Architecture is never neutral. It either heals or hurts. Our mission is to research, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity.
"The question is not what is the cost of architecture, but what is the cost of not having architecture."
—Paul Farmer, Founder of Partners In Health
Architecture is a mechanism that projects its values far beyond a building’s walls and into the lives of communities and people. To acknowledge that architecture has this agency and power is to acknowledge that buildings, and the industry that erects them, are as accountable for social injustices as they are critical levers to improve the communities they serve.
The stakes are too high, and the accountability too low, not to insist that architects do something to address these challenges. This is why we started MASS Design Group.
We set up MASS Design Group as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to create a model of practice optimized to deliver maximum impact to our partners and the communities they serve.
We are often asked why we are a nonprofit and what that means about the kind of projects we work on. We work on projects that are mission-aligned, that serve the public, and that our board of directors believes are worthy of consideration. We believe architecture is a right and a public good and for this, we believe more nonprofits are needed in the marketplace. We don’t have owners but rather a fiduciary responsibility to our mission. We are therefore configured to make decisions collectively and to debate the merits of any design project we take on.
MASS is governed by a board of directors who oversee and advise on the organization and the maintenance of our mission. The board is comprised of a diverse group of thought leaders from different sectors and perspectives that meet quarterly to review the organization’s strategy and operations.
The full-time senior leadership of MASS is comprised of 11 design principals and 3 senior operations directors: Sierra Bainbridge, Christian Benimana, Justin Brown, Kelly Doran, Patricia Gruits, Yves Iradakunda, Chris Kroner, Sarah Mohland, Michael Murphy, Alan Ricks, David Saladik, Amie Shao, Matt Smith, and Regina Yang who develop and administer the strategy of MASS’s work. The group meets weekly to assess where to direct grants in the form of in-kind services, select what projects to take on, and review general operations and strategy.
To make architecture improve lives, each architectural project must achieve a simple, legible, and transmissible idea. We call this “The Mission” and all architecture has one.
To test this idea, we must communicate with the public. A transcendent idea is one that speaks to greater societal goals outside the building and seeks to affect systemic change to society at large.
A building influences systemic change by affecting policy, changing individual behavior for the better, and transforming its own typological category.
Architecture is an organic process that lives, dies, changes, and evolves: it is a verb and not a noun. One of the most direct opportunities for impact is through designing the process of building as well as the building itself.
We are Mission Forward.
We put our partners first. For each project, we begin with an Impact-based Design Methodology (IDM), a practice we adapted from an exercise one of our early supporters, the Mulago Foundation, had us do as we were building MASS. The practice helps create the vocabulary and accountability to determine what the mission of a project is and the metrics to know if it is successful.
We work hard and we take initiative.
Design is a collaborative act and at MASS there is no such thing as a ‘lead designer’. Anyone might develop the essence of a project or propose a project worthy of pro-bono services. We celebrate our team and encourage them to seek out opportunities to lead. Everyone sets goals that are both personal and project-based via a process called Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).
We are Proximate.
To be effective in meeting our partners’ needs we believe it is essential to spend time with the stakeholders we serve. For project teams this often means relocating to a project site and to our broader team this means numerous visits in the field. We have been inspired by the philosophy of Bryan Stevenson who talks about the need for proximity and trained under the leadership of Paul Farmer who talks about the need for accompaniment.
We are a Collective.
A Model of Architecture Serving Society (MASS) is about more than one organization but an idea that we can put mission and the public interest first. We develop our strategy through regular meetings and retreats to debrief our team and to determine where we should be working and how.
We want an Inclusive Profession.
As an industry, we need to do more to create a diverse and inclusive body of practitioners. At MASS we want people to be afforded the ability to do public interest work as a career. We prioritize recruitment to ensure a diverse and competitive applicant pool during our bi-annual hiring cycles. We provide competitive and equitable compensation and benefits including paid maternity leave, retirement planning, and generous paid time off, and we regularly benchmark ourselves to exceed industry metrics.
MASS Design Group began in 2008 as an idea for a different way of practice by a group of students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Initially formed by Ryan Leidner, Alda Ly, Michael Murphy, Alan Ricks, David Saladik and Marika Shioiri-Clark, it grew to include many colleagues and contributors who worked together to design and build the Butaro District Hospital in Rwanda, a project of Partners In Health and the Rwandan Ministry of Health. That first project would not have been possible without the dedication and belief of so many designers who gave their time to a greater purpose including Sierra Bainbridge, Cody Birkey, Commode Dushimimana, Garrett Gantner, and Bruce Nizeye to name just a select few.