Social Impact Design IS A Career – Next City

Social Impact Design IS A Career

The big question on the minds of emerging architects and designers today is how to do meaningful work. As a recent article in Residential Architect described, “today’s young design professionals are propelled by a dedication to social justice.” The notion that design can be a tool towards social change is not new, but the past decade has seen a flurry of new firms, conferences and publications that have brought the terms public-interest and social-impact to the forefront of design. It seems like these must be the clear answer to emerging architects’ question of how to find meaning in their work, but how to actually have a career practicing social impact design is a much larger question.

For the past 14 years, the Enterprise Rose Fellowship has been a quiet but powerful force in helping build career pathways in social impact design. Through the fellowship emerging architects gain professional experience in design and community development for low-income communities. During the three-year position, fellows develop the skills and expertise they need to work directly with communities and use design to transform lives. If you’re looking to build a meaningful career in design and community development, consider applying for the fellowship – applications are online now

Working with Enterprise and meeting dozens of the Fellows over the past year has allowed me to see both how and why the fellowship is so important. The Rose Fellowship is a unique 3-year experience that places a handful of the best emerging architects in some of the best community development corporations (CDCs) around the country. The process is a win-win. Each CDC gets a trained architect on staff who can provide design expertise on affordable housing and community development projects and help elevate the quality their work. At the same time, each fellow gets three years to work and learn about community development from the inside, developing a unique skill set and expertise that’s rare among practicing architects. Through this program Enterprise is helping to transform the field of community development while training the next generation of design leaders in the process.

But why the focus on housing and community development? Why not hospitals or schools? For one, this is Enterprise Community Partners’ expertise (they’ve helped build and develop over 300,000 units of affordable housing), but more importantly, because we know that having a safe and stable home is critical to the physical, mental and social health of individuals and families. Shelter is a basic human need and it affects nearly every aspect of our lives. Yet right now over 11 million families can not afford a safe and stable place to live, and over 21 million more live in housing that limits their access to basic services and opportunities. In total, 1 in every 4 families who rent their homes are affected – that’s 10 percent of the entire US population! In short, if you’re looking to build a career in social impact design, consider affordable housing and community development, because while it may not be as sexy as building schools in Africa, it’s damn sure needed.

What’s more, architects have tremendous capacity to take this challenge on and build better affordable housing. Rose Fellows have proven time and time again that with their design and architectural training they offer a unique capacity for analysis and synthesis, understanding of how systems work, and integrative problem solving, each of which are critical aspects of designing affordable housing. But community development is not such a simple field, and building well designed and high quality affordable housing requires a lot more than just design expertise.

Through working with their host organizations, Rose Fellows learn how to apply that same design approach to a diverse set of tasks and practices. The scope of expertise includes everything from finding and securing funding, to understanding tax codes and zoning laws, to building coalitions of stakeholders, to strategically aligning projects with larger political or economic agendas. Fellows also have close involvement in the process of engaging with community members and locals, leading outreach efforts and managing public processes.

“I tell my peers interested in public-interest design that it is a viable career path, as long as you are open to this expanded view of the designer’s role and intersection with other fields.” –Laura Shipman, Rose Fellow 2008-2011

But even with all these understandings and skillsets, affordable housing is financially, programmatically, and often politically difficult to develop. It requires leaders who champion their cause and figure out ways to get projects done in the face of adversity. It requires strong will to pioneer new models, systems and designs that prove affordable housing can do what others say it can’t. That’s why a crucial part of being a Rose Fellow is learning to be a leader.

Fellows learn from the inside so they can help shape the future of the architecture profession towards public-interest design and socially relevant projects. If you want proof, just look at what former Rose Fellows are doing now. Over 61 percent of them are in leadership positions in the field of community development and nearly all of them are in “mission-driven” organizations such as affordable housing developers, architecture firms aimed at social impact, or at universities teaching public interest design.

The fellowship is not just building a group of leaders, but a group of vocal advocates who are pushing forward a national dialogue about how design can transform the field of community development. Together, the Rose Fellows (up to a total of 50 today) are part of a growing network of architects and designers who are helping to build a platform for design.

And of course, last but not least, being a fellow also means you are part of a community. The fellowship teaches the best and brightest architectural designers about the power of embedding themselves in a community, learning with and working alongside residents to improve the fabric of the community.

“This opportunity has enabled me to see and feel what it’s like to work really intimately in one group of neighborhoods, and to see the effect of projects over time, and the impact that stabilizing rental housing can have on people’s lives… architecture and design are really only the first step.” -Daniel Splaingard, Rose Fellow 2009-2012

To learn more about the fellowship, click here

To apply for the fellowship, click here