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Balancing design leadership and design expertise

Learning about the role of design expertise in community-led design projects.

Although interest in promoting community-led design practices has been around since the 1960s, with many successful examples, community-led design is far from being a mainstream practice. One of the reasons is that it requires a profound rethinking and restructuring of established models or modes of collaboration in design and placemaking.

Established modes of collaboration between architects and community groups assume that design leadership resides with the architect whose role is to find a solution to a design problem provided by the community client. The architect is thought to be responsible for understanding and translating the needs of the clients into a design concept, a vision and eventually a design solution that satisfies this vision.

Graphic showing how traditionally architects are disconnected from community clients. (Shift-Click here to expand in a new window)

However, this restricts the architect from contributing to an important part of the design process which is the exploration of the design problem. It also restricts the community from playing an active role in defining design solutions. The community has tremendously valuable knowledge about the building, how it works, what could work better, or where opportunities exist. But this knowledge is difficult to impart and write in a design brief for the architect. Other kinds of information such as emotional and cultural preferences, social relationships, values and aspirations are also essential, especially for projects that have a social element and this kind of knowledge all too often remains tacit and unformed. Removing the architect from the process of eliciting, negotiating and articulating those parameters affecting design decisions can severely compromise the design outcome, its relevance and its sustainability in the future. Community-led design requires overcoming those barriers and creating a new model of practice where design leadership, and thinking about design problems and design solutions, is shared between experts and community clients.

This requires changes in mindset, expectations and ways of doing, within the architecture, planning and design professions, in the civic society sector, and in the realm of our everyday.

Graphic showing how architects can work together with community clients. (Shift-Click here to expand in a new window)

Read this case study to examine these ideas in more detail:

Case study

A Grade I listed church in the middle of a medieval city was looking for ways to adapt their space to be able to offer more services and an improved experience for its users and visitors. Although the congregation was newly formed, the church was very active and had volunteers helping with different activities such as therapeutic workshops, a theatre company, night church and a café operating Monday-Saturday.

The building group which was formed with the vicar’s encouragement, had a good understanding of their building and valuable project management experience. However, there were many, sometimes competing, issues and ideas for the building. So the group had a difficulty deciding what the priorities and focus of their project should be (e.g. accessibility, flexibility, visibility, new facilities). They were looking at appointing an external expert to help find a solution, but they found it hard to complete a statement of needs and a brief for an architect.

The Empowering Design Practices project team, worked alongside the building group, to help them formulate a vision for their place and a rationale for change, by connecting their exploration of needs to their own values, skills and aspirations. The building group also attended a two days workshop where they became acquainted with some basic design terms and engaged in activities such as collaging and rough model-making which allowed them to explore alternative ideas for the configuration of the space.

Image from design training, community members working together on a model

In the end, the group was able to acquire new knowledge and, most importantly, the confidence to lead the process and work with an architect. Members of the group said:

  • “We want an architect that would understand and work with our thinking – not an architect that would propose building plans for us”
  • “I think now we are a bit informed when we speak to our architects, we can work with them, as opposed to one-way traffic. I think we can have input into the process”

In this course, you will also have the opportunity to explore some of these basic design terms and how design decisions may influence the form, function and experience of a place (Week 2). You will also explore how to develop a strategic view of a design project and a coherent rationale for change, which will enable collaboration with architects and other experts (Week 3).

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Enabling Community-Based Leadership in Design: Sustainable Development of Historic Faith Buildings

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