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John Folan is an architect and teacher like no other I know. He frames his work around issues of the environment, social justice and equity. Not only is his own body of work significant, but he is dedicated to teaching students to be the next generation of thoughtful architects, makers and citizens.
John is probably best known for his work in Pittsburgh, as founder of the Urban Design Build Studio. He has used design processes to work with under-represented communities on the development and implementation of a variety of interesting projects for most of his professional career. In 2011, he co-founded PROJECT RE_ also in Pittsburgh, geared towards creating entrepreneurial opportunities for local communities with a three-part mission: “Reuse materials. Rebuild communities and Restore lives by teaching trade skills to help people secure a living wage.”
In 2019 John was appointed architecture department head in the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas. Previously he was the T. David Fitz-Gibbon Professor of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design. His work has been recognized by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ASCA), and Design Corps SEED Awards. Before joining Carnegie Mellon University, John was a tenured faculty member at the University of Arizona, and the co-founder of Drachman Design Build Coalition (DDBC), a university-affiliated, non-profit corporation dedicated to the design and construction of environmentally specific, energy-efficient, affordable housing prototypes. He has been registered as an architect since 1995 and a LEED Accredited Professional since 2008.
Insights and Inspirations
- Successful design projects can emerge organically out of conversations with communities and stakeholders long before any building or idea is imagined.
- Design training has increasingly become important to fields outside of architecture, because of the ability to think critically and across disciplines.
- Design education should help students to understand opportunities, while learning an agility that allows them to adapt and grow and change.
- Cities have actually been improving, making strides towards being much more inclusive in terms of both social and economic platforms, although we have to move the meter much further.
Information and Links
- John founded and leads the The Urban Design Build Studio (UDBS), a collaborative of students, professors, and allied professionals who work with community residents on implementation of appropriate, affordable, replicable design solutions.
- John also founded PROJECT RE_, with a mission to reuse materials and facilitate landfill diversion; rebuild communities by strengthening capacity of local residents; and restore lives by teaching people trade skills to secure a living wage. The 10,000 SF Project RE_ space includes a community room, design studio, gallery and workshops for wood, metal, masonry, and digital fabrication.
- And here’s an example. Re_Fab is a mobile fabrication lab that brings digital tools and educational activities to your front door.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:17] Hi there. Thanks so much for joining me today for the latest episode of Impact Real Estate Investing.
Eve: [00:00:23] My guest today is John Folan, head of the Department of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas. John is probably best known for his recent work in Pittsburgh. As founder of the Urban Design Build Studio, he has used design processes to work with underrepresented communities on the development and implementation of a variety of interesting projects. And in 2011, he co-founded PROJECT RE_, also in Pittsburgh, which was geared towards creating entrepreneurial opportunities for local communities with a three part mission: re-use materials, rebuild communities and restore lives by teaching trade skills to help people secure a living wage.
Eve: [00:01:16] Be sure to go to EvePicker.com to find out more about John on the show notes page for this episode, and be sure to sign up for my newsletter so you can access information about impact real estate investing and get the latest news about the exciting projects on my crowdfunding platform, Small Change.
Eve: [00:01:40] Hello, John. It’s just lovely to be able to chat with you today.
John Folan: [00:01:45] It’s great to speak with you, too.
Eve: [00:01:46] Yeah, it’s been way too long.
John: [00:01:48] Yeah.
Eve: [00:01:49] So, you are now the head of the School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas. But I’ve known you, I knew you through your tenure at Carnegie Mellon University and saw you launch the Urban Design Build Studio there. It’s pretty rare to meet an architect and teacher who is so squarely focused on public interest and equity. And I wanted you to tell me a little bit about the Urban Design Build Studio and the goals you have there.
John: [00:02:19] Well, the Urban Design Build Studio is still alive and well, actually, I’ve carried it with me to the University of Arkansas and it’s now at the Fay Jones School of Architecture. We’re on the initial phases of the first project down here, with promises of many more to come, even in the context of the changes that we’re experiencing with the pandemic. The focus of the Urban Design Build Studio is really to focus on public interest design issues. The clear objective is to use collective intelligence so that the work benefits from the perspectives of multiple entities, multiple individuals, people of multiple expertise. And what we’re trying to do is develop work … tangible outcomes, tangible impact that is replicable and appropriate for the circumstances being addressed. So, it’s quite often that Urban Design Build Studio projects start without having an idea of what the project is, but they emerge more organically out of conversations with community stakeholders and community leaders.
Eve: [00:03:41] So, tell us a little bit about the first project that you’re doing there. Or, maybe a past project that you did in Pittsburgh, but one that you think is really a good example of what you’re trying to do.
John: [00:03:51] I think probably the best example of the one in Pittsburgh, and then I can talk about what we’re starting to do here. The projects in Pittsburgh have ranged in scope from a fabrication facility to a cafe to housing proposals and all sorts of projects in between. Mobile advocacy projects, as well. Probably the one that demonstrates the underpinnings of the Urban Design Build Studio best would be Cafe 524, which is now the Everyday Cafe in Homewood. That project was initiated with …
Eve: [00:04:34] Everyday Cafe?
John: [00:04:36] Yeah, Everyday Cafe, which is right there on North Homewood Avenue, in Homewood, and that project emerged out of a chance introduction to Dr. John Wallace at the University of Pittsburgh and is a native of the Homewood neighborhood, and working with students. By virtue of the suggestion of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, we started working in Homewood and and started with some community engagement, met Dr. Wallace and really focused on this notion of a “third place.” And he had put together a group of people who were interested in establishing a third place and a business opportunity for local residents, and put together a team with Operation Better Block and obtained a license agreement for the property, and then ultimately stuck with that project. And Dr. Wallace has now run that facility for about three years. So, that’s the type of project that probably best exemplifies an organic path to coming up with something that’s meaningful and sustainable for a community.
Eve: [00:05:53] A little bit of background for our listeners. So, Homewood is one of the neighborhoods that kind of suffered most, I think, when Pittsburgh lost half its population, and really hasn’t come back. I don’t know about, I don’t know the demographic numbers there, maybe you do, but it’s very poor …
John: [00:06:12] Yeah, it’s one of the most economically challenged neighborhoods in the city, if not the most, depending on the sector of the neighborhood that you look at. It is, it demonstrates the most challenged characteristics in terms of median income levels. So, there are a number of factors that the significance of that project and the significance of having stakeholders who are really invested in the community, and want to sustain something. So, you know, the work of the Urban Design Build Studio, we’re bringing design services to a group of individuals who may not have had access to those services otherwise. And to achieve something that they might not achieve otherwise. By virtue of affiliations with a research university, there’s an opportunity to spend longer periods of time and working on the projects with those stakeholders than might be possible in a traditional market rate scenario.
Eve: [00:07:13] So, your projects are then in pretty underserved neighborhoods where people are in serious need economically, or affordable homes, or any variety of those options, right?
John: [00:07:27] Yes.
Eve: [00:07:29] Okay. And so you also launched PROJECT RE _ in Pittsburgh. And I don’t know if you took that with you as well. But what was that about?
John: [00:07:37] PROJECT RE_ was a way to expand the efforts of the Urban Design Build Studio. I’m still the executive director of PROJECT RE_. PROJECT RE_ was focused to address regional issues in Allegheny County and Pittsburgh, focusing on restoring community, rebuilding lives and re-use of materials. So, it was a transactional entity and a physical space that has been put together to bring design expertise … You submit materials that are extracted from building deconstruction associated with blight that exists, in Pittsburgh, and then involve efforts of job skill training in the creation of the projects. So, it’s a, the space is about 20,000 square feet in size. There’s a large community meeting center. There’s a gallery in there. There’s a small studio. There’s an industrial fabrication shop that has CNC technology as well as a wood shop. And then there’s an assembly area, and welding training centers.
Eve: [00:08:49] Wow.
John: [00:08:50] Since 2012 that’s been the main working space for the Urban Design Build Studio in Pittsburgh. And we plan to use that space, now that I’m in Arkansas as the head of the Fay Jones School, the intention is to use that space in the summers for design build projects with a number of universities around the country and potentially around the globe, to work on projects that are more targeted in nature, and bring people to Pittsburgh. And then during the year, we’re planning on moving forward to have a series of fabricators and artists and residents who work on projects and initiatives that they’re interested in.
Eve: [00:09:41] That’s pretty extensive. So, how do you hope these initiatives will impact architecture, and architects as citizens, in general? This is not what most architecture schools do, right?
