With an international team of more than 250 members—architects, landscape architects, furniture designers, makers, builders, writers, filmmakers, and researchers—the Boston- and Kigali, Rwanda–based MASS Design Group has raised the bar for innovation, equity, justice, and purpose in design. Founded in 2008, the nonprofit practice has been recognized with the highest honor AIA bestows on a firm.
What is the firm’s greatest achievement?
The first, longest, and biggest project at MASS is the design of our practice. It was always our hope to create a place for people to build careers doing mission-based work, and we are proud to be building the largest, most diverse nonprofit architecture and design firm in the world.
The partnerships we have formed over the past dozen years have also made our greatest built successes possible, leading to significant models for how architecture can be of service to society in more inclusive and sustainable ways. We have partnered with hundreds of organizations in over 20 countries, engaging with partners in deep investigation into the mission and outcomes of each project. Our body of work has evolved because of a process of listening to and learning from people and place, and infusing that with the creativity and talent of our team.
What led to the founding of the firm?
MASS’s story began through the shared commitments of doctors, architects, and policymakers in Boston and Rwanda to leverage the power of design to bring health and wellness resources to underserved communities. When co-founding principal Michael Murphy met the late Dr. Paul Farmer—the legendary doctor and public health leader—of Partners In Health, he learned how the construction of hospitals could have mixed results on patient health. He asked himself, what more important role could architects play than contributing directly to the design of hospitals and buildings that participated in the healing of patients?
Dr. Farmer told Michael that few architects had reached out to engage, and that PIH often designed the buildings themselves. Michael and the early MASS team had the chance to accompany Dr. Farmer and the Rwanda Ministry of Health to design the Butaro District Hospital in Northern Rwanda, a remote region where over 350,000 people had previously lacked direct access to medical care.
We employed simple, elegant systems to design for health, such as outdoor corridors to prevent the spread of infection, or passive ventilation within the wards, and beds that gave patients a view of the beautiful landscape. More than 4,000 workers were trained and hired to help excavate, construct, and manage the project. This formative partnership and work shaped MASS’s philosophy of practice, and their influence is still felt today in all our projects and partnerships.
What struggles does a nonprofit firm specifically need to overcome?
Our nonprofit status requires commitments that we believe improve our capacity to deliver on our mission to advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity.
First, we are accountable to demonstrate how each of our actions advances the mission of the organization. Second, we are accountable to a board of directors who shepherd the policy and financial commitments of the firm to this end. Third, we leverage philanthropic support in service to our partners and our mission, which allows us to engage in critical research and deliver design and community engagement to partners, who may have never built before, or don’t yet have access to the capital required but have a specific goal for social impact.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we recruit staff and partners who share our goals of leveraging design in creative and innovative ways to advance social, cultural, and environmental outcomes in service to society. We are committed to achieve measurable outcomes for people, place, and planet.
What’s the firm’s approach to architecture?
We work to expand access to design that is purposeful, healing, and sustainable. Architecture is a mechanism that projects its values far beyond a building’s walls and into people’s lives and communities. To acknowledge that architecture has this kind of agency and power is to recognize that buildings, and the industry that creates them, are accountable and must be leveraged thoughtfully to improve the communities they serve. We believe in the relentless pursuit of progress and that architecture should be a model for the future.
What one project illustrates that approach?
One example is the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture, currently in the final stages of construction, whose mission is to demonstrate sustainable agriculture practices that can rebuild the biodiversity of the place. MASS helped design a new campus for RICA in southern Rwanda, with 69 buildings across an 800-hectare site, set to be completed this year. The campus supports a new program focused on training the next generation of Rwandans in conservation agriculture to address food insecurity in a responsible way.
Both the curriculum and campus design at RICA are informed by conservation agriculture and One Health principles, which emphasize the interlinking of ecological, animal, and human health. The campus and curriculum seek to strengthen these principles by taking an interdisciplinary and experiential approach to learning, with a campus that promotes biodiversity, ecological conservation, and community participation.
Campus construction embodied those same principles by creating a local supply chain that sourced low-carbon materials; 96% of materials by weight were sourced within Rwanda—walls were made of rammed earth; foundations were made of stone; wood roofs were covered in terracotta tiles fired from waste-burning kilns; and the campus is powered by the sun. By developing and managing the entire supply chain chain from design to construction, using over 98% local labor and materials, the off-grid project will become climate positive within a decade.
What has been one of the firm’s most rewarding collaborations?
In early 2015, the Equal Justice Initiative released a report tracing the history of lynching across 12 states between 1877 and 1950 in the most comprehensive investigation to date. Shocked by this research of a history that had gone undocumented for decades, MASS reached out to offer partnership to the Equal Justice Initiative, first through a community-engaged soil collection project and ultimately in the design and construction of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice [completed in 2018], the first permanent memorial to lynching in the U.S. In Montgomery, Ala., a city where markers commemorating the Confederate South still abound and markers to the civil rights movement and slavery are few, the memorial provides a necessary space for truth-telling, hope, healing, and reconciliation.
The structure suspends 800 Corten steel monuments to represent the counties in the U.S. where racial terror lynchings took place, each engraved with the names of its victims. Duplicates of each of the monuments lie in the memory bank outside of the primary structure. The corresponding counties are invited to engage in this process of acknowledgment and reconciliation by claiming their monument and placing it as a marker in their own community.
It was our privilege to work with the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that is transforming the way America faces its past, and is creating more just policies for our future.
What is the greatest challenge facing architects today?
At MASS, we know that we are not architects to design buildings. We are architects to protect and save our planet; to improve the communities in which we live; and to awaken the links that bind us inextricably to one another; in what Martin Luther King Jr. called the "inescapable network of mutuality."
Our greatest challenge is addressing the complexity of the climate and biodiversity crisis, which is intertwined with many injustices and social inequities, and affects vulnerable communities the most. With 40% of all carbon emissions resulting from infrastructure and buildings, we as architects need to help create a future that not only conserves and stewards our resources—we also need to work toward models that are regenerative, healing our environment for generations to come.
What should architects do to respond to that challenge?
Architects should ask why we build in order to change how we build. Ecological protection, purposefully designed places, inextricable mutuality—these three potentialities, and human needs, are what the design professions can and will produce.
In the U.S. context, architects have outsourced everything. If we want to have more agency, we need to take more responsibility for the process. We need to think critically about how each design decision goes into achieving environmentally responsible goals.We need to be expansive about what climate justice means. It's not just about reducing carbon. We need to look at the places most discriminated against or under threat. Resilience, and a thriving society, is about investing in those places. Climate change is one justification for investing in the concept of equity.
We’re motivated to invest in our planet, to protect it from environmental destruction and restore its natural functions. To make the places we inhabit purposeful to those who live there. Places enable and restrict access to our rights as citizens of this world. Purposefully designed places can reveal those barriers and, ultimately, overcome them. Third, and most importantly, [we must] leverage our work as architects and designers to awaken the links that bind us inextricably to one another.
What does winning the Architecture Firm Award mean to you?
We are honored to be named the recipients of the Architecture Firm Award by the AIA. This award recognizes first our people—the creativity, talent, and dedication of our tremendous team at MASS. And second, it recognizes our model, one that prioritizes fueling the visions of mission-aligned partners. As a nonprofit firm, we are supporting partners in delivering on innovative capital projects that fundamentally improve lives and enable change. We are grateful to the AIA for recognizing MASS’s contributions to the profession and built environment, but also for the recognition of this new model of practice we’re championing through our work.
This Q+A has been edited for length and clarity. This article appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of ARCHITECT.