As architects, we’re always studying, learning from and drawing inspiration from the world around us. It’s why we attend industry conferences (like the Summit on Sustainability) and best practices calls, why we ask questions like, “what’s next?” and why we find ways to get involved with the local design community. It’s also why we must think about the value our buildings contribute to the society at large.

Big Idea: Going Beyond the Building
During the DFC Summit on Sustainability, Michael Murphy, co-founder and CEO of MASS Design Group, urged attendees to question – and seek answers for – the value architecture can bring to society. His credo is fairly simple: consider human dignity whenever you design. He noted there is a difference between building for profit or for purpose, and insisted that building for purpose is what should drive us.

Murphy shared his experiences of building Butaro Hospital in Rwanda as a prime example of his line of thinking. Previously, hospitals were where Rwandans would go to die; conditions were described as dim, dismal and often deadly. Working closely with one of his mentors and the Rwandan ministry of health, Murphy and his team envisioned and built a state-of-the-art hospital that served 21,000 people in its first year alone. (You can read more about Murphy’s inspiring and incredible journey in this eloquently written Boston Globe article from 2012.)

What it Means
Murphy challenged attendees to think about the following:
1. Buildings can heal. The use of natural light, texture, color, ventilation, materials can greatly impact human life. We work in a human industry. Let’s make the built environment more peaceful and healing.
2. The construction process can improve lives. Just think of the many tradesmen and women who work on a project. Carpenters, mason, excavators – for many, these careers mark the beginning of a new life.
3. There is a ripple effect. In Rwanda specifically, a new hospital led to jobs, schools and a new sense of community. Architecture literally builds community.
4. Resource limitation can lead to resourcefulness. Murphy used himself as an example of this mentality. When asked, “How much did the economy affect what you do?” Murphy responded, “Well, I had to start my own company to get a job.” Literally and figuratively, being strapped for resources leads to creative, problem-focused solutions.
5. Dignity above all else. Why build this way? Why bother being sustainable? Why think about the human impact of our design? It comes down to a single word: dignity. Good design isn’t a benefit simply for those who can afford it. The New York Times put it best when it wrote of Muphy’s work, “[Everybody] deserves good design, whether in a prescription bottle label that people can more easily read and understand, a beautiful pocket park to help a city breathe or a less stressful intake experience at the emergency room. Dignity may be to the burgeoning field of public-interest design as justice is to the more established public-interest law.”

Making it Practical
Is it possible to build for purpose over for profit? Can every building be designed to put people first?

Yes.

Nowhere is this concept more prevalent than in the work we do at SHP. We specialize in schools: large and small, public and private, cutting-edge and classic, college and preschool and every point in between. Schools are not just used from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; they are often the center point of a community. They are the community. What community attraction has more opportunity than a school to improve quality of life, increase home values and make its surrounding neighborhood a desirable place to raise a family and build a life… all while sending happy, well-educated, curious kids out to change the world?

That’s exactly the kind of transformative ripple effect Murphy challenges our design community to think about. What an awesome responsibility and humbling opportunity to truly go beyond the building… and, to put people first.