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Slow Food for the Built Environment: MASS Design Group on How to Improve Relief Architecture

Architecture in disaster zones must be quick and efficient, preferably marvelous, minimal prefab solutions that can be scaled up and sent out immediately in the face of a man-made or natural crisis. Not so fast, says Michael Murphy, the head of MASS Design Group, a firm that believes in a more holistic type of architectural relief effort. From projects in Rwanda to Haiti, Murphy and his team have created impressive designs that also abide by a "lofab," or locally fabricated, philosophy of architecture. Constructing with local materials and labor not only create the shelters and offices needed in the moment, but builds a community and job prospects for the future. Inspired by a stint volunteering and working with public health legend Dr. Paul Farmer in Rwanda, Murphy started MASS Design Group in 2008. We spoke to Murphy after a new project, the GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center, opened in Haiti, about his rules for a different type of relief architecture.

"We moved from an architect is someone who makes a building, to an architect is someone who changes the built world to improve our lives," he says. "That's not an unsubtle implication on the business model."

Reconsider the Role of an Architect
"One of the biggest misperceptions of the post-earthquake environment in Haiti was this huge outpouring of architects and designers who said, this is in our wheelhouse, the built environment has been destroyed, people are dead because of bad buildings. It was all based on good intentions, but many of the solutions were prefabrication. Here's this tent structure that we can make and flat pack in a factory in Florida, then ship it in and erect it overnight. It's a well-intentioned strategy. But what's fascinating, is prefab is a great strategy when labor is expensive and materials are cheap. It's the opposite in Haiti. Don't take away labor in a place where people need jobs. We started to think, what if our buildings were meant to maximize labor instead of minimize it? It's about local job creation. That's why we named the approach "lofab," or local fabrication. We engaged Haitian metal workers to do this incredible work and skin the building. Take what they do on a small scale and make it large scale. Instead of fast and cheap, what's going to make the most impact?"

Use Local, Sustainable Materials When Possible
"Almost every material is imported into Haiti, that's the way it is. We wanted to see what we could source locally to help build up a pipeline for material sourcing. Since all the concrete is imported, we set up a compressed earth block machine to make bricks. We wanted to say that we could build something from Haitian soil, labor, hands and brilliance. It's an effort and choice to invest in that process. You can't do it completely; we couldn't use local wood, since it's a deforested country, and metal workers usually source material from unrolling metal drums, so we obtained fresh steel. The building industry is an international industry, and the effort to try and innovate material sourcing is a long-term play. It's literally a slow food movement for building; think about the 30 or 40 years it took for more people to think about the farms where they get their tomatoes and the hands that butcher their meat. It's a paradigm shift that takes a long time, but what happens if we did that for the built environment?"

Get on the Ground Early
"We have a team on the ground to investigate the assets, opportunities and challenges. Our project manager Adam Saltzman has been working there for more than a year, speaks Creole, and helped us bring on Haitian architects, engage donors and find local artisans."

Learn from the Medical Profession and Follow the Data
"The medical profession is focused on proof, data, and evaluation — the architecture and design world is sometimes interested in data, but sometimes, it's like, I'm a great architect and this is great work, and that's a subjective perspective. This is why we've set up a research team, developing a series of tools and evaluation systems to see what we can we demand from the built environment. Health care professionals and foundations demand it."

Don't Forget Beauty
"I think beauty is fundamental to the work that we do — to me, beauty in architecture is about creating places of dignity for people. If we don't invest in beauty, as one of my Rwandan colleagues said, it's like we don't care enough about them to give them more than the bare minimum. We should all demand more. It's crucial we don't sacrifice beauty, especially in an environment where it's difficult and the budget is tight."

Think Long Term
"It's not about how you stem the affects of an emergency, it's how do you build infrastructure to deal with the related issues. A disease like cholera is related to the built environment, and many others are related to poverty. It's a hard question to answer, but in the end, the community suffers when people don't invest in it. We need to invest in the long term. Hopefully the same thing won't happen with post-Ebola funding."

· Good Works: A Design-Build Firm Builds and Empowers in Haiti [Curbed]
· Shigeru Ban is Bringing His Emergency Shelters to Nepal [Curbed]