Story at a glance:

  • MASS Design Group formed with a mission to promote social justice while also focusing on public health.
  • The firm aims to use architecture and design to improve lives in more than 12 countries in Africa and the Americas.
  • MASS Design Group focuses on architecture and support especially in areas with limited resources.

Let’s face it—architecture and the built environments it shapes have never really been neutral. From Leonardo DaVinci’s ideal city to Richard Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, this aesthetic field has the innate potential to spawn new ways of thinking, interacting, and imagining simply because we eat, sleep, play, and work within it. But society hasn’t always given architecture its due.

Alan Ricks, cofounder and COO of MASS Design Group, aims to change that. In fact, MASS Design Group’s multifaceted mission can be partially summed up as the pursuit of proving a single claim—that architecture and design must once again become the foundation for some of the big conversations surrounding social justice and human dignity.

Begun in 2008 during the inspiring experience of designing and building the Butaro District Hospital in Rwanda, MASS, a nonprofit, was founded by Ricks and cofounder and director Michael Murphy on the premise that architecture isn’t merely a space to be inhabited—it can profoundly help or hurt the humans who interact with it.

Today the firm designs buildings intended to improve lives in more than 12 countries in Africa and the Americas, especially in resource-limited areas. By collaborating with the communities their buildings will serve and looking at each project as a long-term investment in people and environments, MASS creates spaces that are not only beautiful and affordable but also truly beneficial.

But that’s only one part of the battle. Changing the way architecture is practiced, thought about, and regulated is another. That’s why advocacy, research, and training are just as important to Ricks and MASS as a whole.

And that’s a big part of Ricks’ role. He’s been a guest lecturer and speaker at Harvard, AIA events, TED, and other conferences; contributes to publications like The Journal of Architecture and Stanford Social Innovation Review; has been appointed Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab and was named a Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum (2014–2019). MASS also has a significant focus on training, sharing what they learn from designing and studying their impacts to others through courses, lectures, and workshops. In Rwanda, they supported the launch of the African Design Centre, where emerging leaders in design can learn how to design in a more equitable, sustainable, and just way. All these platforms are perfect for getting the message out. That message? A building is never just a building.

We caught Rick in between his travels to and from MASS’s Boston and Rwanda offices and had a chat about the role architecture and design should play in human lives—from the hospitals that heal us to the office spaces that consume so much of our time.

gb&d: Help us wrap our heads around MASS’s mission. How would you explain it to someone who has never thought about design that way?

Ricks: There has been this debate for many years. Is design political? Is it social? Does design affect behavior? The pendulum has gone back and forth throughout history. Now we are emerging from an era that was previously dismissive of design’s impact. Today, many of us do believe design is political, social, and that it does affect behavior. But it comes down to a choice—whether, as designers, we are leveraging that opportunity to add value to issues of social justice or not. Ignoring the issues doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

What is the value that is being created for those users and builders?

At MASS, we are focused on having an impact on health, education, and issues of peace and justice. We are leveraging how the building process itself can be curated to expand that impact. In our design and in our advocacy, we are constantly thinking and talking about making decisions that have positive impacts on the economies, environments, and people actually involved in the project. Ultimately, we are investing in the dignity of the communities we serve.

Our end game is to spark a shift in what society demands of architecture. And, much like the environmental movement, create a movement for the social impact of the building practice, one that is adopted both within the market and the government. We design buildings to serve as a proof of this concept, of what is possible from this philosophy, and then we measure them to see if we are delivering on those values and hypotheses. Then we do advocacy work to help promote what is working. Finally, we train people to adopt those practices. To scale that up ultimately leads to policy change and institutionalization.

gb&d: The idea for MASS really took shape alongside a hospital project in Rwanda. Can you describe how that experience inspired you?

Ricks: We started MASS with a group of friends while in grad school. We felt there was a void in opportunities for young architects to come out of school and have opportunities to work on projects that could address some of the biggest challenges and have a meaningful, positive impact on people’s lives.

This was the peak of unemployment after the financial crisis, and yet the discourse was still around projects and methodologies of design that weren’t necessarily targeting the communities that might most benefit from good design. Figuring out a model that could allow us and others to work with communities that wouldn’t otherwise work with architects was the first step.

The first project we did was to design a hospital in a place where they likely wouldn’t have used an architect to build—Butaro District Hospital in Rwanda. They might have worked with engineers and builders to get the job done, but we believed good design could actually improve health outcomes, improve the quality of care, improve the experience of the workforce, and do so in a way that could be more beautiful and no more expensive.

