Social Enterprise - Architectural Practice For A "Resilient" Future?

For their 2016 annual conference the Architectural Institute of British Columbia (AIBC) has picked the theme: " Building A Resilient Future". The word "resilient" suggests something bouncy, like resilient gym flooring that helps the player jump and dunk the ball into the hoop. So when we think of our future as resilient, are we visualizing it bouncing back from gloomy prospects, like resource depletion,  war, social strife, poverty or environmental collapse? 

They are just different manifestations of the same fact: we haven't taken good care of each other and our home! Let's remember this before trying to make our future resilient, so we don't waste energies on details of little or no effect, like worrying about LEED certifications for the buildings we designed! 

Why are we such a sorry bunch? Here is my take: we have become the dominant species on Earth, but the abilities that got us there are still fired up, and we are now turning them against each other. The qualities that made us so successful are the drivers of an economic system that worships competition, aggressive behaviour, and personal gain as the prime motivator of our lives, depends on constant growth and ever increasing consumption, when we all know that our space and resources are finite. We have lost touch with reality, but rush to the edge like lemmings heading for the water. 

Whether our demise is inevitable or not we will never know unless we have tried to turn things around! So let's no be too pessimistic: could not the traits that made us dominant include the ability to change our ways of thinking? Here is where we could start: let us stop allowing fear and greed tyrannize our lives, and give the desire to take care of each other a chance to grow and fill our lives with satisfaction. If we could make this a common experience it could change the way we organize as society and earn our living, couldn't it? It is a big task, and we have to start with baby  steps and be content with little. I believe practising Social Enterprise (SE) could give us this new focus. 

The Proposition     

Capitalism needs the desire for personal gain for its survival. The winners use the spoils, the "capital", to leverage an even greater advantage. But resources are finite, disparity widens, social discontent grows, leading to crime, war, revolution, etc.. We are not happy with this and hope some safety nets will maintain a minimum of dignity for all. Where all this fails charity tries to patch over the grossest wounds, as taxpayer funded aid programs, NGO's, private and religious initiatives. It is always too little, and with the world population at 7 billion administering effective aid by donation is becoming less and less sustainable, red tape and corruption let too little value arrive where it is needed. Between the two extremes of maximal personal gain and giving it up for nothing there seems to be no middle ground. It is a tug of war that gets us nowhere. 

SE wants to find a balance between these extremes: those who by their circumstances are in a position to generate value will retain enough to lead a modestly comfortable life. The balance of the value created is diverted to causes of common interest and to support those who can't. 

Dont get me wrong: I am not proposing anything of regulatory nature, or even "socialism", God forbid! The resolve to practice SE is yours, and so is the decision which causes you wish to support. SE recognizes the efficiency of individual motivation, it only asks us to change the objective. I just want to  propose a model to organize, arguments why we should do it and why it would make us happier.

Social Enterprise for Architects         

Revenue generation: includes work for standard fees, by responding to proposal calls, repeat clients, schmoozing, just like always. This is how funds are generated for our own livelihood and to divert to social projects. SE is not expecting donations, it works in the marketplace in competition with all other firms. To succeed we must be as efficient and profitable as we can. 

Limited revenue generation: work for charities, NGO's, etc. for discounted fees depending on the social merit of the project and the financial strength of the organization. This part of the practice could still generate modest revenues or at least not cause a shortfall. 

Pro Bono work: free services for projects that could otherwise not proceed. It could include sending staff for practical, on-site work, for instance reconstruction after earthquakes. Since staff time and office resources are used it must be fully subsidized by the firm's other activities. 

Direct financial aid: if there are retained profits at the end of a pre-defined period, they could be dispersed directly for initiatives where pro bono work is not an option. Examples are a teacher's salary, or the purchase of medical equipment. 

