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Rewarding Good Design Deeds — SEED Certification and Public Interest Design

Jun 29, 2012
Rewarding Good Design Deeds — SEED Certification and Public Interest Design

Catherine Calvert, AIA
Director of Community Sustainability, VIA Architecture

I recently attended a two-day training course at the University of Washington on the SEED certification system, sponsored by the Public Interest Design Institute.  SEED (an acronym for Social, Economic, Environmental Design) is a framework developed to assist community-focused projects in establishing objectives, following a holistic and inclusive design process, and measuring success using self-defined goals.  Similar only phonetically to another well-known sustainability rating system, the SEED system uses a grass-roots approach to both certification and the design process itself — membership and certification are free, projects must grow out of community need and involve communities as an integral part of the work, and no prescribed points are defined for a project to meet.  The SEED Evaluator allows socially-based projects to achieve third-partyvalidation, encouraging both transparency and accountability, and creates a new standard intended to be used by community organizers, leaders, designers, and funders to measure the public interest design aspects of design projects.

Pomegranate Center collaboration in Walla Walla (photo credit Seattle Times)

The course was led by Bryan Bell, a well-known advocate for public interest design, founder of Design Corps, and author of books such as “Good Deeds, Good Design”  and “Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism”.  Deeply respected in the architectural community for his pioneering work in socially conscious design, Bell is a natural mentor, keen to further the concept of public interest design and to engage a broader part of thearchitectural profession in recasting its role in the community. The course featured several representatives from the local Seattle community who have based their practice on community focused work, such as Milenko Matanovic from the Pomegranate Center , Rachel Minnery and Sally Knodell from Environmental Works, Jeff Hou from the University of Washington, and Steve Dombrowski from GGLO.  Other presenters included Lawrence Cheng from Boston, Michael Murphy from MASS Design Group, and Jamie Blosser from the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative. All presenters shared rich case studies of engagement with community problem-solving through design, with situations ranging from restoration of a Pueblo community in New Mexico to construction of medical clinics in Rwanda.

There was particular emphasis on the business considerations of socially conscious practice, as so many for-profit architectural practices struggle with the issues of wanting to do good works in the community, but also needing to be financially sustainable. With economic times being challenging and fees highly competitive, conventional models of architectural practice sometimes afford limited opportunity to provide pro bono or reduced-fee work. Bell’s challenge to the group was to let the business opportunities grow from immersion in community issues; sometimes this means helping clients create a case for funding, and other times may mean formation of a not-for-profit architectural practice that can apply for its own research grants.

The premise and mission of public interest design is that “Every person should be able to live in a socially, economically and environmentally healthy community.”  Early development in the green movement was focused heavily on the environmental aspects of design; a decade later we are coming around to understanding design’s long-abdicated responsibility for supporting human health and wellbeing through social relevance.  Beyond SEED, many other bright minds in the sustainability field are looking at similar issues, with particular emphasis on developing appropriate metrics for measuring the success of social initiatives on a scale from individual projects to entire neighborhoods.

What these systems share is a willingness to wade into the areas that are slippery and less conducive to empirical measurement.  The “social” or “human” aspects of sustainability, when considered by sustainability rating systems, tend to stop at measures such as air quality, accessibility, safety or noise reduction, all of which can be converted to metrics.  The greater challenge is to use design to take on issues such as health, biodiversity, homelessness, food access, and other similar kinds of problems.  The SEED Evaluator enables teams to establish project-appropriate goals that are self-defined, and to measure success against these.  Successful projects completed under SEED also emphasize evidence-based design, or the “importance of using credible data in order to influence the design process,”, popular in health-care architecture and now being applied to other problems.

What is significant about the SEED Evaluator is that it requires a period of time to pass following completion of construction in order to account for the experience of the occupants and users as evidence of the project’s success.  Architects are accustomed to being “done” when the ribbon is cut, and feedback from our clients one or two years into occupancy often relates to deficiencies or warranty items rather than actual building performance.  Remaining open to, and welcoming, a feedback loop that extends this relationship over a long period of time represents a mindset shift for designers.

The other significant aspect of community-based design is its emphasis on humanism.  Our profession has a bad reputation for overlooking human needs in favor of aesthetics.  By contrast, public interest design places high priority on the concept of invisible structures, or the connections between organizations, communities, and people that are created through collaboration, and the supporting mechanisms that need to be in place to make this kind of collaboration successful.

The Public Interest Design Institute website:

SEED Evaluator website: