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Architect: Build Slow, Local

Monday, October 3, 2016

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While so much focus in the world of architecture and construction centers on efficiency and speed, Boston-based architect Michael Murphy wants those in the industry to take a step back and consider what might be gained by building slow and local.

In a recently released TED Talk—a short talk given live and archived online, generally pertaining to technology, education and design—Murphy describes life experiences that have brought him around to believing in what he calls “Lo Fab,” locally fabricated building.

Murphy has lived and worked in Rwanda in the years since the 1990s genocide, and describes in the talk how he worked with an engineer there whose focus wasn’t on speed—which wasn’t always possible in that time and place anyway—but on involving local materials and local people in the process.

Building to Heal

The particular project he describes was the Butaro District Hospital, which was designed to help patients heal, but which, Murphy notes in the talk, used “the process of building to heal, not just those who are sick, but the entire community.”

People who lived nearby received training to build furniture; local stones that would otherwise be discarded were used to build walls. The idea was that the construction project didn’t just result in a building, but in an across-the-board improvement in the community’s quality of life.

Butaro District Hospital
Iwan Baan / Courtesy MASS Design Group

In the talk, Murphy describes building the Butaro District Hospital, which was designed to help patients heal, but which used “the process of building to heal, not just those who are sick, but the entire community.”

The four pillars of Lo-Fab construction, as Murphy describes them in the talk, are: hire locally, source regionally, train where you can, and invest in dignity. Murphy’s approach means jobs and training for people near where a building is going up, and the use of local resources, which helps the local economy.

He likens the idea of Lo-Fab architecture to the local food movement, which looks to connect people with food sources near them, to cut down on the carbon footprint of food, eliminate unnecessary preservatives, and connect people more directly with their food.

'The Human Handprint'

“When you go outside today, look at your built world,” Murphy tells viewers. “Ask not only what is the environmental footprint, which is an important question, but what if we also asked, what is the human handprint of those who made it?

Murphy also suggests asking, as his firm, MASS Design Group, has: “What more can architecture do?”

“By asking that question, we’re forced to consider how it could create jobs, how it could source regionally, and how it could invest in the dignity of the communities in which we serve,” Murphy says.

Murphy’s TED Talk, filmed in February and released online in September, had more than 545,000 views as of Friday (Sept. 30).


Tagged categories: Architects; Architecture; Design; Education; Labor; Sustainability

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