury to the contractor, and difficulty with some of the construction techniques. For instance, the dominant local foundation system is concrete block piers, whereas we used cast concrete piers, which the contractor hadn’t built before. Construction was ultimately finished by the student team that succeeded us, in the fall of 2010, an experience that served as a primer in frame construction for them. Our team, in retrospect, would’ve been well served by such a course.
  14. Conversation with Danny Wicke, November 11, 2011.
  15. Derived as follows: 24 weeks x 40 hours x 3 people = 2,880 man hours, divided by 504 square feet, equaling 5.7 man-hours per square foot, an estimate that is definitely conservative, as 40 hours a week was the bare minimum we spent in studio.
  16. Conversation with Andrew Freear, November 23, 2011.
  17. From Samuel Mockbee: “Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul.” Accessed November 29, 2011.
  18. Conversation with Evan Dick, November 11, 2011.
  19. Conversation with Andrew Freear, November 23, 2011.
  20. One of the firms I visited is Building Studio, whose co-principals are Coleman Coker, Mockbee’s former partner in commercial practice, and Jonathan Tate, a Rural Studio alumni.
  21. Correspondence with Sara Williamson, October 19, 2011.
  22. Correspondence with Sara Williamson, October 19, 2011.
  23. Correspondence with Sara Williamson, October 19, 2011.
  24. Most of the programs that kept their funding were large, urban affiliates that were able to produce a lot of graduates. Our client group usually tested no higher than middle-school levels on our entry exams, meaning we had a lot of ground to cover to get them up to GED preparedness. Combined with the small size of our classes, it was difficult to compete, numbers-wise, with programs that worked with hundreds of youth a year, making us a tempting target for budget-cutters.
  25. From the NCARB Intern Development Program Guidelines, revised July 2011, available for download as a PDF at the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. Figure derived by adding the number of hours in Category E to the number of hours in Category FF, Community Service. Category E is defined as “Experience (other than that noted above) in activities involving the design and construction of the built environment (such as analysis of existing buildings, planning, programming, design of interior space, review of technical submissions, engaging in building construction activities, and the like) when under the direct supervision of a person experienced in the activity.” (Emphasis mine.) These are the only two categories of IDP hours that do not require the supervision of a licensed architect. Many times, especially at YouthBuild, I was under the supervision of no one experienced in design or construction other than myself.
Will Holman, “Lessons from the Front Lines of Social Design,” Places Journal, January 2012. Accessed 09 Dec 2022. https://doi.org/10.22269/120116

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Past Discussions View
  • 01.16.2012 at 21:43

    Thanks for such an insightful article Will. You have unpacked many important issues for architectural practice, from education to the type of practice that makes one 'eligible' for registration. There is much to be done to make this profession relevant to all.
    Your description of what a foreigner is (race, class, education...) is very accurate.
    Looking forward to your next essays.
    Beatriz Maturana (Architects for Peace)

  • 01.17.2012 at 09:31

    I always enjoy a critique of this specific genre of practice; I like seeing how people describe organizations they know about, both from experience and from perceptions.
    Yes, the lack of professional development is there. I guess I'm just hoping NCARB and IDP catch up with the alternative models of practice... until then, I'll hodgepodge my way through licensing.
    Come visit us, Will.
    Jack Forinash

  • 01.17.2012 at 15:59

    Great essay Will. At Virginia Tech I was also always unsure as to where the degree might take me. With all the workshops there it was easy to get sidetracked from capital A architecture and find yourself just making things....but it also helped solidify the idea of craft and iteration in any pursuit. So I empathize with your struggle to find meaning in the endless redlines. Though I'm at a corporate firm in NYC now, it's nice to read your story and know that there are other paths out there that can lead to a fulfilling architectural education. In a way I think many of us graduate with an automatic expectation track toward licensure and eventually opening your own firm. As nice of a goal as that may be, I still think developing a more unconventional and varied skillset in the field beats sitting in an office day in and day out to "pay your dues". I've always admired your hard work and spontaneity... hope to see more pieces on Design Observer from you!

  • 01.19.2012 at 15:23

    Love the article. Absolutely impressed at your thorough, well-put description of your adventures. Fun how those times of long discussions over dinners in Greensboro still have threads of discussions and questions that we must all still wrestle through and critically assess. Thanks for putting pen to paper and pushing the conversation in the Design profession, specifically the social design sector.

    I think the observation that these efforts are often "struggling for funding and depending on a workforce of unpaid idealists" is right on and a cause for concern. I think these "labor of love" jobs tend to be a lot of labor that saps the love and idealism. There's got to be a way designers can be attentive to the hard questions and social responsibility yet still make a living. Here's to continuing to find ways to "make it work," as you say!

  • 01.22.2012 at 11:31

    Thank-you Will for a wonderful article. You do a great job framing the different perspectives of Arcosanti, Rural Studio, and YouthBuild with respect to both "social design" and conventional architectural practice. You also point to one of the biggest issues confronting this work - how can it bridge into more conventional practice, including licensure processes? Not only firms but also communities have been deeply affected by the recession and both would benefit significantly by working together, yet conventional design practice is not constructed to engage this kind of work. We need to start thinking more about how social/activist design can move out of boutique practices and universities and into the mainstream of design practice, not as a pro bono service but as an anchor of practice. Good luck in Chicago and keep writing!
    Nadia Anderson
    The Bridge Studio, Iowa State University

  • 02.10.2012 at 09:26

    Mr. Holman’s article gives us a great deal of food for thought. Internship and the profession will surely be enhanced by this type of assessment. For further discussion of public-interest internship, please see Bridging the Gap: Public-Interest Architectural Internships (available at www.lulu.com). As editors of this essay collection, we share Holman’s enthusiasm for these valuable non-traditional learning opportunities. The nineteen essays included in the publication present diverse ideas and points of view. We are confident that they will enrich the discussion of how the architecture discipline and our communities will benefit by creating internships for fledgling professionals to train in practice while serving the public good.