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

Break a habit, reach a goal

On #GivingTuesday, the global day of giving, we’re launching our winter campaign: #BreakToMake

We’re asking people to give it up to raise money for AzuKo. Every £1 you donate will enable vulnerable women in Bangladesh to attend essential ‘build for safety’ training. It costs £19 for one woman to join. We’re aiming to raise £475 to train 25 women in January 2019.

UPDATE: Thank you to everyone who supported our campaign! You raised £656, which will enable 34 women to attend our training.

This is just the start - we aim to train 120 women in 2019. We’d love your continued support.

Find out more >>

Earthen plaster testing

How might we...

In 1921, the former Mayor of Poplar (now Tower Hamlets), spent six weeks in prison for directly defying the London County Council. His offence: defending the equal taxation rights of his constituents in East London - at the time (and still today), the most deprived and unjustly taxed in the city. His name was George Lansbury.

Lansbury's name lives on through his granddaughter Angela and through the neighbourhood that bears it.

(Photo: LSE Library)

(Photo: LSE Library)

(Photo: British History Online)

(Photo: British History Online)

Could you imagine a politician today going to jail for something they believe in?
— Poplar resident

We're part of an ongoing conversation with those who live in and around Poplar for our A Sense of Place project.

Chrisp Street Market (the symbolic centre) stands at the precipice of regeneration, and at the forefront of what Lansbury fought so dearly to counter - a lack of concern for the most vulnerable. It's an apt forum for the London Festival of Architecture's 2017 theme, 'memory'.

As part of the festival, we hosted a range of individuals from researchers and architects to local residents and volunteer groups at Kafe 1788. Together we explored how to reduce the rate of eviction among residents of social housing, and how to build resiliency. The outputs from these co-design workshops were then added to an exhibition of our work in the Poplar Pavilion, designed and built by Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow, Alex Julyan

(Elicea Andrews Photography - additional event photos >>)


Responding to stories of those we've spoken with - their hopes and fears - we used activities driven by empathy to lead discussions about belonging and community. What does placemaking look like when everyone is included?

Groups addressed three questions:

  • How might we support residents to better understand their tenancy rights?

  • How might we more clearly communicate the pressing concerns and challenges of residents to social landlords?

  • How might we include the most vulnerable in placemaking activities?

In brainstorming answers to these questions, it soon became evident that building trust and respect between tenants and landlords is paramount, whether through 'gastrodiplomacy', 'local champions', 'persistent contact', 'face-to-face', 'personal advisors' or even a 'listening service'.

The groups also placed importance on existing skills, strengths and capacity of residents, where such assets can be shared and how to support residents create their own trusted networks.

'Space' and 'place' were embedded in every conversation.

At AzuKo, we believe that the process of coming together to express and share ideas is a worthwhile experience for all those involved. Feedback from our event showed just that. 

Participants told us:

  • Empathy is a necessary starting point for design

  • Insights driven by residents create meaningful solutions

  • There is value in learning from others' experience

  • Role play is a great tool to see the world from another's viewpoint

  • Participation, collaboration and diversity are key

LFA 2017 was a small sample of what happens when,

you see the likeness of people in other places to yourself in your place. It lights invariably the need for care toward other people, other creatures, in other places as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
— Wendell Berry

It was another small step towards the ends that George Lansbury fought for nearly a century ago - dignity in design.

Find out more about our project, A Sense of Place >>


Author: N. Ardaiz

A very warm thank you to everyone who made our LFA 2017 event a success, including Alex Julyan (Wellcome Trust), Ao Leal video production, Elicea Andrews Photography, Justin Brown (Native North), Kafe 1788, Kineara, Ruth Baker and Francesca Tafi (Ryder).