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9 Women Using Architecture to Change the World

Women are an inspiring presence in the realm of public interest design. Here are nine of the best.

Rennie Jones Rennie Jones

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The traditional courtship between architects and public interest projects relied on the mediation of benefactors with bank rolls who chaperoned the impassioned relationship between the architect and his or her work to ensure all appearances were in order. But as the presence of public interest design has grown in recent years, this relationship has shifted.

Now, the “client” often includes the end users, who are not responsible for financing the project but participate in the conception and construction in collaboration with the architect. In public interest design, the architect trades in the three-piece suit of Daniel Burnham for jeans and work boots.

Women are an inspiring presence in this sector of design and, in another trend that contrasts tradition, they are starting to be recognized for it. There are many women and men who put in the sweat and lack of sleep to establish themselves in the field, but here we highlight nine of the biggest emerging talents in public interest design:

Students working in the studio. Image via Project H Design

Emily Pilloton: Founder and Executive Director of Project H Design

Emily Pilloton runs Project H Design, a tripartite studio devoted to education and empowerment in impoverished communities through creativity and practical construction skills. Project H’s three prongs are Workshop H, aimed at leaders and educators, Studio H, a public school program that fuses core curriculum with design and construction, and Camp H, which teaches girls to weld and saw before they hit their teen years.

Through Project H, students have created a farmers market pavilion, playgrounds, school gardens, and manipulated their own places of learning. As evidence of the success of Pilloton’s program, 92% of Studio H graduates have gone on to attend college. For more information about Project H, check out Pilloton’s feature on Architizer.

Work on the Savda Ghevra community sanitation system. Image via Julia King

Julia King: Sanitation specialist working in India’s informal settlements and the Architecture Journal’s 2014 Emerging Woman Architect of the Year

As a Ph.D. candidate of Architecture of Rapid Change and Scarce Resources (ARCSR) at London Metropolitan University, Julia King is working to conduct research through practice in impoverished slum settlements in India. She has initiated several housing and sanitation projects implemented with the support of the Center for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE).

One of her largest projects to date is a decentralized sanitation system located in Savda Ghevra on the outskirts of Delhi, which provided the infrastructure to upgrade several hundred households from open defecation to plumbed toilets. King finds the traditional notion of architecture as “buildings” limiting, and is working to push the boundaries of the definition and the discipline to appropriately include location, institutional order, and infrastructure.

Chipembele Conservation Classroom. Image via SCALEAfrica

Erin McGurn: Co-Founder & Executive Director of SCALEAfrica

Erin McGurn was recognized last week with one of Architectural Record’s inaugural Women in Architecture Awards for her work with SCALEAfrica, a non-profit that works to provide education, shelter, water, and sanitation to rural African communities.

The organization builds sustainable architecture through community participation using local and renewable materials and entirely free of the cumbersome cords of power tools. McGurn also runs New York City architecture practice SCALEStudio and hopes to use the community-driven design model to transform traditional architectural practice and bring about social change.

The Bloody Run Creek Greenway Redevelopment Project. Image via DCDC

Ceara O’Leary: Enterprise Rose Fellow at Detroit Collaborative Design Center

As a fellow at The Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC), a division of the University of Detroit Mercy, Ceara O’Leary is working to create sustainable green spaces in Detroit through an inclusive process of community engagement. The DCDC aims to “respond to locally defined concerns while empowering residents and stakeholders to facilitate their own process of community planning, development, and building design.”

O’Leary has worked with non-profit organizations, foundations, and community leaders to facilitate projects such as the Bloody Run Creek Greenway Redevelopment. The project is a massive infrastructural effort to create a public greenway and a reservoir for natural water filtration on Detroit’s East Side. O’Leary was also the inaugural Public Design Intern at the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio (GCCDS) in Biloxi, Mississippi. She credits Samuel Mockbee and Rural Studio for sparking her interest in “the relationship between the built environment and communities in need.”

Rendering of the Day Labor Station via Public Architecture

Liz Ogbu: Social design innovator and consultant who tackles “wicked social problems”

Before beginning her multidisciplinary consulting practice for organizations like The Nike Foundation, Liz Ogbu had a hand in sculpting two prominent public interest design organizations. She was a 2011 fellow at IDEO.org, a non-profit arm of IDEO dedicated to reducing global poverty through design, and a former design director at Public Architecture, a non-profit that supports designers in bringing about social change.

In a show of collaboration that crosses the apparent limits of this list, Ogbu has worked with FOURM Design Studio, as well as other socially innovative design organizations. She has bolstered her impressive academic education with an equally impressive cultural one that included a deca-country journey through Sub-Saharan Africa.

Butaro Hospital in Burera District, Rwanda. Image via MASS Design Group and Iwan Baan

Marika Shioiri-Clark: Co-founder of MASS Design Group and Principal at SOSHL Studio

While a graduate student at Harvard, Marika Shioiri-Clark co-founded MASS Design Group and began working on what would eventually become the acclaimed Butaro Hospital in Rwanda. The initiative was a design/build project that incorporated vernacular techniques and materials into the design and engaged local community members in the build process.

Shioiri-Clark was a 2011 fellow at IDEO.org, where she worked on Clean Team, a project that developed sanitation prototypes for a community in Ghana. She is now a principal at SOSHL Studio, a firm Shioiri-Clark founded to direct her prodigious architecture and design skills toward social good.

Rendering of Grow Dat Youth Farm. Image via Tulane City Center

Emilie Taylor: Senior Program Coordinator and Design/Build Manager at Tulane City Center

Emilie Taylor leads the design/build efforts at Tulane City Center (TCC), a division of Tulane School of Architecture that provides design services and education to underserved citizens of New Orleans neighborhoods with very little resources.

Taylor utilizes her technical building background and design/build experience to develop community partnerships and create opportunities for Tulane students to engage and improve the built environment of New Orleans. She founded URBANbuild at Tulane and is currently leading the construction of a four acre farm dubbed “Grow Dat.”

Discussing the design of Kibera Public Space Project 03 during a community workshop. Image via Kounkuey Design Initiative

Chelina Odbert: Co-founder and Executive Director of Kounkuey Design Initiative

Chelina Odbert is a designer for social change at Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), who believes that “residents understand the challenges they face far better than any outsider.” Odbert has worked for several years in Kibera, an informal and impoverished settlement in Nairobi, Kenya to design and implement a network of Productive Public Spaces.

These are formerly unusable areas transformed into sustainable and income-generating social spaces by the end users in collaboration with international partners. The network includes nine site-specific interventions in Kibera to date, but Odbert’s work will not be constrained by continent. Outside of Africa, she has implemented participatory design strategies in communities in the US, India, Haiti, Brazil, and Honduras.

Interior of the Castlemont Peacemaking Room. Image via FOURM Design Studio

Deanna VanBuren: Principal and Design Director of FOURM Design Studio and 2013 Loeb Fellow at Harvard GSD

Rejecting the idea that architects should abstain from prison design, Deanna VanBuren creates alternative spaces of incarceration to promote restorative justice, which focuses on rehabilitation instead of punishment. FOURM Design Studio conducts design workshops within the institutions to engage and educate incarcerated men and women as well as corrections employees and practitioners. In the workshops, students discuss assigned readings concerning restorative justice and learn design tools in order to participate in the redesign of their living spaces. When she isn’t working to improve the prison system, VanBuren designs video games.

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