Aspirational Architecture: MASS Design

MASS Design Group, based in Boston, is proving that the built environment can improve lives. The design firm identifies projects that will effect the most catalytic changes and designs beautiful buildings that will improve the health and well-being of the communities that they serve. It also believes in using the building process as a tool to promote economic prosperity, educational opportunities, and environmental health. The group simply demands more from the built environment than traditional architects do and is inspiring others to design and build from a systems perspective. We spoke with Co-founder and CEO Michael Murphy about his inspiring company.


Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, cholera emerged throughout the entire country. Cholera is both a curable and preventable disease, but patients were only able to find medical care in temporary tents, which are particularly hard to keep sanitary. MASS Designs partnered with Haitian health care provider Les Centres GHESKIO to design and build a state-of-the-art cholera treatment center and on-site wastewater treatment plant - the first permanent cholera treatment center in the country. So, yes, a building can save lives.

How did MASS Design get started, and what was your inspiration for creating this innovative design group?

Michael Murphy: I started the company when I was a student at the Graduate School of Architecture at Harvard. I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners in Health, and felt there was a call to action, which was essentially, “Why aren’t any architects helping us do work in the places that we’re working globally, from Rwanda to Haiti? What’s the disconnect between those who are experts and professionals in the built environment and those experts who are working for the communities most in need?”

It was like a rallying call, and I moved to Rwanda for some time to work with NGOs that were doing work in the built environment by building clinics, hospitals, housing, and schools, all largely without the services of architects and designers. When the opportunity came along to help an organization build a new hospital on a large scale in Rwanda, I was asked to support it. I discussed it with a collection of fellow colleagues from school, and we jumped at the chance to facilitate the new design of a building for this organization. That’s when I really started MASS - a social enterprise designed around using architecture to effect positive social change and working with other organizations to help improve their overall missions as well as their impacts on the communities that they served.

We started to ask hard questions like, “Does architecture matter? Can architecture make a difference? Is it a methodology or a mechanism for social change?” I think it was really a challenge or a call to action for us to see what architectural moves we could make that could really improve people’s lives, improve the organizations that we were working with, and become a symbol of positive social change.

"We started to ask hard questions like, 'Does architecture matter? Can architecture make a difference? Is it a methodology or a mechanism for social change?'"

Can you speak a little bit more about the sustainable side of your designs?

MM: It’s not just what you draw, but it’s how you build it. When you think of how you build, all of these other residual positive effects can emerge. Reflectively, when we think about all of the decisions an architect might make on a drawing board or a computer screen, they’re really choosing a vertical supply chain of labor. They’re choosing an entire economy to impact. I think we give gravity to those choices. We think deeply about who a building will affect, who will build it, what kind of impact it will have, and how we can leverage that to its maximum outcome.

When you talk about sustainability and being less bad, we also think about that in building. For too long, sustainable buildings have been about the least environmental footprint possible. Actually, we know now that it’s not about creating the least footprint, it’s about having a very resilient building that can withstand significant change or disruption. When we talk about the labor variable of decisions in the built environment, the future of sustainability is asking the questions like, “Who is going to build this thing? How do we calculate the real cost of labor? How do we calculate the real cost of the hands that made this and constructed these symbols of hope for our future?” We try to tie those things together in our reflections.

Can you expand on what it means to you to help people become better builders?

MM: The reality of implementation is actually much more difficult than just getting a team of builders together. In places with limited resources, there’s a significant dearth of not only quality builders but builders who have experience in more complicated design work. Or they just build differently. They build well, but they don’t know how to read construction drawings from the US. There’s a real “lost-in- translation” component in the built environment.

We saw that in Haiti, for example, where 250,000 people died not because of an earthquake, but because of buildings that fell on them after an earthquake. The structural system was not in place to ensure that they were strong and earthquake-proof, that they could stand, or that they could protect people from hurricanes or from disease. We learned the big lesson that a good design can improve a place, but a well-designed building process is also a fundamental part of the change that was necessary. 

To see the full story on MASS Design Group and full cover stories on Chip Conley, Plum Organics, top sustainable chocolate brands, and Kimbal Musk, purchase a print or digital copy of Issue 2 of Conscious Company Magazine online.  


This article appeared in Issue 2 | Spring 2015

To see more stories like this and features on innovative disruptors such as Chip Conley, Kimbal Musk, Plum Organics, Rocky Mountain Institute, and more - purchase Issue 2 online!

Buy Issue