John: [00:09:54] No, it’s not, but I think that there’s been a growing awareness of it. I would say it’s become much more common now. There’s a much greater awareness of the benefit that people can have. I think that, you know, when we talk statistically, if you reference the Cooper-Hewitt Museum exhibition from a number of years ago, you know, they always talk about the other 98 percent, that two percent of the population can afford to use the services of an architect. That statistic is not really correct. The language, more precisely, should be to two percent of population elect to use the services of an architect. And so if we take a look at that, that 98 percent sector is enormous. There is a large portion of that sector that simply don’t value design. And so there needs to be greater awareness.
Eve: [00:10:53] I used to always say that people would spend more time picking the sneakers they buy then choosing an architect, right?
John: [00:11:00] True. Yeah, they will. And so there’s a culture that has to be cultivated around that and and an appreciation for that. So, the intent here is not that every student emerges wanting to be a contractor, or wanting to build their own work, or that they pursue public interest design as a full-time endeavor. But it’s more that we’re elevating their awareness, more that we are helping them to become better citizens, helping them to understand opportunities and how to navigate the context of projects to help them be innovative in ways that are appropriate and have impact to broader communities.
Eve: [00:11:41] You know, I’ve always thought that architectural training is really unique because it teaches these kids to take nothing and turn it into something in a very creative way. And it’s a training and problem solving that I don’t think, I don’t think you can really match in another profession, but maybe in engineering, but perhaps not so creatively there.
John: [00:12:04] No, I agree entirely. I think that it’s an enormous skill set. And most of the students who are successful in migrating the whole way through a curriculum possess a great deal of passion, and a great deal of persistence, as well. And I think those sensibilities and those attributes become so important. And I think that we undervalue ourselves …
Eve: [00:12:30] Yeah, I agree.
John: [00:12:31] … quite clearly. And, you know, and it’s interesting, too, this trend towards project-based learning that has been adopted across academic circles. You know, it’s really interesting, that’s been embedded in architectural education since its inception. We never seemed to value it. But now other academic units find enormous value in it. And it’s something that’s always been inherent, what we do.
Eve: [00:12:57] So, you know, I’m an architect by training and I’ve morphed over the years into now … I’m a fintech expert! And who knew? But I would say that, you know, early on when I was young, I had a very hard time thinking about leaving architecture because it felt like a waste of training. But I’ve realized over the years that’s absolutely not true, and that training has helped me in innumerable ways. So, I wonder whether architecture schools are getting better at showing young architecture students the possibilities of what they can do with this training. They don’t need to just go work for a, you know, a starchitect somewhere, but there’s sort of endless possibilities for what they can do.
John: [00:13:45] No, I think that students emerging today are so much more aware. I do think that schools are being far more successful in terms of providing opportunities to students that suggest the full spectrum of things, that they might branch out and might explore professionally after they leave the academic setting. It’s really interesting. I’ve always been amazed at what you’ve accomplished. And I think in a way you’re sort of the poster child for …
Eve: [00:14:19] The wayward architect, right?
John: [00:14:20] Well, yeah. I mean, but not really. You’ve always come back and you’ve been an advocate for design. And I think that, I think where there’s now greater awareness of what architectural education can do is evidenced by programs that are not necessarily professional programs. Like four year programs that are really elevating the awareness of young individuals about the potency of design, what design has to offer. And what happens is those people who graduate, say, with a bachelor of science that will not position them for professional licensure, they’re merging and entering other disciplines, allied disciplines and allied fields. Allied fields are as important, as you know, to the implementation of innovative work as design. I mean, so, yes, I think that the schools are much better now at getting students away from navel-gazing. You know, where you just sit in isolation and try to develop things in isolation. I think that there’s much more emphasis placed on collaboration, team building. I think you see that across the board.
Eve: [00:15:37] Yeah, that’s pretty fabulous. So, as head of the architecture school there, what do you think is the most vital now for the next generation of architecture students, then?
John: [00:15:49] Well, I think it’s probably the same thing that it’s always been, is agility. And I think that’s probably a lot of what we’ve been discussing today, is the the ability of somebody to adapt to a situation, to understand a situation, to bring different levels of expertise and to orchestrate that expertise in a positive way. It’s also knowing when to be a soldier and when to be a leader. And I think that those are important things, important sensibilities. And of course, with climate change being such a significant factor, I mean, that has been part of the conversation. We’re starting to see much greater awareness in the area of social justice and equity. That will need to continue as well. So, I think, again, this training is a problem solver. It’s really just the critical thinking skills and being agile that you really want to have somebody emerge with. They don’t feel that they’re indoctrinated, in a way that they’re equipped with a series of tools that will allow them to adapt and grow and change …
Eve: [00:17:01] Yeah.
