As architects, we often consider ourselves experts ready to answer questions as soon as they arise, regardless of how new we are to the project. But before we present the solution, we need to understand the issues and opportunities at hand. And to do that, we must ask the right questions.

In undergraduate school, I often felt lost in the fairly rigid Western educational system. When I needed to put pen to paper in studio, I didn’t understand how I could conceive an entire building in isolation. In reviews, I couldn’t fully wax poetic about my design concepts without understanding the people who would theoretically inhabit my project. I became more interested in how projects can arise from the input of diverse stakeholders. (Later, I would learn these ideas are rooted in participatory design.)

This desire to understand led me to spend a semester at Balkrishna Doshi’s Vāstu-Shilpā Foundation, in Ahmedabad, India. There, I worked on a social housing concept that employed incremental development to match the needs of occupants; for example, a room used for commerce could convert into housing for an elderly family member. I realized that architects can serve clients better if their understanding of a project comes from research and firsthand experience, and if they understand both the conditions and social structures already in place.

So how do you pursue an unconventional design path at a time when architecture with a capital “A” is the foundation of our education?

We have many examples to draw from. Early pioneers, like Henry Sanoff, AIA, were defining alternative practice in the late ’60s. The ’90s saw a resurgence with Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio and Stanley Tigerman, FAIA, and Eva Maddox, Assoc. AIA’s Archeworks, where I studied and later taught for several years. The Design Futures Council and the annual Structures for Inclusion conference are also valuable resources.

Over and over, opportunities arise to interact, understand, and create solutions together. Our challenge—our duty—is to take them on with open minds. The answer doesn’t always have to be making architecture, but it should involve learning and creating from what is experienced. My colleague and friend Liz Ogbu describes this in the Nov. 7, 2018, article “Providing Space for Pain and Healing.”

This approach can lead us to become problem seekers and to opportunities to create, develop, and collaborate on what might become our next project. As a profession, we should use our skills to identity opportunities. We should use design as a tool to achieve a solution.

In recent years, we have worked closely with several victims of torture under the disgraced former Chicago Police Department commander Jon Burge to design a home for the Chicago Torture Justice Center. When we began the conversation, we weren’t trying to design space—we were trying to understand needs. I could not have fathomed or articulated many of the needs and opportunities identified by the staff, survivors, and family members: “It’s a place of healing.” “It’s a constant.” “It’s a place where people call each other brothers and sisters.” These wishes, in turn, started a dialogue to design a place that could realize them.

Similarly, when we brought together Illinois Institute of Technology students, Chicago entrepreneurs, the Greater Englewood Community Development Corp., and community members for a charrette that explored possibilities for a local business accelerator, we heard a much broader range of needs than we could have anticipated.

I encourage emerging designers seeking to make a difference to look beyond the borders of traditional practice and to roles in government, teaching, and public service. I ask seasoned professionals in these fields to mentor, train, and support these ambitions.

And, more than ever, we need to apply the rules that most of us learned on the playground: Listen and respect others. Be kind and thoughtful. Look for similarities. Celebrate differences.

Call for submissions: Have a timely, relevant, and unexplored perspective or experience that the design community would benefit from hearing? Email [email protected].

Editor's note: We regularly publish opinion columns that we think would be of service to our readers. The views and conclusions from these authors are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.