A decade has passed since a small group of students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design met with Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners In Health, to design the first hospital in Butaro, Rwanda. The integrated model of design that the Harvard students collaborated with Partners In Health led to the formation of the non-profit architecture firm, MASS Design Group in 2008.
MASS (Model of Architecture Serving Society) Design Group take on projects that follow the same process as the Butaro Hospital and that aim to bring justice and beauty into the built world. Being a non-profit, they only undertake projects that are mission aligned and serve the public. The non-profit sustains itself through fee-based work, philanthropy and grants.
MASS’s first office opened in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The organization has since grown with offices now situated in Boston, Massachusetts and Poughkeepsie, New York.
The non-profit works in over a dozen countries worldwide including Haiti, Rwanda, the United States and Vietnam. Their office in Poughskeepie, New York, which is called the Hudson Valley Design Lab, is a community design center that investigates the urban conditions of Poughskeepie and the Hudson Valley.
Nadia Perlepe, a designer, is one of 35 staff based at MASS’s Boston office. She learned about MASS while studying in the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she received a Post Professional Master of Architecture.
“We believe that architects have the power to improve people’s lives,” says Nadia. “We think architects can do more and should do more. We work in many different areas and we do all sorts of projects. It is all about our partners. We partner with other organizations who are mission-driven and who seek to improve the lives of the communities they serve.”
Nadia started at MASS as a Community Service Fellow in the summer of 2015 before taking up a full-time position the following year. In January 2019, she will be moving to work in the Kigali office for a year. Nadia is from Greece where she completed a five-year degree in Architectural Engineering.
Nadia has worked on numerous projects in her time at the organization, including a publication called the “Architecture of Health”. The book focuses on the architectural history of hospitals and includes essays, photo essays and case studies of African hospitals, which have been largely unexamined.
“It will contain approximately twenty case studies of hospitals built all over Africa during colonial times,” Nadia informs.
Some of the other projects that Nadia has been involved in at MASS include an affordable housing project in Mattapan and the design of a primary school in Vietnam.
Each potential project that MASS undertakes starts with a process called immersion where they meet with key stakeholders and members of the community to understand the context of the work. The immersion process is followed by Impact-based Design Methodology (IDM), which determines what the project’s mission is and whether it can be successful. The IDM is represented as a cycle, starting with the mission and moving in a clockwise direction to the method, impacts and behavior change, which should all lead back into the mission of the project.
“Architects address specific projects and specific needs,” tells Nadia. “We visit places and we conduct interviews with all stakeholders, users of the building, from the client’s side, the masons that are going to work on the project to see how architects can deliver the most impact.
“Architecture is really infrastructure. It’s very expensive. So how can you make sure that the value of your building is captured by the local community. It’s also about giving people agency and pride over the building that will emerge.”