John: [00:17:01] … as they move through their career.
Eve: [00:17:03] I’m jealous that they’re learning that so young. Because it really wasn’t a possibility when I went through school.
John: [00:17:08] Yeah, no. Same for me. There was one way to do it. And you kind of had to find your way after you got out.
Eve: [00:17:16] We had to butt our heads against it, right?
John: [00:17:18] Yeah.
Eve: [00:17:19] So, what’s your background and what … You’ve spent a life kind of fascinated with equity in architecture and in the physical environment. And I’m just wondering how you got there.
John: [00:17:29] Well, I’m always proud to tell people that I’m from Chicago, if they’re willing to ask and if they can’t discern from my accent. So, I had, you know, I’m also old enough that when I was young, there were a number of significant buildings that were being constructed at the time. And I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see those buildings being built and was just fascinated by construction and the physical environment. And so I really can’t remember a time where I did not want to be involved in architecture, professionally. It was always a an interest of mine and something that I thought would be a great privilege to be involved with. I think as I got older I started to develop an interest in affordable housing and equity, just by virtue of circumstance that I had growing up. Then my career took me about as far away from that and as you can get and I went to work for a couple of starchitects and worked on large projects, significant projects. And then I was principal for a large, well-known firm. And when … I hit a point in my career where I was not addressing things necessarily related to equity and not related to issues in neighborhoods that I felt needed help and made it a sea change in my career and focused on nonprofit work … an extension of that. So that’s kind of the path I took.
Eve: [00:19:07] Yes. We know that you care about socially responsible real estate, but are there any current trends in real estate development that interest you the most? And perhaps the second question is, given what’s going on with the coronavirus right now, how might an architecture change to address things like pandemics and keeping people safe?
[00:19:33] Those are really interesting questions. And, you know, it’s interesting that you’re asking it because the answer, probably .. well, it might have been same a few weeks ago, but it’s … you know, given the perspective that we all have at this time. Of course, it’s changed all of our perspectives. Things that are interesting in terms of real estate; I think that there’s much greater awareness of how market rate development can be leveraged to advantage mixed-income development and provide an opportunity for communities where fixed income residents can be part of a successful neighborhood. I think that there’s an enormous amount of advocacy that is still needed with regard to that. Issues around gentrification. I think people are very keenly aware of some of those issues, but a lot of what’s perceived as gentrification, it is byproduct, in fact, of misinformation many times. That there’s a perception that somebody will be pushed out rather than understanding that there’s a mechanism for long-term residents to stay in an area. So, I think advocacy there becomes really important. The things that Small Change is doing by allowing people to invest through crowdsourced funding is incredibly important. I know the range of projects that you have that are demonstrated through the website really illustrate the potency of groups of people coming together to impact change in areas where it would probably be risk averse in terms of taking on opportunities. So, those are probably the areas in development. In terms of response to the pandemic, I really am at a loss on that.
Eve: [00:21:28] I am a little bit, too. But I’ve been thinking a lot about Small Change. And first and foremost, I have this tool that lets everyday people invest. And yet, you know how many people filed for unemployment in one week, this …
John: [00:21:43] Yeah.
Eve: [00:21:43] … last week? You know, and I can’t really kind of reconcile the two at the moment. I think we’re going to have to wait and see.
John: [00:21:53] Yeah. Yeah, no, I, You know when I think, with the pandemic, I think I probably, I haven’t been thinking about it in terms of the investment side. But the point that you raise is really important. My mind tends to shift more towards the practicalities of one’s physical health. And then, of course, I of the work of MASS, things that they’ve done with Dr. Farmer, and just simple things.
Eve: [00:22:21] We’re going to see a sea of technological changes as to how you open doors for example.
John: [00:22:28] Oh yeah. No, that’s right. Yes, it will it will transform those things that we take for granted. So, fundamentally. Yes.
Eve: [00:22:35] Yeah, it’s a bit crazy. And of course it’s having an impact on your school because the teamwork that is clearly really part of what you’re doing is sort of being shut down at the moment, right? With the students and how they work together. Or has it? Or are you finding other ways to do that?