Employee relations: as practicing SE transforms our minds we might be looking at our hiring policies and staff relations differently. We might be looking more at the applicant's need to have the job and how his personality could contribute to a pleasant work environment, rather than how much use we can get out of him in our quest to generate profit. 

What is "Social Merit"?       

You may ask: just what is a "modestly comfortable" life? what are "causes of common interest"? what has "social merit"? who is worthy of support? 

- I leave that up to you! I just ask you to evaluate all your business decisions in terms of common interest and compassion, even if you are not yet sure what it is. Practiced consistently it will slowly change the way you see the world, and I suspect you will arrive at very clear ideas. Your standards will arise from within yourself, not from regulations! 

Right now we may have no problem accepting work for a developer proposing a subdivision on virgin land, with no existing infrastructure, 50 km away from the nearest places of employment, or for a manufacturer of arms or environmentally doubtful products. But as our minds get changed by daily practice, we may very well become selective about who we work for. 

Our mind is easily seduced and able to find justifications for just any foul behaviour, history is my witness. But once we demand of ourselves to consider modesty, common interest, social merit and compassion with every one of our lives' decisions we might not fall into this trap so often. We don't have to agree on the same goals: SE works by replacing personal gain as prime motivator of our lives with something else, even if we don't yet know exactly what it is. 

Can SE  transform the business of architecture?

You decide to run your firm as SE because you think it is the right thing to do. There is no guarantee that a tiny minority doing the right thing will have any more impact on the sad state of the world than all the world's charities and aid programs had to date. You have no illusions about this and still do it. 

But imagine a proposal call for, let's say, the design of a new university campus. Three firms are shortlisted and one of them is a publicly known Social Enterprise with a known track record of effective social work. Isn't it easy to see how the selection committee would gravitate toward this firm, all else being equal? Once the first firm wins a sizeable commission because it is seen as contributing to humanity, others might get the idea, and one day social conscience might become a prerequisite to attracting profitable work. 

How SE could transform the image of architecture  

Architecture's image is not good: the "average Joe" sees us as designing monuments to our and our clients' vanity. They see the architect as someone they can't afford and buy a Home Hardware package to build their homes. The star cult of the entertainment industry has not spared us:


every time another obscenely expensive and contrived-looking building makes the front pages, the public is reminded that the measure of architecture is to make a splash, no matter how appropriate, what the cost, and who it serves. 

If our profession could be seen as providers of practical solutions for real needs and ordinary people this image would change drastically, wouldn't it? The way we would design buildings would change, too. We would ask ourselves more often: what material, health or spiritual benefits will our decisions contribute to the work, not how can it stand out in the crowd, or be as cheap as possible, or can be off our boards as quickly as possible so we can invoice the client.

Architecture is the last profession that has resisted specialization. It attracts multi talented people from vastly different backgrounds, often dreamers with no outstanding single interest. Drop out rate is high with architecture students: the employment prospects are lousy, their mental disposition often leads them to question the social relevance of architecture and they become disillusioned. If architecture could be seen as more socially engaged and less serving bottom lines and vanities, it could attract more bright students who have seen that there is more to life than wealth and glory. A shift away from star cult and toward social relevance could help us re-make and rejuvenate our profession. 

A timid glimpse at SE architecture    

I feel sheepish getting into this: Firstly, I am not an avid scholar and am not aware of  many architectural firms that practice SE as an expressed goal of their practice. They are not prominent on the public radar! Secondly,  the question is only marginally relevant to my cause, and speculative at best. Still, we architects are visual people and want to see pictures, so I will try to dredge up images that I feel express a socially engaged design culture, and ask you to humour me.

One of the world's top architects  is devoting a significant part of his practice to pro bono work, prefers basic, low cost, low tech and recyclable building materials, abstains from visual hyperbole and narcissism, and has always known what is appropriate. He is a star, not a "starchitect"! His career demonstrates that a social conscience is compatible with success.



