Architect Blends Design with Social Causes

A Public Workshop Project in Philadelphia
A Public Workshop project built a pop-up adventure playground at the very center of downtown Philadelphia. The project involved seventy teens and young designers from five universities and seven high schools; hundreds of kids and their families; a few power tools and $2,000 worth of materials. The idea is to empower the role that young adults can play in the designs of cities. (Courtesy Public Workshop)

There are infinite ways for people to get behind causes while standing inside their professions. For architect Tania Garbe “giving a damn” is a globe-trotting adventure of finding ways to blend design with social causes. Design With Benefits is one of her collaborative efforts in that pursuit. The startup claims to be one of a batch of new businesses that offer products with stories behind them, rather than the typical abbreviated story of, “here I am, fresh off the assembly line, ready for your consuming pleasure.”

In this case the stories are about sustainability, endangered species and any number of pressing human problems. Besides offering products that inherently grow out of problems, or solve them, seven percent of the net proceeds from sales of those products go back to other projects.

Connecting design and cause

Making a connection between design and social activism may not come naturally for many, but Garbe’s unconventional college paths help explain.

“I pursued simultaneous degrees in psychology and architecture, and so I often found myself looking at design with particular interest in how it could affect human behavior. On the simplest level for example, adjusting the height of stairs can encourage people to stop and sit in a place we typically think of for movement.”

“Once I realized that design could alter people’s behavior, even in subtle ways, I was determined not to discount this as a byproduct of design, but to harness that ability, and use it for good. Design is really just a unique method of problem solving, and so it can be applied to social and environmental problems, not just strictly architectural ones.”

“For example, we just ran a story on our site about a redesigned stove for Tibetan nomads. With a few simple clever modifications, the design by Liz To solves issues of air quality inside Tibetan tents, provides a use for 3.5 billion wire hangers that end up in U.S. landfills every year, decreases cooking time, and even has the potential to provide Tibetans with local jobs. This is the kind of design that really has the power to tackle broader issues and provide maximum impact.” (SEE THE VIDEO JUST BELOW OF ASSEMBLING AND USING ONE OF THESE STOVES.)

Donated proceeds may end up with SCALEAfrica, a group that is building sustainable schools on that continent. The sustainable architectural contributions include passive daylighting and ventilation, and rainwater collection systems. Another project known as Taking Root is helping communities tackle the problem of deforestation. Part of that solution was the redesigning of cookstoves to be more fuel efficient, cutting the amount of wood used by two-thirds. The new design also improves the air quality in homes and outside. Public Workshop is largely a U.S.-focused effort where youths are encouraged to get involved in shaping and designing their own cities. Past projects included teenagers designing and building a shade canopy for a farmers market in northern Philadelphia, 11 teenaged girls building a playground on a vacant lot in Chicago, and helping youth in Flint, Michigan design and construct seats for local bus stops. On other projects the connection between design and “cause” may not be as clear, but Garbe sees that as unimportant, as long as the cause is worthy.

Product sourcing done broadly

Design With Benefits finds its products on the web, at trade shows, with young talent in design schools, and any other place where design is the focus.

“We do a lot of cross-researching different fields and forums, not just strictly design, but also the start-up world, education initiatives, women’s organizations, and green sources,” Garbe explains. “In nearly every discipline you can find designers who are making improvements in the field through the power of design. Since we feature a lot of smaller projects and artisans, this also means just talking to people. Everyone knows someone doing something interesting; it’s just a matter of asking the right questions. Often one artisan or initiative will lead us to another.”

The website is only weeks old, officially, so no contributions have been placed so far. The first recipient, however,  is lined up. It will be BaSiC Initiative’s Argentina Program. BaSic Initiative runs an academic service learning program in Argentina, with the goal of building a children’s day care center and of developing an environmental plan for Los Piletones, an informal immigrant settlement of Buenos Aires. The day care center will allow mothers in the community to pursue work and education, while knowing their children are well cared for. Visitors can always read about which project is currently receiving contributions right on the homepage (under the heading “Receiving This Month’s Donations” on the right hand side).

Garbe is also practicing architecture, and is currently designing a small eco-cabin in Villarrica, Chile.