Architecting Altruism

A Q&A with Michael Kyes

In addition to his work as SMMA’s Architectural Team Leader, Mike Kyes volunteers with the Open Architecture Collaborative, a group of designers, builders, and social entrepreneurs dedicated to serving communities that are often overlooked and underrepresented. The OAC’s Boston chapter has provided pro bono design services to local communities for the past 10 years, and has led all U.S. chapters in terms of international outreach, designing in countries like Guatemala, Haiti, Madagascar, and Nepal.

His efforts with the OAC have allowed Mike to experience firsthand the profound and deeply personal impact of humanitarian design projects, reinforcing his belief in the power of architecture to positively impact people’s lives.

SMMA architect Michael Kyes consulting on OAC project in Nepal

When was the OAC founded, and how can people get involved?

MK: When Architecture for Humanity ceased operations in 2015, the organization’s 30+ chapters across six continents were left wondering what was next for its thousands of volunteers and remaining unfinished projects. These volunteers chose to reorganize in a “bottom-up” way, forming a collaborative network and establishing a new name that complemented AFH’s longstanding mission with more of a focus on collecting and sharing valuable lessons learned among our chapter network. The OAC is intended to make “open” architectural planning and design resources,  empowering those who would otherwise not have access to them.

In your work with the OAC, you use a “participatory design approach” – what is this, and how you are able to operate this way on projects abroad?

MK: Participatory design, in the broadest sense, means helping end users drive the design process by engaging them early and often in decision-making. It is the difference in being designed “for” and being designed “at.” At OAC, we hold local community charrettes, developing tools and methods to encourage the best input from end users and stakeholders. We have deployed a similar approach at SMMA during our visioning sessions for school designs, where we hear directly from teachers and other key participants.

As you might imagine, when designing projects across the globe, geographical constraints – from coordination to language and cultural barriers – can make this ideal very hard to reach. Our best international projects involve making an in-person commitment that spans the life of the project. Sometimes, this involves a brief trip, to establish an initial connection; other times, a small group will actually live among the local community for the building period.

Children in Project Refuge orphanage in Nepal
What projects have you personally worked on with the OAC?

MK: The project that has been my passion for the past five years is Project Refuge, an orphanage that has been run by the same Nepali family for the past 30 years, located in the Far-Western Region of Nepal. We began this project with the modest goals of teaching art to young students and updating the building with a roof replacement and bunk bed designs.

During the trip, we witnessed the incredible impact of this Nepali family’s efforts and the seemingly never-ending obstacles they encountered – from a racial caste system, to government corruption, to human trafficking and slavery. Pretty soon, our small renovation plans evolved into a new three-story, earthquake-resistant building that would be a home for 40 children. I encountered incredible acts of compassion, worked alongside more than 30 selfless volunteer designers, and witnessed the generosity of countless donors.

The technical and logistical challenges involved in the Project Refuge design process must have been considerable. What informed your initial design considerations, and did they evolve?

MK: I believe that, for designers, meaningful creativity comes when you define and work within your constraints. Project Refuge’s challenge was in defining those constraints. We were creating a design for people from a different culture that relied on obscure and scarce materials and would be built by tradespeople with unknown capabilities. We researched climate and building codes, and considered passive sustainable strategies, but that prep work paled in comparison to on-site experience.

Once in Nepal, we could study the architectural vernacular, visit buildings under construction, talk with tradespeople, and, importantly, get to know the people that the building would most impact: the kids and the adults who care for them. International volunteer projects require constantly re-adjusting plans, an evolutionary process that was especially evident for Project Refuge.

Two Nepalese orphans harvesting vegetables
How do you ensure that projects like this are self-supporting? And do you plan to stay connected after this project has been completed? 

MK: Self-sustainability for Project Refuge had opportunities and challenges. Even small donations, while encouraging, risk creating an unhealthy reliance on aid. We looked for opportunities to build up the work force and strengthen the local economy.

With all OAC projects, we describe upfront what value we think we can bring and clearly identify our “end goal.” Whether we’re providing an office layout, or conceptual design for a local non-profit, we typically reach a point when our clients take what we give them and move forward autonomously. As you might have guessed, my work with Project Refuge, and my connection to my friends in Nepal, is a more long-term and personal commitment.

Looking back at the last few years, I have seen this community benefit greatly from this foreign concept of design thinking. My friend’s son is even talking about possibly becoming an architect—that’s a good thing, right?

  • Architect Michael Kyes with children at Project Refuge orphanage in Nepal