Michael Murphy
Photography: Porter Gifford Michael Murphy

Michael Murphy is the executive director of Boston-based MASS Design Group, where he leads design and research programs in several countries. Murphy advocates for “lo-fab” design, which combines local labor and economical prefabrication—“not to fetishize ‘the local,’ but to exhume the commodity of labor,” he says. “We need to be asking about the human handprints in the built environment, which is a thing made by people that includes materials extracted by people, and is ultimately used by people.”

It’s important that we, as architects, care about words like “context,” “dignity,” “social outcomes,” and “evaluation.” We also have to have the capability of investing in those concepts—through how you spend your time, how you treat your staff, and the projects you take on. The question for our firm is, “How are architects making progress in a measurable way?” We have six full-time researchers and we are making a significant financial investment in measurability, which has forced us to recalibrate our firm. We’ve forged three great partnerships lately: with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, on the history and future of hospitals; with Atlantic Philanthropies and the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, to build a tool set to evaluate the impact of architecture on communities, organizations, and place; and with Atul Gawande’s Ariadne Labs, to look at a research protocol that asks how the design of operating rooms affects the rate of Caesareans.

I believe in public interest design, but my question about it is, “What architecture isn’t socially minded?” I don’t think we have a choice here—it’s a false dichotomy to say we can do capital-A Architecture or we can do architecture that is socially minded. That dichotomy implies that it’s possible to work in a vacuum and not think about political and social issues. It implies that it’s possible to ignore ethics—and that’s a pernicious claim. The problem with advocates of, say, the autonomous project in design is that they believe there’s a debate here. There is no debate. There is only the choice we have to acknowledge the social implications of our work. What makes today’s social project of architecture different from the social project of Modernism is that we now have data to assess the impacts that buildings have on our lives.

I think architects possess an under-leveraged value proposition. By contract, we have a fiduciary responsibility to the public good. We are accountable during the lifetime of a building. If architects can start to leverage their actual value, they can change our perceived value. MASS Design’s goal is not to corner a market and exploit it; it’s to create a bigger pie for more architects to work for more communities. —As told to William Richards