Design Corps’s Humane Housing for Migrant Workers

Twelve years ago, architect Bryan Bell, Jr. and his wife, Victoria Ballard Bell, founded Design Corps, a nonprofit organization that designs homes and facilities for migrant farm workers. The impetus was a fundamental realization: Migrant laborers, Bell found, often cannot afford more than the most rudimentary lodging, and farmers—who need to attract good workers—often cannot afford to provide them with better or more suitable options. So both parties suffer.

When Bell and his revolving team of four or five fellows (recent B.A. and M.A. architecture graduates) find a farm on which they would like to build housing, they consult with the farmers, workers, and local agencies to learn more about what the particular site requires. They then try to secure money from private and government sources to help get the project built. “We get the grant funding to make it easier on the farmer,” Bell says. “Even though the houses we build are of higher quality [than average], it costs the farmer less [to have us build them].”

The tradeoff for the lower cost is a 20-year property lien that ensures that the farmer complies with Design Corps’s high quality standards. “The farmers aren’t building these houses for the same reasons [we are],” says Bell, “It’s a desperate business decision for them, and that’s how I approach it: I say this will help you retain and attract good employees, and happy employees are productive.”

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Design Corps is currently working on three partly funded projects. The organization is building worker housing on an organic farm in Washington, Virginia; on a nursery in Gray Court, South Carolina; and on a mushroom farm in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

Just as any architecture firm should, the Design Corps members consult thoroughly with their clients before they build. “Sometimes people contact us and say, ‘I want you to build us those units that you did up there in Pennsylvania,’ ” Bell says, “and I have to say, ‘Well, let’s start from the beginning, because that might not be the best solution for your situation.’ ”

Bell and his fellows ask farm workers to answer questionnaires, so that they can develop an idea of the laborers’ particular needs, as well as any cultural expectations about housing that they may have brought from their own countries.

“I always ask [workers] about what the housing was like where they came from, and try to tap into some of their perceptions and regional context,” Bell explains. “We’re most frequently working with men from Mexico. But at the South Carolina project, because a lot of the work was conveyer-belt work, which men and women can both do, there were some married couples, so we altered the plan so they could live together.”

This emphasis on workers’ requirements, long property liens, and inspections, combined with an appeal to farmers’ business sense, has allowed Design Corps to begin to effect a real change in the housing migrant workers can expect. “Instead of trying to rewrite migrant housing law, we just do strategic strikes,” Bell says. “Like in South Carolina, one of the farmers had used bunk beds. Now some 48-year-old farm worker shouldn’t have to climb up into a bunk bed. So we put in our lien, ‘No bunk beds.’

“Whatever the case may be,” he continues, “we add that to the compliance. So even though the farmer and I have different goals, we kind of combine them and end up at the same place.”

Design Corps’s growing reputation among farmers and farm workers has meant that now many projects are coming to Bell and his crew without them having to seek them out. “We have to pick our battles,” Bell says, “and sometimes, it’s just decent housing.”

Design Corps’s greatest insight, though, may be that their work requires the same attention to detail, and offers the same intellectual challenges, as higher-profile design projects. “Though I’ve been doing housing for migrant workers for 12 years,” Bell says, “I always say that I do the best job when I don’t know anything and go in there with a blank slate, making no assumptions. It may seem like a small group of people I’m serving, but the more I learn, the more variety there is.”