The Mile High Club

The last week passed in a blur of public interest architecture presentations and a haze of green chile and New Mexican sparkling wine. As I have been steadfast in ensuring that I make my weekly Monday deadline, we are celebrating a first for the ole blog, a draft from a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet somewhere over Texas. I was hoping that I would be able to process my latest experiences in Albuquerque, find a link to Chattanooga and produce a clear and concise post. Unfortunately, that clear path has not presented itself, so I submit the following loosely associated thoughts:

Green Chile- breakfast, lunch, dinner, hydrate, repeat.

The conference I attended was about social equity and focused on how design can serve the 98% of the people on the planet that can’t afford to engage an architect. There were a number of case studies on projects ranging from providing housing for migrant farm workers to post-Katrina projects in Mississippi to the building of Tanzanian hospitals. We were also presented with the SEED evaluator.

SEED stands for Social Economic Environmental Design. It is a project evaluation tool in many ways similar to LEED. Where LEED deals with issues of green building, SEED evaluates projects on their social and economic performance. Whether or not this will catch on in the same way that LEED has remains to be seen. SEED evaluation is virtually free and provides a series of very useful metrics for evaluating hard to quantify aspects of projects success. Considering the added benefit of reasonable documentation requirements, I will be having as many of my projects submitted for SEED evaluation as possible. If you have any interest in the subject you should check this out, as well as the Public Interest Design Institute that administers the program.

Oops…I was just informed by the flight attendant that my earphones were not fully plugged in. Apparently, not everyone in the cabin appreciated the dose of Pitbull and T. Pain at 6:30 in the morning…. my bad…

As the case studies were presented during the conference, a common theme emerged. That theme happens to be one we understand well in Chattanooga- partnership and collaboration. All of the projects and programs we saw there were developed by creatively leveraging support from foundations, universities, governmental entities, and non-profits. For public interest work, these partnerships of public and semi-public make sense. Most of those funds come with some type of string attached, however, and the projects almost invariably fall outside of the traditional development model. The principals of these projects are most adept at directing specific grants and donated funds to their variety of needs and personnel to accomplish their particular goals while satisfying the requirements of their funders. In our city, the Design Studio best exemplified that model. Our studio was supported by foundations, River City Company, The University of Tennessee, the Regional Planning Agency and the City of Chattanooga.

During a question and answer session I asked if there is a private model for public interest work. A room of 50 people looked at me like I was crazy as a betsy-bug (or perhaps my accent, coupled with the underlying theme of the question led them to believe I was a Tea Partier). It seems that the prevailing opinion was that if foundations and the government were making funds available, there is no need to look elsewhere. Additionally, if the work of the project in providing for our fellow man is the important thing, how one arrives there from a funding standpoint is somewhat less critical.

Hey, check it out…Cowboy Stadium and Ranger's Ballpark at Arlington…

It seems to me however, that there should exist some model for the private sector to address the needs of the 98%. Clearly, its not easy or it would be done already. There is probably not much money in it, or it would be done already. I refuse, however, to accept that governmental subsidy is the only way our society can equitably and democratically address the needs of all of our citizens. I may be wrong…I’m probably wrong. I’m not ready to give up on that one just yet though. 

Chattanooga is in ideal position to push concepts of public interest design and development. Our city is blessed with an architectural community that has a strong philanthropic contingent. We are also blessed with a number of engaged and active foundations whose support for our community can’t be overstated. We also have developers and local government. The asset side of the equation is stacked, unfortunately, so is the need side. Roughly 25% of our fellow Chattanoogans live below the poverty line. Admittedly, some of the issues our city faces can’t be directly solved by design. However, the power of design to fix real problems and ameliorate symptoms of larger more systemic challenges shouldn’t be undersold.


  1. Thanks for joining us Christian. Glad you flew across country and thanks to the Loeb network for the referral. Sorry for looking at you like you were crazy as a betsy-bug (but not at all because of your accent). Anyway we worked on it and I think putting out your own RFP to non-profits that you could help for so many hours pro bono for a project getting started in exchange for the project and fees if it moved forward is not a bad idea. Hope you try it and let me know. Then you can present it as a good new model at another Public Interest Design Institute.
    And War Eagles hey.

  2. Bryan, Thanks again for giving me such a great excuse to get back out west. I returned inspired and energized!

    Beware that I'm going to try to get you to Chattanooga- there are a number of interested folks here that would benefit from hearing about your work.