Shigeru Ban used steel shipping containers to construct what was planned to be temporary accommodations for displaced persons after an earthquake in 2011. The scarcity of flat land led to the development of a 3-storey structural framework to allow stacking the 6m units in checkerboard fashion. The alternating arrangement creates airy and open living spaces with unusual amenities for emergency shelters. The units are combined to give three different sizes of dwellings for different occupant numbers. Its amenity and excellent seismic performance allowed the building to be used as a permanent solution that I find a lot more inspiring, friendly and comfortable than many market driven multi family buildings I have seen in North America.



He also used shipping containers for 
this temporary structure to house the travelling Ashes and Snow photography and film exhibition by Gregory Colbert. It also gives us a glimpse of Ban's other favourite building material: recycled paper tubes.  



The "Paper Concert Hall" was realized with the help of the Japanese government to provide a temporary substitute for the Conservatorio Alfredo Casella that was destroyed in the 2009 earthquake. The temporary hall built of a number of different materials including cardboard can be taken apart and re-used at another location after reconstruction of the permanent hall. Students from three different countries helped with the construction.

Diébédo Francis Kéré 

While Shigeru Ban's career followed the pattern of most internationally renowned architects, Francis Kéré comes from the opposite end. Born in the village of Gando in Burkina Faso, he was the village's first child to be sent to school because his father, the village chief, needed someone who could read and write. After his graduation in Berlin he formed an association ("Bausteine für Gando") with the objective to raise the resources to build the first school in his native village. 


For the Gando school Francis Kéré used mud bricks and involved the entire local population in the construction. A corrugated metal roof on lightweight steel trusses keeps the seasonal rains from washing the mud bricks away.  Large overhangs offer shade, the patios bring relieve from the monotony of the flat savanna, the layout is simple and reduced to the needs of a rural school, visible materials are metal and mud. Ingenuity, economy and simplicity drove the design. Still the building looks elegant and well balanced, and tells us something about its place and its people. 


With the elementary school completed Kéré went on to organize a number of other projects to improve the conditions in his native village, with a scope that reached far beyond the mere design and construction of buildings, like the

MANGO TREE PROJECT, with the objective of reforestation and to improve the villagers' monotone and vitamin poor nutrition based on millet. Or the SCHOOL GARDEN AND WELL, to teach the students better agricultural practices and water management, and finally the GANDO SECONDARY SCHOOL

His work was eventually noticed and rewarded with many prestigious prizes, and he is now one of Africa's best known architects. Here the CENTRE FOR EARTH ARCHITECTURE in CONGO


In trying to find a solution to bring benefit to his native village of Gando with minimal financial and natural resources he has developed a restrained, elegant and economic design language: mud brick available just about anywhere in Africa, lightweight steel roofs to protect the bricks and give shade. 


Made in Earth NGO

Just like Francis Kéré the cooperative of Made in Earth is not limited to the design of buildings. They are active in Tamil Nadu, India, where they also carry out a literacy project and language training for the Tamil Nadu people.




The CASA RANA, in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India, is a foster home for HIV-positive children and their mothers. Wedged between two monolithic concrete slabs are five colored boxes containing living spaces and secondary functions. The space between these boxes provides common areas and ancillary functions. Some of the volumes punch through the roof as skylights and chimneys for natural ventilation. A curtain of bamboo sticks around the building creates shade and distinction from the outdoor spaces.

Just like the Casa Rana the VELLORE HOUSE is a foster home for abandoned HIV-positive children. The bricks for this building came from a furnace located 500 meters away.


Allow me to present  our own modest efforts to provide architectural services to those who most badly need it. in 2001 we started to work for Ethos Open Hands, a Swiss NGO carrying out aid work in Romania. With the collapse of communism things first got worse. All the heavy industry of Craiova, a city of just under a million inhabitants lay in shambles.

