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.