November 19, 2019

Big Idea: For Innovation, Set the Table for Collaboration

Katie Swenson Enterprise Community Partners

Ten years ago, the Enterprise Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute set out to elevate the status quo in affordable housing design and support the creation of housing that lifts-up individuals and communities. Over a decade, through nearly 70 unique conversations about the challenges and potential of real development projects, across a network of almost 250 developers, designers, policy-makers, public health experts and others, an incredible amount of innovation has happened.

Our goal in the “10 Years, 10 Big Ideas” series is to bring you the best of that innovation, making leading-edge design and development ideas open source and day-lighting the voices of leaders driving forward the state of affordable housing design. 

Browse the Big Ideas Series

Katie Swenson, vice president of Design at Enterprise Community Partners, founded the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute in 2010. Under her leadership, Enterprise has hosted the Design Leadership Institute in ten cities, convening hundreds of designers, developers, municipal leaders and policy-makers at the leading-edge of affordable housing development, and impacting thousands of residents and communities. These impacts have been recognized by the 2018 AIA Collaborative Achievement Award and recognition of the program as a Top 5 National Housing Innovator by the HIVE 50.

Carrie Niemy, Program Director, Initiative, Enterprise Community Partners: 

What was the context you were responding to when you launched the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute in 2007? 

Katie Swenson: We saw two parallel challenges in the design and development communities. 

First, the design field has traditionally directed its energy to commissioned work from institutions and corporations or larger civic and cultural work, but not necessarily to neighborhood development and affordable housing. Our cities are being built, however, at the neighborhood level. Architects and designers can and should contribute more to community building, but they must also have the skills and knowledge to do that well. 

Meanwhile, we know that our community development partners have a tremendous commitment to the goal of providing high quality affordable housing connected to opportunity. They are experts in navigating the policy and finance issues required to make their projects successful. What is not always front of mind for developers, amidst the complexity of putting deals together, is how the design of housing developments contributes to the urban experience of a neighborhood over even the next hundred years. 

We asked ourselves how we could facilitate the connection between architects and community developers so that they can learn from each other to get the highest and best results for every project. 

CN: How did the program grow from there?

KS: We had spent a decade learning from the Enterprise Rose Fellowship and seeing how integrating designers into the development teams of local non-profits changed those organizations’ development methods and design outcomes. We asked, “how do we scale this effort?”

Around that time, I got a call from my colleagues and friends, Maurice Cox, who was director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts, and Larry Scarpa, architect with Brooks + Scarpa, who were together at the Mayors’ Institute on City Design (MICD), saying "Hey Katie, we have this idea…” I jumped at it. Essentially the idea they pitched and Enterprise ran with was to use the MICD format of bringing together decision makers, in their case mayors and in our case developers, to workshop real projects with a diverse team of designers. The goal was to infuse design capacity at the top level of an organization, and to spark collaborative relationships between designers and developers.  

Photo by Harry Connolly: Mercy Housing Northwest developers collaborate with Design Team Members, Enterprise Staff and Rose Fellows at the 2018 Design Leadership Institute. 

CN: In an industry where regulations can limit creativity, how does AHDLI continue to be such an engine for new thinking? 

KS: I think it comes down to who is in the room and the caliber of conversation. From the beginning, when we looked at the complex problems that developers were solving, we realized that we needed great architects, yes, but we also needed landscape architects, policy makers, community engagement specialists, transportation and creative placemaking experts. 

The projects that development teams bring to the Institute become the galvanizing entity for conversation. The Institute is structured to elicit different points of view, bringing all those forms of expertise into the conversation. Throughout the charette process, people listen to and learn from each other. This shared conversation over the course of two and a half days weaves into a kind of natural synthesis. Because it's informed by diverse points of view and expertise, there is an aspirational elevation of the conversation combined with very practical advice. We’ve found that this type of conversation doesn’t happen often in development and people find it very rewarding.

CN: A lot of others look to the Design Leadership Institute as a model for creating an innovation space. What do you think creates that space?

KS:  I think there are two things – structure and attitude. When we started, a colleague told me that hosting the Mayor’s Institute was like having a dinner party, and we’ve learned over the ten years to become really good hosts. What is the setting? Who is invited and how? What is the theme?  How do you help direct the conversation? And of course, the setting matters. I was just thinking about this year’s Institute in Cleveland and how wonderful it was to hold the event at Newbridge - a beautiful space with such an important mission. 

Participants often talk about how their experience at the Institute reconnects them to why they do this work. The care we take in setting up the event makes people feel welcome and fosters a sense of creativity and collaboration. Real learning and growth happen in that environment. I think that's the magic. Our job is to design the conditions where that can happen.

Photo: Participants exchange ideas across the table at the 2018 Design Leadership Institute in Seattle 

CN: In the past several years, there have been several additions to the Institute to ensure it has a lasting impact on developers.  Of these changes, which stands out to you? 

KS: I'd highlight the Design Matters curriculum that you, Carrie, spearheaded with MASS Design Group. We now have a clear process for creating a mission statement for each development and then articulating the design strategies to meet that mission and finally determining how to measure impact according to those design strategies and how they have, or have not, met the mission. 

I have recently been writing about the work of the Rose Fellowship communities and I am learning how important a shared sense of purpose is to an organization’s success. Mission plays a galvanizing role, but it is sometimes under-articulated or not articulated. It's been interesting to understand how many successful people in the industry articulate a clear personal mission and how that shapes their work.

The Design Matters curriculum, starting with the Project Mission Writer tool, allows organizations to translate their top line mission into project-specific approaches and outcomes. It empowers organizations to use their mission as a decision-making tool. Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (TVCDC), who hosted a Rose Fellow for three years, models this approach inherently in their process. TVCDC’s mission is based in Lakota spirituality and the understanding that we are all interrelated. When they make decisions about how to build a project, they ensure that each design decision lives up to their mission, down to the site plan or even whether to include solar. The strategies match the goals. 

Articulating a value system that drives an organization and then translating that to the project level, allows teams to create buildings and landscapes where the details align to create a great experience for people, now and for many years to come. That’s what we are going for. 

Photo by Harry Connolly: Participants in the 2017 Design Leadership Institute in Detroit, tour the Eastern Market before beginning project charrette sessions.

CN:  Is there anything else you’re excited about in the direction the field is taking? 

KS: Always! It’s so exciting to see how many designers are working in this space now versus 2010. Affordable housing has become a strong sector in architecture now, and developers and communities are demanding design excellence. I can’t wait to see the innovation that continues to unfold as a result. Enterprise is not alone in making this happen, but it’s very rewarding to contribute to embedding design leadership into the heart of community development.

About the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute

For the past ten years, the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute (AHDLI) has brought together the leading-edge of development and design practitioners to share best practices and to take on affordable housing’s increasingly complex construction, policy and finance challenges.

In 2018, AHDLI was awarded the AIA’s Collaborative Achievement Award and was named a Hive for Housing Top 5 Innovator. The program’s core tools are now available on Enterprise’s Design Matters site

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