All housing construction ground to a stop, because the level of organization required for their traditional construction methods of masonry and concrete were no longer viable under market conditions.Extremely cramped living conditions and general poverty let to a dramatic increase in the number of street children.We suggested therefore to pioneer some form of wood framing techniques: concrete and masonry require cranes, heavy equipment, batch plants, etc. A carpenter can build a house with a circular saw, some hand tools and a pick-up truck. This was consistent our client's aid strategy, which focuses on training self reliance. They would train their own work force on their own projects and encourage them to become small entrepreneurs. It was a rough start trying to convince local authorities and workers unfamiliar with the material, and work with an unsympathetic regulatory framework.

Converting this old building into a kindergarten, meals-on-wheels kitchen and bakery was to be our first try. Next was a 30-unit row housing project of large units for families that would agree to adopt street children. Bureaucratic hurdles were still formidable, but the workers were catching on. The buildings are just simple but roomy and bright boxes with shed roofs.

 The breakthrough came with our third project, a two-tier K-13 private school. The City saw the value of what we were doing and the work force was getting really smart.

The 4,000 m2 building was constructed for the equivalent of Can$4 Million, including all equipment and components that had to be bought in Western Europe for market prices. Now, having worked for Ethos Open Hands for 15 years, there is a well trained work force, the authorities are supportive, and we have helped our clients in their social work in one of Romania’s most hard-hit cities. An extended care home for disabled and elderly was next, and now we are working on a kindergarten to replace existing cramped and marginally sanitary facilities.

How could SE change our design culture? 

Let me offer this speculative answer: a continued practice working with limited resources, looking for methods that can offer employment to often only basically skilled workers, will likely condition us to avoid things that do not effectively contribute to the building's purpose. But we still want our buildings to be inspiring and more than just boxes! Disliking "starchitecture" does not mean that I believe that works of cultural significance are unimportant: in the contrary! Art is an expression of our grappling with the mystery of our origin and condition, a yearning that reason will never satisfy. Art reminds us of this mystery, without it we would be very poor. We just might discover what I believe is the best definition of "elegance": making lots with little. 

So let's now look if we can detect these virtues even in a high profile public building in one of Earth's most affluent communities.  I want to give Shigeru Ban the last word, an architect who always knows what is appropriate.


The building is a box using mainstream and, for a building of this function and visibility, economical construction methods. The box is a modern, bright and functional art museum, that's all. The architect has understood that contrived complexities are rarely serving a function and never worth the money.

Rather than saying many things at once, Ban says one thing and says it well: opening the building to Aspen's principal resource, its natural surroundings, and letting the building show that it knows just where it sits. Hence the only truly unusual design element is the "wattle fence" kind of woven screen surrounding the glass box. It is providing lighting control and shade, but in its fascinating play with the sunlight of Aspen's climate, changing throughout the day and wind conditions, it's visual effects are alluding to the tree that gave the place its name: the Trembling Aspen, and the flickering of light as its leaves get moved in the wind. 

Can Social Enterprise give us a resilient future? 

SE works with all forms of business, not just architecture. It requires financial sacrifices, and unless becoming mainstream practice will not amount to much in terms of global social benefit.  But once we see how shifting our lives' focus from personal gain to the common good makes us happier it might catch on and we might have a chance at a resilient future, unlikely as it seems at this point in Earth's history. 

Caring for each other, no matter where on Earth, would help to erode the "Us and Them" mindset that is pitting us against each other. Once the destruction of wealth and environmental damage of warfare ends there will be more left to enjoy for all, the culture of fear can subside, we all can be more relaxed and embark on a slow path back to social peace and environmental stewardship. 

Religions, philosophers, psychologists all agree on this point: the less time we spend thinking about our happiness, the happier we are. The clinical definition of the psychopath is someone totally wrapped up within himself. And yet we are carrying on worshiping competition and the pursuit of personal wealth like a golden calf. It has brought us to the edge and has to stop. Can SE maybe help us? 

I am a dreamer, but you know what? It feels good!