Design is meeting needs

We recently attended a ‘design quality’ conference for the built environment. One workshop titled, ‘Winning the hearts and minds’ was subtitled, ‘Engaging the community to obtain a YIMBY instead of a NIMBY (not in my back yard),’ or ‘How to assure you get your design through planning without local opposition’.

There is a disconnect in that thinking that says quality design is not a result of quality engagement, but rather, engagement is simply a tool to gain people’s favour (and that we already know what quality design is, so why would we need to learn from those who live and work in the context we’re designing for?)

What our project with Emmaus St Albans shows is that quality engagement at the outset of the design process is vital for a design that eventually does what it’s supposed to do - meet users needs.

In 2014 we began working with homelessness charity Emmaus UK in collaboration with Ryder and CRASH. We led a participatory design process to define the brief for an expansion of their building in St Albans. This building is responsible for housing, training and employing 33 formerly homeless people.

Emmaus UK supported over 700 homeless men and women in 2017, known as companions. In the same year the social enterprise arm of Emmaus UK - their shops - recycled or reused 3,302 tonnes of items. The shops are central to the charity’s success. They provide opportunities for companions to rehabilitate, learn and grow, while supporting the financial sustainability of the charity.

We gained insight into the experience and needs of those using the building - the companions, staff, leadership and trustees through a range of human-centred research methods including co-design workshops, participatory photography and in-depth interviews.

As a result of the engagement a consensus was reached to expand the storage and shop floor space, something that came as a surprise to then Chief Executive, Tony Ferrier, who believed the companions would have chosen first to expand their own leisure space.


We evaluated the project at the end of 2018, nearly 18 months after the building opened in its new form. Since the completion of the expansion, “profitability went up 23%”. Tony believes this is a result of simply having more items to sell. The expanded space and storage has allowed staff to better look after and store items, creating an improved experience for them and for customers.

The St Albans location has added resiliency to the greater Emmaus Hertfordshire branches. One staff member shares,

It’s taken a bit of pressure off. We have another shop that isn’t doing quite as well. It still means that we’re keeping steady. [It’s] a safety net.

Our early design workshops revealed that there was a fundamental issue with loading furniture and other goods into the shop. There were between 7 and 10 tonnes of furniture going through the front door each year, which caused “havoc” one companion described.

It’s made a vast improvement on the shop. I could remember one time we were having to lug an item, trying to stack it in there and trying to lift [sofas, king sized beds and stuff like that] past customers without hitting them... trying to get it through that front door, which is not exactly the biggest.

Friction with customers before the extension led to tense altercations. This friction was aggravated by the physical and psychological state the companions may be in at any particular time. One companion shared, “a lot of people that come in here they suffer from anxiety, depression… not able to talk to people. When I first moved in here, I had really bad anxiety”.

What we heard in our evaluation is that the new space has gone a long way to address the range of needs for the range of users. As a result of the building “you’re not banging around so much, you’re not trying to dodge customers” and “we don’t have customers diving on us before the furniture’s even been put up”.

Since construction, companions and staff have noticed a range of positive outcomes. Aside from, “it has made life a lot easier” the expanded space has ultimately resulted in:

  • Increased safety in the management of stock coming into and out of the shop - greater ease of working

  • More opportunities for companions to work and grow

  • Fewer mistakes, particularly around merchandising - greater confidence working on the shop floor

  • Reduced friction between companions and customers

  • A greater sense of place and belonging in the building

  • More professional layout of goods

These outcomes came to be because we facilitated a participatory discussion, reaching a consensus which served everyone - financial sustainability and dynamism for the organisation, an expanded and coherent shopping experience for customers and physical and psychological security for companions.

To learn more visit the project page.


Author: N. Ardaiz

Discovering community-led design in China

Read about our latest work in China on the British Council blog.

Many sectors suffer from ‘jargon-overload’. The international development sector and emerging maker community are no different. Words can help us to be more precise, but they can also become a barrier to honest communication; too technical, too full of their own importance and arguably can discrimate against the poor.

Participatory design is not a new approach, but the buzz around these terms (co-, community-led, impact-driven, humanitarian, human-centred…) is hot. Should we agree on their definitions? Can they be overused? Do they mean the same thing in different places and to different groups?