John: [00:22:53] Well, we’re still in the first weeks. I think unfortunately … what struck me … You know, it’s interesting if I just relay a story. When we made, when they first made the announcement they were going to distance learning, and anybody who knows architects knows how, understands the intensity of the educational process and studio culture. The younger students in the school happened to be outside my office and I heard this eruption of laughter. And, you know, they’re quite happy that they might gain relief from the demands of the curriculum. And then, when I went up to visit my studio, because I work with students who are further along in the program the kids were in tears. And it was at that time that I really realized the impact that it’s having on those who are emerging into the profession. They understood the gravity of the situation at that time by virtue of the fact that they understood that was probably gonna be the last time they were going to see their classmates as a large group. That was, you know, the celebrations of graduation were clearly going to be suspended, at least for a while. And then, immediate concerns over what it meant for viability of their professional future … the immediate viability. So, I think your perspective, depending on your age …
Eve: [00:24:30] Yes. Definitely.
John: [00:24:30] … changes and your understanding of the impact.
Eve: [00:24:39] Yeah, and then, I asked the current terms question in other interviews and a month ago, you know, people are talking about co-working. And this month, I have to wonder if co-working is dead. You know, it’s very, very difficult …
John: [00:24:57] Yeah.
Eve: [00:24:57] … It’s difficult to imagine. Anyway, now we’re down this depressing path, so.
John: [00:25:01] Yeah. Well, I think to think about it optimistically, you know, going back to what we said. This is a wicked problem. And it’s not a wicked problem. It is illuminating thousands of wicked problems. And I think that the opportunities will emerge out of what we understand. And I think right now it’s so early in the process, as we start to come out of this, as the virus is controlled and contained, and we start to plan for the future. I think that will open up all sorts of avenues. But what those are I don’t know, and I really haven’t had time to speculate.
Eve: [00:25:47] But, you know, I think architects might be at the center of some solutions, I’m sure. So.
John: [00:25:52] Yes. Yeah.
Eve: [00:25:53] So, it’s actually a very interesting thought. How do you think we need to think about our cities and neighborhoods to build better places for everyone?
John: [00:26:04] Well, I think we’ve been on a rather positive trajectory. When I was a, you know, again, going back to when I was a child, when I was a child cities were horrible places. You didn’t want to be in cities, you know, unless you were really serious about urbanism. We avoided cities. And I think that the perceptions of cities really didn’t start shifting until the early 90s. And it really hasn’t been until, I would say, the last decade that we’ve seen the benefits of positive urban thinking, and consideration of new models of development. Yeah, I think that the cities are making strides towards being much more inclusive in terms of both social and economic platforms. And so, we still have to move the meter a lot further in terms of that. You still have, you know, there’s still issues of segregation. There’s still issues of economic disparity and concentrated poverty. So, I think that where urban environments need to start moving is towards deep concentration of those negative attributes. I think that it has gotten significantly better in recent history and I think we are on a path forward. And again, I think crowdfunding in support of developments is a significant component to that continued success in the future. I do think it’s interesting, we always talk about density being … and then, of course, in cities like Pittsburgh, where there been a population loss, you know, the term that was developed was “right sizing.” I don’t know if the pandemic is is going to lead us to start thinking about what appropriate levels of density are or how that ties into the general health and well-being that’s to be determined in the future.
Eve: [00:28:16] Well, I really enjoyed this conversation, and I’m excited to see how you and your students put some thought to the post-pandemic problems and the future that we’re all looking at. It’s going to be really interesting to see.
John: [00:28:31] Well, thank you. I really enjoyed the conversation. This has been a great conversation.
Eve: [00:28:37] Ok, bye John. Bye.
John: [00:28:37] All right. Bye Eve. Thanks.
Eve: [00:28:44] That was John Folan, head of the Department of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas. John is an architect and teacher like no other I know. He frames his work around issues of the environment, social justice and equity. Not only is his own body of work significant, but he is dedicated to teaching students to be the next generation of thoughtful architects, makers and citizens.
Eve: [00:29:21] You can find out more about impact real estate investing and access, the show notes for today’s episode at my website, EvePicker.com. While you’re there, sign up for my newsletter to find out more about how to make money in real estate while building better cities.
Eve: [00:29:38] Thank you so much for spending your time with me today. And thank you, John, for sharing your thoughts. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker, signing off to go make some change.
Images of Project RE_ and UDBS courtesy of John Folan.