Archive for September, 2011

Lessons Learned in the Challenges of a Collaborative Studio

In just under three weeks, the GFRY studio made some major improvements to the Paso Moya Sede Social (Community Center). Located in one of the most severely affected regions (Maule) of the 2010 Chilean earthquake, the sede is home to several community groups. We sought to expand the utility of the sede and in the process, revitalize civic interest. Our plan included a series of architectural upgrades: a playground, signage, pavers and custom furniture in the front, a quincho and barbeque / fire pit in the back, and tool storage / checkout system inside.

Background

The two-semester studio took more twists and turns than a great roller coaster ride; each turn offered a new lesson, most of which could not be fully appreciated until the ride came to a complete and sudden stop. We began by researching the disaster context. As I’ve learned from thesis, it’s easy to get overly enamored by research. Instead of strengthening our overseas partnerships and developing a shared vision, we developed projects based on our personal interests. I partnered with two others from the start in the hopes that an early collective vision might make it to implementation. While this proved true, we created a solution looking for a user.

After a natural disaster, most governments (with the help of NGOs) manage to stabilize the food/shelter needs of its constituents. Most fail in the medium term (6 months to 3 years) recovery: restoring/improving esteem and social structure. My team saw that children were severely affected in this earthquake and sought to improve their post-disaster situation by building a play area (which psychologists widely consider important in recovery). By the time we solidified our partnerships, the community we were designing for turned out to be predominately elderly. Because of this, some community members pushed back at our use of space for a playground. This taught me the importance of understanding client needs early and affirming that understanding through feedback before the research phase.

In our first face-to-face meeting, our partners questioned our intentions and seemed to shoot down all of our project proposals. Other universities had come and promised much and delivered little. These were academic exercises. While faculty had every intention to deliver, that objective wasn’t even clear to students, as we received significant push back on every proposed expenditure. As a result, many developed very low budget proposals that related more to art than design. This taught me the importance of open communication with the broader team.

Implementation

Feelings were mixed going into the implementation phase. Without a confirmation of budget (to the students) and seemingly reserved support from our overseas partners, we weren’t sure what we were getting ourselves into. We had a game plan, but most projects take longer than anticipated. The bottom line: We had 12 work days to make everything happen.

The first few days were a scramble: get materials and equipment from Easy, clean the work site, lunch at Arturo’s, prepare for the town hall presentation of our plans and get feedback from the community less than 24 hours after arrival. It was too late to change large jobs. We trusted that our partners in the community had accurately gauged and communicated community needs. Fortunately, this proved to be mostly true.

I mainly worked on the playground and barbeque pit. In practical terms, everybody helped with everything: the quincho, the fence chalkboard, paving, foundation work, and documentation. We involved the community in volunteer shifts. Neighborhood kids helped paint. Locals pulled up on horse-drawn carts to drop off used tires. A passerby helped us break up and bury a giant cement block that we couldn’t remove.

Lessons

1. Leadership requires buy in. To convince people to follow your vision, you need to understand your constituency’s vision. Paul (faculty) involved us throughout the planning process and helped us combine diverse project interests under one community center renovation umbrella.

2. Activities that contribute little to tangible outcomes can still have significant intangible value. We took turns sledgehammering a giant cement block on a few afternoons. The progress was minimal; we could have rented a jackhammer for very little compared to the time investment. However, hammering proved incredibly therapeutic for the class. It contributed to harmony and group dynamics.

3. Failures are opportunities. We missed the bus to go horseback riding in the mountains, but took a trip to Conception instead. The visit opened our eyes to how another region reacted to the 2010 earthquake. We walked along a beautiful black sand beach and experienced another aspect of Chilean culture.

4. You have to trust your teammates to pull through for you. When you don’t have the time to accomplish everything by yourself, those good working relationships with your teammates really pay off. My hands weren’t agile enough to fasten interior bolts, but Cleo’s were. No one else could drill 3/4″ holes through tires, so I had to, in spite of the carpal tunnel.

5. Mortar is not glue. My barbecue stand fell apart when the form work was removed because cement has very little lateral strength. (Mig fixed it the next day.) Similarly, inflexibility as a team member creates an all-or-nothing dynamic that can damage morale and results.