In November, we set out as explorers. What does ‘community-led’ mean in China? We wanted to challenge our own assumptions, discover best practice and hear from makers. We connected with communities and designers in Beijing, Henan, Hong Kong, Hunan and Fujian, of Chinese, Taiwanese, English, Irish and French origin.

Human-centred design in China

Reflections from China by architect, Philippa Battye.

When AzuKo invited me to join their team in China to research community-led projects and present findings in a public showcase - I didn't think twice. I had a romantic vision of the rural and remote.

(Photo: P Battye)

(Photo: P Battye)

But the nerves soon set in. It wasn't the prospect of China itself, it was the task at hand - I would need to talk to people, lots of people and likely many who speak little English. I don't speak Mandarin. I would need to question, dig, unearth and investigate.

Now, three weeks in, I have returned to Shenzhen my base camp and relative home. I have spent this time pursuing architects who adopt a community centred approach to their work, with a particular focus on villages (rural and urban). I have spoken with designers in Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Beijing, of Chinese, Taiwanese, English, Irish and French origin. The task I was most apprehensive about - talking to people - has been the most rewarding. Each conversation has given me a greater understanding of what it's like to work in China, and what community-led means in this context.

(Photo: P Battye)

(Photo: P Battye)

My interviewees are hugely passionate about what they do, often subverting the normal routes to building in favour of less economically focused and more human-centred approaches to design. I have learnt how projects are initiated and conceived, where funding is sourced, how communities are engaged and at what stages. I have listened to their motivations, ambitions, and what matters to them as architects operating in this country. Nearly all had a story of frustration to tell.

(Photo: P Battye)

(Photo: P Battye)

I have discussed bathhouses, schools, community kitchens, museums, activity centres, housing and libraries. With each project the context, design intent and process is unique.

What they all share is an ambition to improve the lives of the beneficiaries they serve. A desire to help create and maintain socially and economically sustainable communities.

After connecting with these design leaders, I began a journey into the relative unknown, visiting projects in far flung places. Never before have I had to plan such complicated logistics under such time constraints, or frustratingly been so at the mercy of others.

I leave my hostel in Beijing at 5am and it is bitterly cold. Five hours on the bullet train and I arrive in the city of Xinyang, Henan province. I am greeted by the only two people at the station, brandishing a sign with 'Philippa Battye' - a first for me although I think I would be hard to miss! With my translator Ms LuLu and local governor Mr Zhang we drive two hours to Xihe village, an old cereals and oil trading centre and granary in the 50's. The road reduces from vast empty motorways to single lanes weaving through smaller settlements until we hit an unmarked road leading to the village. Three years ago no roads reached Xihe, it was only in and out on foot.

(Photo: P Battye)

(Photo: P Battye)

The young, who as part of the poverty alleviation scheme set up by Xi Jinping China's President, have returned to Xihe for the promise of a better life. Most now run profitable tourism based businesses back in their birthplace. They have returned to their rural heritage, with a positive outlook.

My next stop - Angdong village...

China feels like a country on the move, with purpose and in constant evolution. The view from my train carriage is always a marvel. Imposing infrastructure such as giant concrete columns march through the landscape waiting to be decked out with new high speed rails, and clusters of 60+ storey towers loom over the farmers below. This infrastructure will contribute to an already mind boggling rail network, which is run with unbelievable efficiency - in my 42 hours spent on trains and 11 hours of bus travel so far, not one has been a minute late.

It is in the parks or around lakes where the pace slows down, and people seem most content. Every morning the older generation practice thai chi; the parks are full of people walking, jogging and stretching together. In Beijing locals break the icy lakes to take a dip and people cluster to play 'keep me ups' with what looks little a giant shuttlecock. In the evenings music blares as large groups of women exercise with square (plaza) dancing.

(Photo: P Battye)

(Photo: P Battye)

There is a real sense of community within the city, and an everyday enviable sense of togetherness played out in public space.

It's the home straight... once reunited with my comrade Jo we will attempt to turn this investigative work into something publicly engaging. The types of projects we are examining, while often small in scale, can have a profound and significant impact on the lives of communities.

We believe these empathic approaches to design should be shared and celebrated.

Read about the learnings and showcase in Shenzhen.


Author: P. Battye