There are moments when architects take the design process beyond their practice and engage with potential users as design participants. This expands the design framework and makes the input of future users key to project development. By seeking the knowledge, skills, and decision-making of a communal collective, the project becomes more tailored to their needs, better designed to fit within their local context, and a platform to exchange techniques and vernacular skills. It also creates a general sense of belonging in communities and gives users the authority to claim the environment around them.
Participatory design is a process that can be applied to all scales of architecture, from houses and offices to public spaces and urban interventions. By examining various projects through the lens of communal collaboration with architects, we gain a deeper understanding of the value this design process holds. It breaks down the participatory theoretical principles of collaboration, co-creation, and empowerment into actionable examples and pragmatic events. These projects exemplify users’ contributions to the design process, whether through spatial and urban planning or material and local construction techniques.
Read on to discover 7 architectural projects designed through user participation and communal collaboration.
Barcelona, Spain, 2018
In an effort to revitalize the Sants industrial neighborhood and address La Borda’s housing challenges, the project was conceptualized as a housing cooperative. This entails a cooperative of prospective building users who are responsible for making decisions about the building, such as its design, operation, and legal, economic, and infrastructural needs. Cooperative members do not own the building, but instead make continuous incremental contributions, such as annual land-use fees, to the council to certify their occupancy. When a member leaves, their apartment is returned to the cooperative, which then seeks new members to occupy the space. This is a unique form of social housing that required a dynamic form of participatory design process when the architects, Lacol, were invited to design the scheme.
Through continuous consultation, workshops, and debates with the cooperative, the architects developed a wooden high-rise scheme consisting of 28 housing units of different sizes, as well as 280m² of community space insisted upon by the members. These communal areas were planned for domestic and everyday use, including housing play spaces, bike parks, washing facilities, and rental shops. These spaces bring people together and complement the rest of the neighborhood.
Pinotepa Nacional, Mexico, 2019
This social housing scheme was birthed as a collaboration between architects, developers, and community farmers with the aim of designing the homes of thirty-eight families in a community dedicated to agriculture. Despite the unique locality, region, and distinct topography of the site, the peculiarity of each family’s needs became an added attribute to be negotiated in the design process. To address this, the architects used participatory design, interviewing residents to understand their ideal home and collecting different perspectives on their lifestyles and traditions.
The collective proposal consists of two volumes with gable roofs. Each volume houses both private and common areas, separated by an open courtyard. The courtyard serves as a transitional space for daily activities, as well as a free space for planting an orchard or raising animals. Local materials and familiar construction techniques were used to emphasize the houses’ place within the rural context and provide a sense of belonging to the families.
Ahmednagar, India, 2022
As another housing project that aimed at addressing housing inequality by building communities against individual units, it showcased the value of user participation in the spatial planning of the scheme. The project is a public/private partnership partly funded by the Indian government through its Housing for All (PMAY- Urban) program. It transforms the living conditions of 298 families confined to an existing 2-acre slum. The designers employed participatory ideals, allowing residents of Sanjaynagar to contribute to design decisions at all scales, from the neighborhood level to the customizations in their individual homes.
The dwelling units are organized around courtyards which are intended to serve as public spaces. Wide corridors have been designed to have common spaces for social interactions, as well as the inclusion of bamboo screens and pergolas which bring in an element of locality as shading devices throughout the building.
Kayonza, Rwanda, 2013
Local materials and construction techniques can be crucial for involving users in the design process. Sharon Davis Design adopted this approach when developing the Women’s Opportunity Center to promote female empowerment and boost a small community’s subsistence-agriculture economy. The designers used the unique brick-making qualities of the community’s residents as a framework for not only designing the building but also setting up a training program on local building techniques. The center’s future users made bricks on-site using materials found on-site and a new, more durable manual press method adapted from local building techniques. In total, they crafted 450,000 clay bricks for construction.
The development of this material created a feedback loop between the designers and a community of up to 300 women. This loop is reflected in the eventual spatial morphology of the scheme, which features a series of clustered pavilions based on the vernacular Rwandan village. The circular forms of the pavilions radiate outward, from intimate classrooms at the center of the site to a community space. The use of screen walls instead of windows amplifies the intimate nature of the space by eliminating visual distractions during communal gatherings and improving indoor air quality.
Gando, Burkina Faso, 2001
Francis Kéré, the Pritzker prize-winning architect, is known for his communal collaborative approach to architecture. He emphasizes the involvement of users through local construction. The Gando primary school is a foundational example of this approach, as the project’s success relied on embracing constraints such as cost, climate, resource availability, and construction feasibility. The involvement of local villagers was key to completing the building. In rural Burkina Faso, community members traditionally build and repair homes. To maintain this cultural practice, low-tech and sustainable techniques were developed and improved for the Gando villagers’ participation in the construction process.
The building is in a rectangular brick form, topped with a dry-stacked brick ceiling and a large overhanging corrugated metal roof. This design enables maximum ventilation, drawing cool air in from the interior windows and releasing hot air out through the perforations in the ceiling. The building has a low carbon footprint and does not require air conditioning. In 2004, it received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, reflecting how the school became a landmark of community pride and collectivity.
Rudrapur, Bangladesh, 2019
Studio Anna Heringer also believes that architecture is a tool for improving lives. Their strategy for all projects, whether in European, Asian, or African contexts, is to use local materials, local sources of energy (including manual labor), and global know-how. In this project, they explored the use of mud and bamboo, which are the local materials, and extensively invested in local craftswomen and people with disabilities who were the future users to construct it. The designer’s belief was to challenge the notion that mud is an old-fashioned material and inferior to brick, for example, but explore its plastic abilities in order to create a stronger identity.
Keeping these ideas in mind, the spaces were designed with curvier shapes that fit the mud building technique and included a ramp wrapping the form to the first floor, making it accessible to everyone. By involving the community in the design process, the building became more than just a structure; it became a catalyst for local development.
Zhoushan Village, China, 2020
The project utilized a bottom-up approach to participatory construction, prioritizing local solutions over a precise design. Kuo Jze Yi and Peter Hasdell, the designers, held constant engagements with residents of Zhoushan village to persuade them of the viability of building a house with waste materials. The process began with training elderly villagers in experimental construction using waste materials, which included steps such as collection, design, and construction. Waste bottles, plastics, and other objects were collected from the community and incorporated into building walls, floors, and surfaces. This approach developed the local know-how economy by recycling local resources, reduced building costs, and enabled unskilled villagers to participate in the construction process.
The design of the project involved the construction of 19 cave spaces around 4 large courtyards, housing community guesthouses, dining and cooking facilities, activity spaces, and new amenities. It was called ‘House of Dreams’ from the collective memories of elder villagers who spent their childhoods living in the caves.
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