In this series, trace the evolution of lamesadevenn, an international collaborative of architects, product designers, and communication specialists who are redefining how and why we design. Journalist Seth Biderman and illustrator Nacho Durá chronicle their “living project,” the Rancho—a live/work space built to foster community and sustainability in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Part 5: Sourcing the Crowd
Unlike most architectural projects, which focus on the relationship of a building to its surrounding landscape, lamesadevenn also focuses on the relationship of the building to the surrounding people. In other words, the building not only matches its landscape, but also embraces the values and beliefs of the people who live nearby. Think of it this way: it's like inviting your neighbors to give input on your kitchen remodel—a Pandora’s Box any sensible designer would keep firmly shut.
But lamesadevenn threw the box open. Architecture professor and lamesadevenn co-founder Angus Eade jetted out from New York City to Santa Fe with the singular task of inviting the neighbors into the planning process. Eade used an approach to gathering information, called “crowdsourcing.” More than a simple poll—which merely identifies preferences or beliefs according to a list of predetermined questions—crowdsourcing taps into the collective desires, values and wisdom of a group. In comparison to “outsourcing,” which presupposes there is an expert who has the knowledge or skills to complete a specific task, and advance a project, crowdsourcing posits that everyone is an “expert” in their own way—that one needs more than the McKinsey man, or the lawyer, or the pedigreed architect, to get the job done right. What one needs, instead, is a way to access and organize the best ideas of the regular Joes and Janes.
After a series of lively meetings and a rousing blog discussion, Eade found that this particular group of neighbors had more in common than he expected. Far from the standard lawn chat about football games and in-laws, the conversations held by the handful of homeowners and renters that lived in the area centered around healthy, sustainable, and conscious living.
This convergence of values was no accident. The “neighborhood” was actually something of an intentional community. This community, La Resolana, was started by a local non-profit guru, who wanted to live among people who respected planet and people over profits. Working with a developer, he purchased a large piece of eroding land and began selling off lots to people he knew would share his desire to create an earth-friendly neighborhood.
One of these people was Christie Green, a local landscape designer whose company, Down to Earth, LLC, is all about working with natural patterns to make outdoor living areas self-sufficient, resilient, and beautiful. Green was particularly attuned to how buildings can work with—or destroy—the land, especially in the arid climes around Santa Fe. She had bought her piece of La Resolana because of her desire to live in a community with shared values, resources, and practices.
“But it’s not rigid,” she says. “We don’t have standing meetings or reviews, no set guidelines. It’s really a sort of complex adaptive system. Since we hold common values and similar goals, when issues and opportunities arise, one of us steps forward and helps guide what we hope will be a communal response. There are varying degrees of desire for and participation in community among us, but we all share a commitment to respectful relationship with people and land.”
The neighbors have come together to work on projects including a communal garden, slope erosion control, and a chicken coop. They also allow their children to roam between houses for unscheduled play dates. In many ways, La Resolana is hardly an innovation, but simply a place that hearkens to a time where everyone helps everyone out, and where thriftiness is valued over rampant consumerism—a neighborhood as neighborhoods should be.
When lamesadevenn was first introduced, La Resolana responded positively to the idea of a new building in their midst, one that would stand as an architectural representation of the community’s values and ideas. Eades’s investigative work revealed that the community was most interested in a space that would allow them to pursue their hobbies, like cooking, plant cultivation, and yoga, as well as an area for childcare, and perhaps a place for relatives to stay. lamesadevenn’s designers took the information and got to work.
“I was at the meeting when they showed the first architectural plans,” says Green. “And it seemed like it was going to be very big, especially for that particular site. But we assumed that the shared values would mean that Alba would build something we’d like, reflective of our expressed vision for the place and suitable to the precarious building site in an eroding arroyo.”
Not quite. The expansive soils (see part two) that were discovered on the site meant they could not nestle the building as low as planned. As the building got framed out, it began to tower up above the shire, and the Resolanans grew nervous.
“I don’t recall anyone from lamesadevenn communicating the problem,” says Green. “There might not have been much they could’ve done, as I imagine the bank loan was running the show. But people were getting a sort of sour taste in their mouths. We had hoped for communication every step of the way so we would have been alerted to a change in grading and positioning of the building plans.”
lamesadevenn soon found itself falling out of favor with the community it had set out to serve. One resident found his treasured view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains had been blocked. Others experienced extreme sediment deposition on their properties after summer monsoons washed steep piles of excavated soil from the construction site onto their properties. Someone began talking about seeking a tear down from the city.
“What do you do?” asks Green. “What do you do when the ideas and talking doesn’t match what happens on the ground?”
As this article is being posted, the question remains to be answered. The building process is moving forward, but Green feels that many of the residents are frustrated, uncertain whether the original program they developed through their crowd-sourcing will be used.
But she doesn’t think it’s a lost cause.
“The main characteristic of complex adaptive systems, like our community, and like lamesadevenn, is resilience—the ability to healthily emerge from setback, conflict or challenge. Ideally, lamesadevenn will get to a point where they can open the communication with us again, and reinvite us into the design process. We may have limited time and reduced trust in effective communication and corresponding results, but perhaps we can help come up with ways to develop a new commitment to restoring the land, and to finding a program—or a buyer—that is indeed consistent with our community values.”