How Sustainable Architecture Can Save Lives

Meghan French Dunbar April 4, 2015

“Well-designed buildings can be a place where people aspire to believe in something greater than themselves.”

MASS Design Group, based in Boston, is proving that the built environment can improve lives. The design firm identifies projects that will effect the most catalytic changes and designs beautiful buildings that will improve the health and well-being of the communities that they serve. It also believes in using the building process as a tool to promote economic prosperity, educational opportunities, and environmental health. The group simply demands more from the built environment than traditional architects do and is inspiring others to design and build from a systems perspective. We spoke with Co-founder and CEO Michael Murphy about his inspiring company.

How did MASS Design get started, and what was your inspiration for creating this innovative design group?

Michael Murphy: I started the company when I was a student at the Graduate School of Architecture at Harvard. I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners in Health, and felt there was a call to action, which was essentially, “Why aren’t any architects helping us do work in the places that we’re working globally, from Rwanda to Haiti? What’s the disconnect between those who are experts and professionals in the built environment and those experts who are working for the communities most in need?”

It was like a rallying call, and I moved to Rwanda for some time to work with NGOs that were doing work in the built environment by building clinics, hospitals, housing, and schools, all largely without the services of architects and designers. When the opportunity came along to help an organization build a new hospital on a large scale in Rwanda, I was asked to support it. I discussed it with a collection of fellow colleagues from school, and we jumped at the chance to facilitate the new design of a building for this organization. That’s when I really started MASS – a social enterprise designed around using architecture to effect positive social change and working with other organizations to help improve their overall missions as well as their impacts on the communities that they served.

We started to ask hard questions like, “Does architecture matter? Can architecture make a difference? Is it a methodology or a mechanism for social change?” I think it was really a challenge or a call to action for us to see what architectural moves we could make that could really improve people’s lives, improve the organizations that we were working with, and become a symbol of positive social change.

Can you speak a little bit more about the sustainable side of your designs?

MM: It’s not just what you draw, but it’s how you build it. When you think of how you build, all of these other residual positive effects can emerge. Reflectively, when we think about all of the decisions an architect might make on a drawing board or a computer screen, they’re really choosing a vertical supply chain of labor. They’re choosing an entire economy to impact. I think we give gravity to those choices. We think deeply about who a building will affect, who will build it, what kind of impact it will have, and how we can leverage that to its maximum outcome.

When you talk about sustainability and being less bad, we also think about that in building. For too long, sustainable buildings have been about the least environmental footprint possible. Actually, we know now that it’s not about creating the least footprint, it’s about having a very resilient building that can withstand significant change or disruption. When we talk about the labor variable of decisions in the built environment, the future of sustainability is asking the questions like, “Who is going to build this thing? How do we calculate the real cost of labor? How do we calculate the real cost of the hands that made this and constructed these symbols of hope for our future?” We try to tie those things together in our reflections.

Can you expand on what it means to you to help people become better builders?

MM: The reality of implementation is actually much more difficult than just getting a team of builders together. In places with limited resources, there’s a significant dearth of not only quality builders but builders who have experience in more complicated design work. Or they just build differently. They build well, but they don’t know how to read construction drawings from the US. There’s a real “lost-in-translation” component in the built environment.

We saw that in Haiti, for example, where 250,000 people died not because of an earthquake, but because of buildings that fell on them after an earthquake. The structural system was not in place to ensure that they were strong and earthquake-proof, that they could stand, or that they could protect people from hurricanes or from disease. We learned the big lesson that a good design can improve a place, but a well-designed building process is also a fundamental part of the change that was necessary.

Can you give us an example of a positive outcome from one of your projects?

MM: We had a female mason in Rwanda named Anne-Marie, and she was one of the first female masons. She was concerned with making this really beautiful stonework, and she was an inspiration for the job site and attracted other female masons. The masons were typically men, and there’s a kind of gender inequity in that, but she was really steadfast and talented and really stepped forward and became a team leader. She has gone on to lead masonry teams and has really been an inspiration for the entire job site. It’s really, really amazing.

“We started to ask hard questions like, ‘Does architecture matter? Can architecture make a difference?’”

How do you measure your theory that better architecture can improve lives?

MM: We use four levels of impact. We call them the “four E’s”:

1. Environmental: Buildings obviously have a footprint and we have to look at the environmental impact of a building.

2. Economic: We believe and have seen with our architecture that good design has a catalytic effect on places and local economies.

3. Education: A building process can improve lives overall by training people to become better builders and developing new skillsets in order to launch people into new workforce opportunities.

4. Emotional: Really well-designed buildings are more than just functional buildings; they’re actually symbolic and transcendent, and they provide dignity to people. Dignity isn’t quantifiable, but it is real, and well-designed buildings can be a place where people aspire to believe in something greater than themselves.

We do ourselves a great disservice in the aid world and in the world in general when we lower our expectations for how our built environments are designed and when we design with the bare minimum in mind. It’s really sad and problematic that the places where we spend 90 percent of our lives, i.e. inside buildings, are often not attuned or designed for the way in which we use them. We use these four E’s to demand more of architects and more of the public to understand what could be possible outside of just a place where you find shelter.

There’s also a fifth impact that we look at, which is the direct impact. Does the building achieve the ultimate mission of the organization that it’s serving? For example, if it’s a health building, the organization likely defines its mission as improving health, reducing communicable diseases, or increasing access to medical care.

How do you identify and then choose the projects that you’re going to spend your time on?

MM: Our basic indicator and fundamental question is, “Will this building effect catalytic change?” There are a few different indicators. First, is the organization achieving significant impact, and will this building help facilitate and improve its overall impact on the community that the organization is serving? Second, is the organization financially healthy enough to construct a building? A building is a major investment and a large capital expenditure, and the organization must have reached some kind of limitation in its growing capacity to provide service and therefore needs to invest in order to achieve a much more amplified amount of service and impact. Third, can we leverage the building process? Is there an opportunity to use our design approach so that it has the effect we want each building to have?

We’re really selective, and we’re not interested in building 10,000 buildings. We’re just going to be building a few buildings, and we hope each one is going to achieve some sort of catalytic effect. By that, I mean we want to really go upstream and change the way people build more generally in that region or nation.

What is your vision for the future?

MM: I want paradise to happen in the public, where we demand of the built environment that it improve our lives and that we hold it accountable for our health, our ability to live successful lives, and for its direct appreciation of the community that builds it. I think once we tie together our community, our neighbors, our labor that works on construction, the performance of our built environment, and our ability to live healthy lives, we’ll immediately demand a higher caliber of work. We will immediately make our buildings safer, and we will immediately see our built world through a different lens. I think a lot of architects feel the same way, and we just want to push it along.


Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, cholera emerged throughout the entire country. Cholera is both a curable and preventable disease, but patients were only able to find medical care in temporary tents, which are particularly hard to keep sanitary. MASS Designs partnered with Haitian health care provider Les Centres GHESKIO to design and build a state-of-the-art cholera treatment center and on-site wastewater treatment plant – the first permanent cholera treatment center in the country.


Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
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