That first project was proof of concept. We were able to do all those things and the impact is that the hospital has become the new national standard. The people asked for this to become the adopted policy and then asked us to develop new standards and guidelines for all of the district hospitals in the country. They then asked us to design two more hospitals to show how these standards could be implemented. That is a project that exhibits each of those phases MASS focuses on—designing a proof of concept, proving it works, advocating for it, and creating standards that can help educate others on how to replicate those principals.

gb&d: So the built environment of a hospital may affect health. What about the spaces we spend the most time, like offices?

Ricks: Office spaces and workspaces are very clear typologies where design affects behavior. The question is, how do you improve organizational health by changing the environment you work in? How do you achieve the types of interactions among colleagues that will be effective not only in delivering your services but also in the quality of life of your employees? Those things often go in tandem. Curating the space to facilitate in interaction, collaboration, and serendipity among people—visitors and staff alike—is fundamental to having a vibrant and effective space.

Overwhelmingly we are already seeing trends away from the workstation and toward having more mobility, where you are encouraging people to work in a number of different environments during the day rather than being stuck in one cubicle. Having a variety and flexibility of space that is conducive to different types of work—heads down verses collaborative, quiet verses open—is the future of the workspace, so you’re not in one space all day long every day.

That is what people are pushing for today. These ideas are already penetrating the market, partially pushed by the start-up culture and by the more cutting-edge designs we’ve seen, and it’s starting to infiltrate all segments of the market. But I also think it’s being supported by the industry. Look at folks like Herman Miller, who pioneered the cubicle, but are now moving away from it. The industry is starting to do some really robust research on using workspaces to facilitate behavioral change.

We hope that continues—that the people in these spaces and the people building these spaces become a much bigger part of the narrative. We hope that when you look at a building and evaluate whether you think it is good or bad design, you ask what is the value that is being created for those users and builders, and what effects it had and has on them.

gb&d: How do you see the trend toward remote work affecting workspaces?

Ricks: I don’t see them changing drastically, and here’s why. We talk about remote work like it’s an emerging trend, but we’ve had it for a long time. In very few roles are people not doing work at home. Ever since people got the internet at home, even more so now with smartphones, very few people only do work from their station 9-to-5. When you ask a group of people who does remote work, not many would raise their hands, but if you asked who answers emails outside of office hours, probably everyone would raise their hand. Maybe all we need to change is having an acknowledgement of what we are already doing and how we can best facilitate that in a positive way. I don’t think office space is going to become any less important. In fact, maybe it becomes more important because it is where you go to actually have that face-to-face interaction.

gb&d: Describe your own offices.

Ricks: We have about 35 people in 5,000 square feet. Most are grouped in what we call hives of about six people. We have six-person station desks, and then we have a number of breakout spaces—the largest being the kitchen, with a really large 10-person table. It’s the heart of our office space, where people hang out getting breakfast or having lunch. On Wednesdays people will give presentations and we’ll have beers in the office. We also have amazing large windows that face Boston Public Garden and Wilson Street, which creates an abundance of natural light. We also have a huge number of plants throughout the office, all of which are tropical species we use on landscape projects in Rwanda.

gb&d: MASS marries advocacy and training with designing. How does that work?

Ricks: No two days are the same. I do work on design projects, and I still manage a portfolio of projects, but there are other aspects to my job, just managing a firm of this size that is working around the world and figuring out how we set up the organization to succeed in diverse environments is a big part of it. Also, because we are nonprofit, we have to raise awareness and funding to support these initiatives. I spend a lot of time traveling and speaking about our work with potential partners and supporters. I am one of two managing directors, but we also have a team of leadership. We have nine directors, and we make all decisions among that larger leadership team. We have three people in Rwanda, six in Boston. As a team, we evaluate what projects we are going to do, what we are going to fund, and how we are going to allocate our resources and our team together.

gb&d: What needs to change?

Ricks: What we’ve learned in working in resource-limited areas is that we often overlook the sometimes small decisions we make when we’re designing and building. Where our building materials will come from and who will build with them. If we approached the process from the other direction, starting with our values about where our materials come from, the effect they have on the environment, and the people who will build with them, that drives how we make decisions.

Most of us agree with these values, but the current market doesn’t really allow for this deep investment in these approaches. Often, architects are handcuffed by the time a project gets to them in terms of ability to influence things. We want to change how the brief is written, how RFPs are written, the criteria by which we evaluate how people design and how they are judged successful.

gb&d: How can we move our societies to adopt these values in building?

Ricks: It’s through the collective action and pressure we put on the government and the private sector to produce a built environment that is aligned with our values. Just as we have with the sustainability movement, we need that same kind of collective action and pressure to demand positive social impact and to hold accountable the stakeholders who have the power to make these decisions. And then we need to recognize when we are doing it well and resist the urge to sweep it under the rug when we’re not.