Advocacy Through Architecture

by Kandice Head

Advocacy Through Architecture

by Kandice Head
Courtesy Iwan Benn

How OKRs are creating MASSive change.


Published on 10.09.2019

Architecture is a practice and process that champions human ingenuity and imagination. Utilizing both science and design, architects develop visions and concepts and transform them into structures that visibly brand cities and countries for generations. But can a building heal a community? Can design confront a painful past and drive collective action? Can architecture also champion social justice and human dignity?

Boston-based nonprofit architecture firm, MASS Design Group, believes architecture has a larger purpose to serve.

MASS Design Group was founded on the core belief that architecture’s value extends beyond buildings—that architecture not only has the potential to empower and heal communities and people, but it also has the responsibility to. MASS is in fact an acronym meaning “Model of Architecture Serving Society.” Their mission is to research, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity.

The nonprofit began in 2008 when Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks were frustrated students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. They believed architecture and design had more to offer to the world than eye-catching aesthetics and intricate buildings. They united over a shared belief that design could and should serve the public. After attending a lecture by Paul Farmer of Partners In Health (PIH), Murphy offered to assist in the design process a new rural hospital the nonprofit was developing in Butaro, Rwanda. At the time, this district in the Northern Province of Rwanda had no functioning hospitals or doctors in the entire area. Murphy, Ricks, and their peers from Harvard conducted research on the needs of the community and designed a process that employed, educated, and trained local community members while building the state-of-the-art facility.

Since 2008, MASS has continued to break ground in communities with mission-aligned projects for the public good. Through collaboration with governments, NGOs, private sector firms, health care experts and other mission-driven partners, MASS seeks to use architecture as a means to serve the public and ultimately improve lives. Their previous projects represent a broad range of architectural and design work that includes but is not limited to hospitals and health centers, universities and primary schools, conservatories, libraries, monuments, and museums.

Courtesy of Alan Ricks / MASS Design GroupCourtesy of Alan Ricks / MASS Design Group

You can find their architectural work across the globe. In Montgomery, Alabama for example, MASS partnered with The Equal Justice Initiative to plan, design, and create The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. A memorial space that stretches across six acres of land, the landmark has become the United State’s first national memorial to victims of lynching. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice bears the engraved names of over 4,000 lynching victims on columns representing each county in the United States and was created to embrace truth and inspire reflection and change.

In the jungle of the Congo Basin, MASS partnered with the Arup Engineers to envision and design the Ilima Primary School—built entirely with materials and labor sourced on-site. The project championed conservation as local builders and MASS architects developed a method for transforming local trees by hand into durable and replaceable wood shingles.

No matter where in the world they break ground, each project MASS takes on must be mission-aligned, serve the community, and partner with a mission-driven organization.

The MASS Model

MASS Design Group has no owners—and is governed by a diverse board of directors that collectively make decisions on which projects to take on. Matt Smith is the managing director of MASS Design Group. He leads global operations, manages the development of labs, and guides cross-office organizational design and change processes. He also works to build new partnerships for the organization and operationalizes the collective’s strategy.

“We are a nonprofit and we provide architectural and engineering and a whole suite of other services to support mission-driven partners,” said Matt. “All of our projects... have the same goal of ultimately creating impact in a number of different ways.”

MASS values inclusivity in the industry—their offices are made up of diverse team members that come from a number of backgrounds including but not limited to architecture, design, landscape architecture, a variety of engineering disciplines as well as planning, research and community development.

The MASS approach relies on four principles to deliver well-built, efficient, effective, and empowering environments. Each MASS undertaking must be:

  1. Mission-forward: Each project must have a simple and transferable idea—which MASS refers to as “The Mission.” MASS works to provide scalable models of community-based development and training.
  2. Community-centered: Projects rely on feedback from the members of the community on what area the project will serve to assess and determine if the project aligns with the goals, priorities, and needs of the general public.
  3. Systemically-transformative: MASS believes buildings have the power to not only influence individuals but systems, institutions, and policy as well. Their projects address the immediate needs of infrastructure while simultaneously meeting the need for economic growth.
  4. Intentionally impactful: When approaching a new project MASS believes designing the process is just as important as designing the project itself. Therefore, capacity-building across numerous levels is an important value of the organization. MASS projects focus on the growth and development of everyone involved, from unskilled laborers working on the construction of a project to government ministries that author policies that affect project outcomes.
Courtesy Iwan BennCourtesy Iwan Benn

MASS Meets OKRs

MASS’s structure is quite unique, blending the principles of a nonprofit organization with the capacity of architectural and engineering firms in what feels similar to a startup environment. With offices in Boston, Rwanda, New York, South Africa, London and soon Santa Fe, the MASS team is global. However, this structure doesn’t come without its set of challenges.

With so many moving parts, and diverse team members spread across the globe, the growing firm needed direction, alignment and a method to remain accountable to their mission.

“Our organization kind of began as a hybrid,” said Matt. “And as a result, as we have grown and expanded, we’ve had to really find systems that would work for our pretty unique team and unique structure.”

Believing that the Objective and Key Results (OKR) framework would prove to be effective in shaping the diverse team’s priorities, Matt sought to implement them amongst the organization.

“We really are kind of bringing a whole lot of ideas and skills and outlooks to the table and the nice thing about OKRs is that it was something that people could get behind and agree on regardless of their background because they were simple, flexible and lightweight.”

MASS began a trial run of OKRs in 2015 within their operations team as a way to clarify roles and responsibilities. Similar to many startups, the foundational years of MASS required everyone to wear many hats in a fast-paced environment. Therefore, one of the initial stages of implementing the OKR approach at MASS was identifying core roles and responsibilities as a team which formed the foundation for their objectives.

Matt said, “One of the main insights our operations team identified was how we were able to retain focus on our priorities in spite of competing tasks and projects that emerged. OKRs allowed for us to set up key deadlines, milestones, and KPIs for ourselves which can easily get obscured when you are dealing with an emergent start-up organization.”

This process took an initial exercise which MASS now refers to as “The Founding.” The Founding consists of posing a series of questions to a team as a way to audit capacity, assess performance standards, and ultimately build goals. The following are questions they work though:

  • Who is on the team?
  • Who does what?
  • How do you know you’re doing well?
  • How do you know when you’re not doing well?

Once the team has identified the answers to those questions, they build 3-4 objectives and outline time-bound metrics to determine progress on meeting them (key results).

“We initially set them on a quarterly basis,” said Matt. “And that way we could check in on a month-to-month timeline for 30-minute check-ins and be able to have a good measure on whether or not we’re making progress on each of those key results.”

After months of successful implementation within the operations team, MASS implemented the framework to the entire organization in 2016. Since implementation, the MASS team has been able to note their accomplishments referencing OKRs during performance reviews to better track performance.

“The reason that I think they were ultimately successful is that I think our team wanted some structure - and they wanted something that they could use to sort of chart out their responsibilities, their professional development goals, as well as other aspirational goals that they wanted the organization to grow into.”

Kandice Head (@KandyLanae) is a communications specialist and storyteller who writes for WhatMatters.com.

Courtesy MASS / Iwan BennCourtesy MASS / Iwan Benn

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