The power and practicalities of participative architecture

by 14th Mar, 2016

Working with communities, as we do when working with church buildings, has unique challenges that are completely different to working with private clients. Overcoming these challenges is vital if we are to develop a successful project.

When you are working with an individual client or couple on a private project, you can have one-to-one conversations. These conversations ensure everyone has the time and space to articulate what they have in mind and to discuss and develop ideas through design conversations. The process means everyone fully understands the vision and we as architects can deliver the desired vision.

When you are working with a community it is vital for the success of the project that there is the same openness of thought and intention among all the parties involved. But with so many stakeholders it is much harder to have the same intimate conversations. In other words, the need is still there, but the methodology isn’t.

So how do you get those conversations going? To help us create the best possible conditions to be able to deliver the desired outcome, we have developed a precise approach we use when asked to tender for work on church re-ordering projects.

We offer to convene a workshop with the community to consider the project in more detail. The workshop is offered free of charge, with the caveat that representatives from all stakeholders attend.

At the workshop, we explore the church building as a group and consider the problems that need to be solved. We then ask the participants to work either individually or in pairs to design their own solutions to the issue. Even when a brief has been agreed, written and submitted as part of the tender documentation it is astonishing – not least to the participants themselves – the differences in thinking.

Here’s what one attendee of a recent workshop said about the process:

Thank you so very much for putting your gifts at our disposal on Tuesday evening and so moving our project forward in many ways. You provided a neutral and professional focus for a disparate set of views and brought them together in a positive way. We can now build a coherent set of answers to Why, What and How we do. For me, thinking about church as the place of assembly / encounter / learning / creativity in a sacred way was key and summed up all I have seen and read perfectly. We can dig deeper into each of these.

The workshop provides insights that are not only valuable to Communion as we develop our own solution, but also for the community itself. It’s a process that starts to unlock the needs, wants and desires of a community and enables an holistic solution that is the shared vision of everyone in the community to be put together.

Having a shared vision creates a greater level of community participation and involvement and delivers a project that has more meaning for community members. This sense of ownership also helps to drive another factor that is key to the success of a community project: ensuring there is enough energy and impetus within the community itself to develop the project and keep it moving forward.