MASS Design Group Brings Social Design to Boston

The nonprofit architecture firm directs its focus stateside with a new installation at the 2015 Design Biennial Boston.

The locally fabricated design of MASS Design Group’s temporary installation at the 2015 Design Biennial Boston.

Credit Mark Pasnik via MASS Design Group


For many designers the appeal of social design lies in its ambition to empower communities by engaging them in design solutions to local problems. But, in many cases, the relationships struck up between designers and communities can be limited to insular, one-off conversations rather than develop into true exchanges of ideas. Those architects who have overcome this challenge have faced the problem of importing these solutions back home.

Leading the way on this front is Boston-based MASS Design Group, which has made a name for itself for its healthcare facilities in low-resourced, developing regions. On every project, we highlight and scale local innovation and ideas, hire local labor, and use local materials,” says MASS co-founder Michael Murphy, who has worked in far-flung locales as far as Rwanda and Haiti. Although the nonprofit architecture office “seeks to deliver sustainable and beautiful buildings,” Murphy adds that MASS also places special emphasis on spreading its social design ethos through “training a growing generation of designers and architects.“

Now, MASS seems ready to implement in North America the lessons learned from their international ventures. The firm recently unveiled their design for a temporary installation at the 2015 Design Biennial Boston. The funnel-like structure, which will serve as a test-bed for MASS’s Lo-Fab (locally fabricated) model, was built using scrap material. Following the biennial’s closure, the folly will be disassembled and its contents recycled for future use.

The visualization of MASS Design’s project, built using scrap material.

Credit MASS Design Group

This all comes at a time when other social-minded designers are returning home—to both the global south and north—where they are looking to test out ideas prototyped abroad. Design Impact, a Cincinnati-based nonprofit design firm, began its practice in India and has since returned to the United States to continue developing sustainable and creative solutions in collaboration with local communities. Andreas Gjertsen and Yashar Hanstad of TYIN Tegnestue Architects have not only established a practice that spans between underdeveloped areas of Thailand, Burma, Haiti, and Uganda and their headquarters in Norway, but have also bridged these distances by sharing guides, drawings, and models of their projects through their website.

At Boston, MASS is continuing in this vein. And in keeping with their Lo-Fab ethos, they partnered with the Boston community to fabricate and assemble the structure. The architects also collaborated with Virginia Tech’s Center for Design Research and Autodesk, Inc., the exclusive sponsor of the build. “Beyond the artifact, this project is about process… one that enables students, practitioners, industry specialists, and community members to come together and teach each other through making,” says MASS director of research Nathan King. The fact that this making has more to do with advanced fabrication techniques than craftswork doesn’t take away from the venture’s social-driven, people-centered ambitions, says Rick Rundell, senior director at Autodesk. “This project is about the power of our community working together towards a common goal. The future of making things will require cloud-based collaboration, but the human side of collaboration is just as important.”

Categories: Architecture, Cities

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