”Holly DoronAssociate Director | Architect
As Holly embarks on a new research adventure, she shares APEC’s journey in participatory architecture with key lessons for others to build on.
My 11 years with APEC have imbued me with the value of creating conditions for meaningful participation with people in their built environment. The people-focused foundations created by APEC’s founding partners have enabled wisdom from experimentation to be passed down through each APEC generation. This culture of curiosity and learning led me to a learning marathon asking the question How might citizen empowerment form the basis of changes in the urban environment? This in turn led me to working one day a week on Dudley High Street with social lab CoLab Dudley, exploring how people can come together around long term thinking, collective imagination and regenerative design. The shared learning between APEC and CoLab has since helped the APEC team to evolve our practice, and adapt to a changing world. With Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funding, and in collaboration with the Birmingham School of Architecture and Design, CoLab Dudley and CIVIC SQUARE, I am now about to step back from APEC (but not completely!) for 4 years as I embark on a PhD. I will be researching into how communities can flourish with their environment, sharing my learning with APEC as the title evolves from:
Co-creating Regenerative Futures: The role of architectural and social lab processes in communities shaping their civic and social infrastructures.
I have entered a period of winding down project work and gathering all the learning that has been passed on to me to continue the APEC tradition, which I feel lucky and humbled to be part of. When we celebrated APEC’s 50th anniversary in 2019, we had the joyful task of delving into the archives and unearthing treasures from the practice’s history to share on social media and an exhibition. From this, we were able to link our evolving practice with its roots. This is what I want to share with you.
APEC was the product of a collaborative learning project between architects and students in the 60’s. The University of Birmingham set up an Institute for the Study of Worship and Religious Architecture, investigating the challenges facing many disciplines in an age of great social and physical change. Peter Bridges was a resident fellow at the Institute. A collaboration was made with the Birmingham School of Architecture, and through a live project, a new church in the Birmingham suburb of Hodge Hill was built with students. Martin Purdy was a research fellow at the time, and the project architect, which is how our founding partners Peter and Martin met.
After extensive consultation with the vicar and parishioners, a pre-school nursery, workshop, cinema, day centre for old people, library, lounge, art room, games spaces and bar were included in the final project. This approach of developing a brief with communities has influenced our process for the past 53 years.
Martin and Peter established their practice in 1969 as Peter Bridges and Martin Purdy Architects Planning and Ecclesiastical Consultants, which later got shortened to APEC (thankfully).
In 1973, they completed their first new church together: the Ecumenical Centre for the new town of Skelmersdale. It was considered pioneering at its time for combining church space with social facilities, building on the research they carried out at Hodge Hill. This model was only really found in the rest of Europe at the time, but not the UK. Peter continued to challenge the traditional use of churches towards more community use when he left the practice to become a priest and Archdeacon.
Through the decades, APEC has continued to work with churches, new and old, and, with Ken Fisher joining the practice, our work increasingly became more focused on community architecture and creating spaces where people can come together. Listening to people’s needs came naturally to Ken. He is very skilled in talking to people of all backgrounds and inviting them into the design process.
Martin continued his research alongside practice, and collated this into a design and development guide for Churches and Chapels in the 90’s. It is a delightful compendium of diagrams and drawings analysing the process of projects from APEC and other practices. Martin also continued his research and sharing his knowledge around ‘the feasibility study’. He had the belief that any design should be owned by the people for whom it is intended.
”… experience has shown that one of the most useful factors is the strong commitment and active involvement of local people in the workings of the [feasibility] study... Much of the work of the study is best done by the people for whom it is intended.Martin Purdy1991
When Jeanette Arregger joined APEC in the 90s, she brought with her new methods of engaging with young people. She developed workshops for primary school children for her Planning Safe Routes to School project with Arup.
In 2000, Naomi Fisher worked with Jeanette on the intensive 3 Estates community planning project. A team of young people participated in day trips, workshops, mapping, photography, photoshop and model making to develop design ideas for new youth provision. Naomi subsequently joined APEC in 2005 to follow her vocation for working in the field of community architecture.
Mary Poole returned to APEC after her Masters in 2017 with her research on architects’ ethical responsibility to society: ‘Creating Citizen Architects’, which the APEC team still uses as a reference in the studio. Natalie Marsh added her own Masters dissertation, ‘The Art of Engagement’, to our library when she joined APEC in 2020.
We have all this knowledge and experience in social architecture that we’ve been building on. 53 years later, we’re in our third generation of directors, with a small, dedicated team of designers working on 39 live projects of which 32 are for not-for-profit organisations, including charities, religious groups and social enterprises.
We’ve been building on each APEC generation of research and experimenting to look at how we can involve people in the whole process of design. When people go about creating a building, all the focus tends to be on the product: the building. However, there is a huge amount of resources that go into this process – time, money, people’s emotional investment – and, for various reasons, the project might not even get built. That is why the process is so important, and can be more valuable than the end design and building.
The people who are going to use the building can participate in this long process, not only so the design can exceed expectations, but so it can also help people to make connections, share skills, and realise they can have a positive and long-lasting impact on their surroundings. This process can also inspire creativity and can lead to people collaborating on new ideas and projects.
”Social architects, as an ideal, work for the good of people and the planet.Flora Samuel(2018). Why Architects Matter. Oxon : Routledge Press. p119.
