Expanding Potential in Pro Bono and Practice: Latent Design [Part 2]

KatherineDarnstadt

In the second part of my interview with Katherine Darnstadt of Latent Design (here is part 1,) we get into a project that represents the direction of the firm. Katherine shares how flexibility, creativity, and humbleness creates more opportunities, long-term relationships, and a bigger impact. I hope you enjoy what she has to say below!

Describe one project that you’ve learned the most from or that represents the direction you want to head with Latent Design, from your process with clients and design, the implementation, and the outcome.

The community center client; there were a couple reasons why we got this project. They approached us through The 1% Program, which was when I first started Latent Design. I had joined Architecture for Humanity; I signed up for the 1% Program; whatever was out there I was going to do.

I put my hand in every single pot to see what worked.

Everything was so new to me at that time and it still is.

They approached us and several other architects through The 1% Program with the same ask. They wanted a 55,000 square foot community center for $10 million, they wanted visioning, programming, and renderings to kick off the [fundraising] campaign. They interviewed everyone and the reason they selected us was not only because we told them no, but we were also the only people who went to their office.

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They are on the very far south side of Chicago, where you keep going beyond the end of public transportation. It’s a low income, blighted area, and the other architecture firms wanted them to come to their offices downtown.

I didn’t have that. I had a laptop and was working at my kitchen table. I didn’t have an office so I couldn’t show them anything. If they wanted to see my work, I sent them a PDF. And I didn’t know anything about the neighborhood so I went there.

It was the fact that I came down to them and wanted to know about them that changed their perception.

They said, ‘You were all about us whereas the other firms were all about themselves.’ That attitude was something that resonated with them.

During the initial programming phase that was part of our pro bono piece for The 1% Program, we did a large community workshop where we had the executive director, the board of directors, the staff, youth (who are the end constituents of the community center,) their parents, and the design team all in one room. I wanted to find out if what we did for the nonprofits [with Grant for Good], could be done within an architecture firm–a group workshop and visioning session. That’s where The 1% gave me the flexibility to try that.

How was the workshop?

It was fantastic. It was about six hours long and we were able to take the idea of what space is and how people are going to use the space. Everyone was very honest and we all heard directly that youth are going to use it this way, parents are going to use it this way, staff uses it this way, executive director uses it this way. It was enlightening for everyone involved.

The key thing that came out of it was when we were going through the list of spaces, one of the spaces that they wanted was a science lab. And so I asked them “What does a science lab to you?” They were saying ‘bunsen burners, lab coats, goggles!’ And that is not how I think of science at all. So I responded with:

We’re building a 30,000 square foot science lab. What about building sciences? What about environmental science? What about being able to explore the world around you?

That changed the way they saw buildings and it changed the way they saw the project. From that programming, it lead to a year long conversation where we developed a STEM based program–Science, Technology, Engineering, Math–and did a STEM Design/Build Bootcamp for the organization.

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Last year we worked with twelve young women, predominantly African American, who went out into their community and did statistical analysis and design research based on human-centered design skills to find gaps and to find problems within their community. It ultimately came to that they saw a lack of safe spaces within their neighborhood. They transformed a vacant lot into a park by designing and building it themselves.

It has won a tremendous amount of awards and that came from the original programming piece. The programming conversation we did developed a new curriculum for the organization, a new funding stream for the organization, and that helped put them on the map differently because they didn’t have those as part of their suite of services. It has been an asset to the organization and has helped kickstart our development of the design process because more funding came in from this program.

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Not only do we get to do this bootcamp that resonates with the field of architecture and design but we are able to get more women and more minorities in the field. I want to attract people that look like me if I represent the one percent of the field of architecture.

I’m not going to give girls a dolll; give them a hammer and show them a different way to use their skills and transform communities.

So it’s been a lot of fun and it was unanticipated. You can’t plan something like that.

How far along is the project now?

We’re in our second year. The park is still up, which they did it in a two-week bootcamp. This year we’re working with the Chicago Public Schools to renovate a space within one of the schools in the far south side to create a community space within the school. After this meeting, I’m going there. Changing my outfit and picking up a hammer to build stuff.

A lot of these pop up spaces and temporary spaces and spontaneous interventions that we’ve worked on and have become a piece of our service offerings, I’ve done myself or with a team. We’ve constructed them so that’s helped me learn how to build and design to build much more effectively.

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The community center is still in the development process. We looked at a new site and we’re now developing in a historic neighborhood and reusing a historic building and adjacent land. So its totally changed.

With the program and organization’s notoriety, it’s showing that they’re committed to community revitalization. They saw the park that was created out of their program so then they said “If our girls can create a park and transform a neighborhood, our building can do the same thing.” So they changed their pitch and instead of asking for funding to support a building, it’s supporting a building that’s going to transform a neighborhood. That’s a completely different sell.

Now the program is over a full year. They’re providing STEM training and programming and research projects over the course of the year and it culminates in a bootcamp over the summer.

It’s like a mini-HCD program.

We have folks from IDEO and different design professionals come in to give presentations to the girls and then they focus on researching a specific topic. All of that research goes into a design-build during the summer. Most of the girls carry over so it’s a school year program then a summer program. Usually there’s first time participants in the bootcamp over the summer. Power tools draw a lot of people!

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I’ve read a lot about how tracking impact is becoming more important to show both quantitative and qualitative data of the effects of a project. What are some of the ways you have tracked your projects’ impact, either quantitatively or qualitatively?

We’re starting to look at it much more seriously this year. This year we changed our incorporation status so we became a benefit corporation and with that, part of our legal structure is to measure and show impact in a public manner. We’re going to be releasing an annual report at the end of the year to look at the ways that our projects have had impact. Depending on the client, we look at an increase in revenues, an increase in volunteers or programs, especially if it’s not-for-profits.

We’re also looking at a subjective happiness index and how we might measure that. Part of it is productivity, part of it is intangible. Where do we get at that because that’s a tough one.

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There are global or country happiness indices. Have you looked at any of those for inspiration?

We’re looking the SEED metrics from Design Corps and how we might incorporate those. We’re also looking at Living Building Challenge. There’s no one standard for our industry so we’re trying to figure out if we can pull a bunch of standards and make our own.

I’m trying to develop it and make it open to feedback. If other firms want to measure their impact too, we want to work together to develop a metric. We’re open to sharing our stories and sharing our process because we do want more firms to be doing this. We want this to be an institutional and industry change. It’s all about praxis. To do that, we have to be transparent. That’s something that I’ve taken to heart as part of that open source model.

Where do you envision yourself in 5 years?

I want to grow Latent Design to be a small firm of ten to twelve and be a design-build practice. With a lot of the temporary and pop-up space clients, these projects aren’t big enough for contractors to take on responsibility. So I see this as a place where I can plug in services and provide construction and building services.

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My last question for you is what are three tools you always have on you? These can be tangible or intangible, from your favorite notebook to your best skill.

  1. iPhone

  2. Working pens

  3. An open mind

Thank you, Katherine, for taking the time out to share your stories, experiences, and vision for social impact design! 

Have any questions for Katherine about her practice and projects? Comment below!

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Image sources: Flickr user bmotchanLatent Design

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