MASS. Model of Architecture Serving Society

22Nov16

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MASS Design Group was founded in 2006 by a group of students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). The idea emerged when Michael Murphy heard Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, speak at Harvard about the work his organization does in developing countries. Over the last 30 years, PIH has embedded doctors and health practitioners in countries around the world wherever the greatest need exists, following a mission of providing preferential healthcare treatment for the poor. This work has led to new hospitals and treatment centers, localized economic development, and an ever-growing list of significant long-term health impacts in the communities where the organization works, all of which has established PIH as a global leader in healthcare for the poor.

Inspired by this work, Murphy approached Farmer asking which architects PIH worked with and how he could help. Farmer, who was skeptical of the role that designers could play in his projects, initially responded, “Architects? No, we don’t use architects, I designed the last hospital on the back of a napkin.”

Undeterred by his skepticism, Murphy applied for funding to travel to Africa the following summer to visit the site of a major PIH project, a hospital in Rwanda that would serve as a model for primary healthcare centers throughout rural regions of the country. Murphy worked with the PIH construction team to develop plans for the project. Impressed by Murphy’s hands-on commitment and expertise, Farmer reached out later that year with the opportunity to design the hospital. Back in Boston, with the help of future MASS co-founder Alan Ricks, Murphy assembled a small group of like-minded GSD students to work on the project; David Saladik, Marika Shioiri-Clark, Alda Ly, and Ryan Leidner. This team of six students soon began calling themselves MASS Design Group.

The group quickly recognized the futility of trying to design a hospital in Rwanda while based in Boston, so Murphy took a year off from school (supported by a fellowship and additional funding from Harvard) to live and work on-site in Butaro. Even with this full-time commitment, MASS soon came to see that they would need a team of full-time staff to realize the project. In response, Murphy shifted his focus to fundraising, eventually raising funds to bring on two full-time staff plus a cohort of interns and volunteers. To the surprise of critics, MASS completed the project in just over three years, relying on cost-saving, community-centered strategies to build the hospital for two-thirds the cost of a comparable new hospital in Rwanda.

The Butaro District Hospital has since been hailed as setting a new standard for health care in developing nations. It played a critical role in establishing MASS Design Group’s legitimacy as a nonprofit design practice, and it forged the firm’s culture and approach to design, particularly through MASS’s partnership with PIH. MASS adopted many of PIH’s core strategies, such as a commitment to living on-site immersed in local culture, a focus on using projects to create long-term economic opportunity for locals, and prioritizing a community-based approach to all research and development.

Soon after the Butaro Hospital was completed, PIH partnered with the MASS team to design and construct two more projects on the Butaro Hospital campus. However, even before the Butaro campus was fully completed, MASS’s portfolio began expanding to other parts of the globe, including a commission to build the Umubano Primary School in Kigali, a tuberculosis hospital and cholera treatment center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and various other schools and health care centers in Rwanda, Malawi, Zambia, and Sierra Leone. MASS also began supplementing its design work with research and consulting, such as developing healthcare infrastructure standards for Liberia and a primer on healthcare infrastructure for USAID.

This rapid growth was spurred not only by the firm’s unique design approach oriented around health outcomes, but also by leveraging their partnership with PIH. Whether or not it was an explicit goal of either organization, MASS was essentially incubated by PIH, connected both philosophically and pragmatically to PIH’s vast network of partners. To be sure, this is not to undersell the immense talent, dedication, resourcefulness and sheer will that MASS displayed again and again in its early years, yet it would be difficult to imagine the firm ever coming into existence without PIH. It is equally important to note that even with the support of PIH, the founders and early staff of MASS contributed countless pro bono hours and demonstrated unparalleled dedication to ensuring their work was of the highest possible quality and achieved the greatest possible impact.

Soon, the fledgling firm’s hard work paid off, and by 2013, seven years after forming as a rogue group of GSD students, MASS Design Group moved from small donated space into its very own office in downtown Boston, where it quickly became the poster child of the burgeoning field of public interest design.

 

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