Research has become an ever-critical component to my process in both design and construction. Designers, by nature, are good observers... and so we often find ourselves staring at things unnecessarily. Frequently, these observations turn into fodder for the brain to consider – function and form, use and durability, material and texture – all considerations that are born in the process of observing the world around us.
Research comes in many forms. For each project and design opportunity, the research phase is unique. It is rarely promoted as a part of the design process – however, it can be the most critical factor in a good design outcome. Some of my research efforts have been coordinated around a product or a company that makes something… something I think I can use in a design. Other times, research focuses on patterns and movement – at an intersection, or the movement of individuals within a contained space.
Cultural research, or the research of mass populations of people – be it here in the United States or abroad – are a way of building predictability into a project or design. When one begins to understand the users that can be expected to inhabit an installation or a space, then one can promote design for that user. I began to see how understanding cultural differences can help design communicate intent with more adaptability when I visited New Orleans as a volunteer shortly after Hurricane Katrina. Volunteerism turned into inspiration for several design competitions over the next couple of years.
In efforts to develop the design/build program at MICA, I managed to gain the support of a grant that was used to create a travel stipend for myself and 5 students to visit Haiti in March of 2012, approximately 1 year after the earthquake struck the country, creating a humanitarian crisis that was still finding its footing when we arrived. The images in this gallery represent our observations.
I have developed an interest in post-disaster prototype housing concepts through competition work at Hord Coplan Macht. The trip to Haiti was an 'eyes-on-the-ground' experience unlike anything I've ever experienced. It opened my eyes to a number of issues - principally, how do we incorporate culture and localization into a disaster relief process that has become progressively universal in its approach.
These questions remain at the heart of much of my thinking about design – whether it be specific to disaster relief or any project type, it is obvious we can find ways to introduce culture and custom into design and architecture that will allow a project to adapt to its conditions and fit in with the place it is trying to support.
The most successful project during my efforts to teach design build was the MICA Shelter Project. Spanning the course of 3 semesters, with approximately 20 students throughout, the main design goal was to develop a working prototype for transitional shelter to fit the 6 month to 3 year life-cycle for post-disaster housing.
While in our research and development phase, we received a modest grant through MICA that enabled a small group of students and myself to travel to Port-au-Prince, Haiti to see relief efforts ongoing, about 1 year after the massive earthquake that devastated the region. The experience was unforgettable. Our group learned so much about the problems and conditions that the various aid agencies face while trying to offer relief and services to the displaced population. We also learned quite a bit about the shortcomings of the current model for the typical transitional shelter. In addition, we were able to see quite a few experimental shelters that had merit and functional capacities that were worth considering.
Upon returning to Baltimore, our group completed the design process, coming up with a design for the construction of a prototype. With the support + sponsorship from Whiting Turner, VersaTube and worldwideshelters.org, among others, we were able to pool enough money to acquire the necessary materials and begin construction. The prototype took about 2 months to complete with minor modifications, then was disassembled and relocated off-site in 1 day – a sign that the design had some inherent flexibility that would allow its constant relocation, if needed.
All in all, the project received quite a bit of recognition, with our efforts published three times on archdaily.org, a radio interview on The Signal (a Baltimore-based NPR program), and produced two full publications for the research and design phases.
THE M.E.A. KIOSK
In 2010, The Maryland Energy Administration engaged MICA to help them promote their 15x15 campaign – 15 ways to save 15% on your energy bill by the year 2015.
The recently developed MICA Design/Build class worked with the Social Design program at MICA to develop a traveling kiosk to promote the campaign statewide.
The Social Design program at MICA is a graduate level graphics program that analyzes how information graphics and branding can be used to improve the social condition… so they were heavily involved in getting the MEA to visualize their campaign before our design/build students became involved. They developed the branding and graphics for the campaign, which started the ball rolling through a series of bus decals and billboard advertisements used throughout the state.
The design/build group got engaged in the project when the MEA proposed the idea of targeting a campaign specific to universities and students. Along with my teaching colleague, Daniel Umschied, we looked at different ways a travelling exhibit could take shape. Through Daniel’s efforts engaging a material supplier for 3-Form, we were able to see the project realized, and the exhibit went out to about 25 different universities statewide.
The Kiosk utilizes 3-Form acrylic panels and a customized pipe and rail system for an interactive user experience. By responding to a few simple questions related to saving energy, a user could learn how much they would save in a single year when following certain energy-saving tips. At the end, they added up all of their savings and were asked how they would spend the money saved.
Interactive modes of engagement are influential to behavioral practices… often leading to simple ways people can improve themselves and their lives.
Monarch Systems was a collaborative effort to design a fully-functional 48-patient bed mobile hospital.
Working with a vehicle development company based in North Carolina, we designed a prototype for an expanding container module driven on multiple axles as a simplified cargo container for a big rig. The container would back into place, self-level using a proprietary one-touch air compression system developed by the vehicle manufacturer, then expand either one or both sides to generate an interior space with a full width of 18 feet 8 inches that could be used for fitting out the healthcare program.
The successful design quickly evolved into several other efforts specific to various programs – including mammography clinics, environmental disaster operations, dialysis clinics, among others.
Our efforts included developing sales content in 5 different languages, and a demonstration video to help promote the initiative.
Connections to other designers and thinkers have been fruitful in my career. I've had the benefit of working with some extraordinary people... extraordinary minds. The process of collaboration for designers is often a difficult thing to manage and achieve - designers tend to have opinions... and opinions tend to start arguments.
When you find a group you like to argue with, good things happen. Arguments turn to debate... and debate turns to discussion. This dialogue is the most critical component of invention.
Hurricane Katrina started a sequence of such dialogues with other designers that turned into a couple of design efforts for the re-imagination of New Orleans into a more buoyant city. We began to focus on a design for hybridized housing that could be more self-sufficient, and less dependent on the city’s infrastructure which frequently became disrupted as a result of flooding and other non-disaster conditions due to the sometimes ineffective levee system.
These projects explored how a housing typology might evolve where the tenants formed a functional coalition that worked together to produce goods and services that could be traded with similar communities in an effort to fill out the needs of the group. Functional water collection and filtrations systems, along with self-sufficient power generation allowed a group of 18 units to live ‘off-the-grid’ while still being connected to the city fabric.
The Montreal Corridors project was a vision to allow for the intended pace of different modes of movement to reach their full potential in the high-speed corridor between the Pierre-Elliot Trudeau International Airport and Montreal’s downtown.
This particular corridor has multipleconditions that tend to congest the capacity that it was designed for – as a number of the different modes of transit collide at uncompromising intersections, causing each individual system to lose both capacity and potential.
Our design began to investigate ways to separate these different transportation modes – plane, train, high-speed vehicular traffic, neighborhood traffic and pedestrian – in ways that benefit each pace to reach its true, intended potential. The resultant design began to generate unique influences in the neighborhood infrastructures, causing localized evaluations that invigorated the multiple neighborhoods along the 17-mile corridor.