I recently participated in a ten-day Bamboo architecture workshop in the verdant green mountains of Antioquia, Colombia. As part of the workshop, participants were grouped into teams and presented with a design challenge and a particular focus. Our team was tasked with developing a “porton” into the region. Our specific responsibility was to design something that would serve as an entrance gate and filter of unwanted visitors, an educational space and a community store. We were told that we needed to demonstrate participatory architecture in the development of our design. Oh… and the entire process, design, presentation and full-to-scale model needed to be completed in just two days!
I personally have absolutely no design experience. I had signed up for the workshop because I’m interested in architecture, I’m curious about bamboo as a sustainable material and I just happened to be in Colombia to lead a few Compass Education workshops. When we received our assignment we were the only team required to use a participatory process (other teams had a focus on permaculture, bio-construction, etc.). I laughed internally (and was a little bit thankful), because at least I might have something to contribute. As we gathered our group of ten together, I offered up the Sustainability Compass as a framework that we could use to consider the sustainable nature of our design. I hadn’t ever used the tool for architecture, but it seemed perfect to help bring people together and guide our thinking. The group agreed and I was given one hour to complete this portion of the process. There is a certain beauty in having no time for thinking or planning and sometimes an insanely tight container makes miracles happen.
I got straight to the task and borrowed a notepad to introduce the Sustainability Compass in just a few minutes. I invited some open brainstorming on how the design of the “porton” might relate to the Compass points of Nature, Economy, Social and Wellbeing and we used our thinking to make a list of the community members that it would be important to interview. Our list included campesinos (farmers), neo-rurales (city people who have moved to the country), vacation homeowners, community members from the nearby town who often visit the river, politicians, children and university groups. The reality is that we weren’t going to find all those people in the next 15 minutes, but at least we had the outline of a process. We then gathered up any representatives from the community that we could find and invited them to join us as we worked around the Sustainability Compass adding our thoughts and ideas. We were trying to determine and prioritize what to consider in our design. Our intended outcome was to develop a vision statement that everyone could believe in and which could guide our design process. We used our thinking to make a list of interview questions that came up during the process. We had a fun-spirited conversation and began to connect the items that we were seeing around the Compass. The “locals” participating with us were active and quick to point out if we made an assumption that didn’t resonate with their community. We looked for frequently repeated ideas and then used a version of dot voting to quickly decide on the most important “pillars” of this work. An amazing outcome that wasn’t planned is that each of the pillars that we chose was rooted in a different Compass point – River conservation (nature), auto-sustainable (economy), Bio-construction (social), good life (wellbeing). We circled a few leverage points, such as focusing on eco-tourism development as an opportunity that served all of the groups and then we each tried to write a vision statement in just one or two sentences. We lined up our vision statements on post-its, read them out loud to each other, identified similar ideas and then quickly wordsmithed a first draft of a vision statement, “Un portal vivo que conecta la historia del territorio con nuestro futuro, co-creando el buen vivir en la cuenca del río arenal” (A living portal that connects the history of the territory with our future, co-creating well-being in the Arenal River basin.)
The entire process was completed in an hour! I offered to write up the portion of the project that included participatory architecture and I decided to add one more step to the process. I was curious if this rapidly written vision statement had any big holes in it and I wondered what people outside of our small group would think. So while the others were busy sketching and modeling, I wrote the vision statement and pillars in a notebook and wandered around town explaining the basics of the project and sharing the vision statement with a more expanded group of community members. I asked for feedback and suggestions for improvement. The process helped me to quickly learn more about the community and sparked some great conversations. Remarkably, people were quite happy (and maybe even a little bit excited) about the vision that we presented.
I am the first person to suggest that the Sustainability Compass should be used as a foundational thinking process for anything, but I have to admit that even I was surprised at how quickly and efficiently it supported this work and how powerful and relevant the results felt. As we presented our project to the other 40 students, I was careful to remind them that this is just one snapshot of what a truly participatory process could look like, but it was a really great start and an even better experience!