Social architects tend to prioritize process over buildings but, if they do build, the results are often quiet, the product of hard-won consensus and ethical probity...
During my learning marathon in 2018, we invited our Custard Factory neighbours into our studio to share perspectives from and barriers between citizens, professionals and decision-makers around the question: What is preventing citizen participation and empowerment from becoming the norm in the process of creating spaces and places?
The APEC team then explored how we could introduce moments of participation and trust-building in our everyday practice, showing landowners what their shared problems are with other citizens, and what is achievable in their vision and resources, inspiring citizens to make their own impact, speaking to funders, decision makers and policy makers on what could be possible in making citizen empowerment the basis of changes in the urban environment.
As we sought to put these ideas into practice, the 2020 lockdown added a new challenge to participation. The APEC team had to pivot our approaches with several of our projects that were dependent upon community participation. Since then, we have been testing and learning from various participation methods, which we would like to share with you. We have used our principles to frame key lessons from the last few years of experimenting with participatory architecture:
Nurture caring environments
We believe in going to where people are, rather than waiting for people to come to us. The Covid lockdown, however, posed a particular challenge to creating accessible and inclusive participatory experiences, which prior to 2020, we always carried out face to face.
A key lesson for virtual and physical workshops: build in flexibility. People might not be familiar with the technology, so when working with activities on Miro boards, we had to ensure we had enough facilitators to add what was being said by people who prefer to have a conversation in a breakout room, so their points could be integrated within the collective discussions. We’ve also learnt that we need to cater for different types of learners with different gifts. If running a structured workshop in person, we have learnt to adapt conditions to enable people to participate in their own way – this can be providing blank pieces of paper, materials to make a model, quiet breakout space to process their ideas, or just a friendly face to listen.
We welcomed having face to face events and workshops again after the lockdowns, but we’ve learnt that virtual activities enable more people to participate so we have continued a hybrid approach for most projects. People who care for others with strict routines can now contribute to group discussions online. People who are unable to attend physically can still take part by being streamed to a portable device, being posted activities, or having access to a virtual studio where they can find out what’s happened in workshops, and contribute their own ideas.
Foster meaningful connections
We recognise that no matter how much we learn about a place, we will not be of that place. We might not already have had a history with that place, and eventually our appointment will end, and we will need to say our heartfelt goodbyes to the communities we work with. We therefore spend a lot of time with the groups we collaborate with to identify their existing networks and who are the key community connectors in their areas, thinking about all stages of the projects and different points that people can be welcomed into the process. This is a crucial first step to building resilience into the project. Projects take time, and so does building trust and nurturing relationships.
This process also helps in managing expectations of what architects can meaningfully do for clients. We enjoy building relationships with the communities we work with, but there is a responsibility for client groups to take ownership of building relationships within their communities. To help groups do this, we have facilitated workshops and events with clients, and developed a set of tools that they can then reuse and facilitate workshops themselves.
”When people feel supported by strong human relationships, change happens. And when we design new systems that make this sort of collaboration and connection feel simple and easy, people want to join in.Hilary Cottam(2018). Radical Help: How We Can Remake the Relationships Between Us and Revolutionise the Welfare State. Great Britain: Virago Press. p15.
Be good ancestors
Our principle ‘be good ancestors’ was inspired by Roman Krznaric’s book The Good Ancestor. It encourages us to create conditions for long term thinking to avoid rushing to quick solutions without a deep understanding of the context of people and place, that could be harmful to communities and the planet.
We were inspired by Rob Hopkins’ Time Machine exercise, in which he invites people to imagine they have travelled 10 years into the future. Using all their senses, participants imagine what the future is like. This exercise has proven invaluable for co-writing the qualitative aspects of design briefs: from being able to feel you can take your shoes of in a youth centre, to being able to smell your nan’s cooking in a community hub. To take this further, we have started to invite co-creators to consider the more-than-human aspects: what will their future places be like for animals, plants and the planet?
Create conditions for curiosity, learning and doing
One of the many good things about architectural processes is that they ignite imagination and cultivate creativity. Design workshops are therefore great ways to create conditions for curiosity, learning and doing. At the beginning of projects, we have been introducing young people to design thinking, developing ideas for what activities they would like to happen in their youth centre and prototyping the conditions for these, before progressing onto designing with them on their sites.
Building on our 2018 exploration, we have been experimenting with how we can integrate opportunities for co-creation at all stages of projects. When building designs become more finalised in later stages, we have been updating communities on the progress of the designs they’ve already had an impact on, and inviting them to co-design elements such as fencing. We have also invited school pupils to design brick patterns for their school extension. Collaborating with young people is not only a joyful and educational process, but we have found they bring imagination, pragmatism and care for others to projects, which they will see come to fruition in the future, leaving a legacy in their places.
Our principle of ‘share learning’ brought us to this blog. We believe that the more people, organisations and practices that create conditions for meaningful co-creation of places with communities, the better lives will be. So we hope that other people find this sharing of our learning helpful. We welcome people to share their own experiences and insights, so we can all build upon each others work to take us to a future in which communities co-design regenerative places that, in the words of Sarah Ichioka and Michael Pawlyn, support ‘the flourishing of all life, for all time’.
You can follow Holly’s research progress on her medium blog.