Courtesy Open Architecture Houston

The Open Architecture Collaborative (OAC)—formerly Architecture for Humanity—began anew in March 2016 as a rebranded and revamped group dedicated to advocating for the many facets of public interest design across the country and around the world. But its mission was no longer to lead community projects as its predecessor had done. Instead, the group set out to create a comprehensive network dedicated to the professional development of designers and architects who are committed to design advocacy and facilitation in marginalized communities. While OAC will continue to support its local chapters, which focus on fieldwork work, executive director Garrett Jacobs hopes to provide the support for these smaller groups to eventually function as independent nonprofits while the parent organization focuses on creating much-needed mentorship and training programs.

“It’s a pretty big culture shift," Jacobs says of the OAC’s new direction. “The past iteration was about really doing projects and what they did well was show what was possible. But I think now, as the field matures, it’s much more about process and practice and empowering others to do the work themselves.”

The first step is establishing a network of mentors and mentees who can engage in a dialogue about needs, goals, and potential opportunities for professional growth. Many of the OAC’s members are new to the profession with between two and seven years’ experience.

“There’s a pretty robust network of existing designers and managers that have been doing this work for a long time, but there really is no framework to bring everyone together,” Jacobs says.

The group completed a mural as part of a design project for a community gathering space.
Courtesy Open Architecture Houston The group completed a mural as part of a design project for a community gathering space.

By facilitating a mentorship-matching program, Jacobs and his team of advisors and collaborators hope to create a curriculum of programs for OAC members, via webinar or in-person trainings, guided by the frequent questions that arise from these relationships. This likely won’t take shape until late 2017 or early 2018 and Jacobs is hesitant to outline any specifics before assessing any take-aways from the future mentorship program.

“Right now in architecture, there’s really no support if you want to create an innovative business model focused on community development,” Jacobs says. “And I’d really like to create [a] hub where people are connecting, people are getting trained, and people are really understanding the basic skills and knowledge that you need—with the values you need—to approach this work with.”

For Kate Cairoli, director of Open Architecture Houston, the international group’s redirection and new initiatives come as a welcome addition to the chapter’s local design advocacy. “I think it adds a whole other dimension to our work,” Cairoli says of the mentorship and training programs. “The fact that the international organization has a broader scope and [will now provide] other opportunities so that we don’t have to do programming on the local level is an added bonus for our members. It’s definitely a big asset for us to stay involved.”

Open Architecture Houston, which continued its community work after Architecture for Humanity’s abrupt shutdown in 2015, became an independent non-profit in the summer of 2016 but will remain a satellite chapter of the larger group going forward.

Jacobs is looking to partner with groups such as the Association for Community Design and the AIA Housing Knowledge Community to recruit potential mentors for the program and is already tapping experienced professionals such as Anne-Maria Lubenau, FAIA, for their expertise. Currently the director of the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, Lubenau spent 10 years leading the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh.

“Architecture and design training is pretty remarkable in terms of the skill set it provides and I think that’s something that often is not recognized,” Lubenau says. “[There] tends to be a singular focus on the design of buildings, when actually our skills as communicators—our ability to communicate ideas in a visual manner—are incredibly powerful. So there’s an untapped potential for architects to have a much larger impact in the world while pursuing public interest design.”

And to leverage this untapped potential, Jacobs believes the ability to identify local needs and assets, leverage available resources, and, in many cases, act as a connector between groups is necessary to the growth and sustainability of the field. “The practice really needs to evolve and invest in figuring out how to create real value around these services that are effectively going to broaden our client base,” Jacobs says. “They’re going to help the communities they live in because people are going to take more ownership of the places where they live, work, and play.”

With 30 existing chapters and a half-dozen more in the pipeline, the OAC continues to grow in both reach and scope but more help and involvement is always needed, Jacobs says.