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,
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.
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.
Author: N. Ardaiz