July 20, 2021

Building a Practice of Informed Design: An Interview with CIRD Design Partners, To Be Done Studio

Evelyn Immonen
To Be Done Studio and Omar Hakeem in action with constituents in Davis, West Virginia PC: Zain Islan-Hashmi

After more than 15 years of experience working as an architect in public interest design and community development, Omar Hakeem is celebrating the one-year anniversary of his firm, To Be Done Studio(TBD). Evelyn Immonen, {CIRD Program Manager} spoke to Omar and his colleague, Zain Islam-Hashmi, about the progress of rural design efforts across the country and what TBD Studio has been up to.

Thanks so much for joining us, Omar and Zain! Can you start by telling us a bit about To Be Done Studio?

Omar: I am an architect trying to model a form of practice that I hope the larger field of architecture will follow. To Be Done Studio(TBD) is harnessing the power of good design and the amazing communities we work in to help make the kind of world we are excited to live in. We want design to be more accessible to the majority of our country’s population, and we want our work to reflect the real issues that our country is grappling with.  

TBD is focused on environmental and social equity. We design all the way from planning and advocacy for policy and systems change to architectural design, which is our main focus. We are also interested in craft and the process of making things, which informs all of our work.

Omar, you are currently serving on the AIA Strategic Council and as a part of the Rural Working group. Why do you think the AIA is interested in rural areas right now? And how does that relate to the work you are doing with CIRD?

Omar: The American Institute of Architects (AIA) first putout an urban agenda, which was a set of strategies to support architects working in urban communities. Now we are working on a rural agenda that seeks to do the same for rural practitioners working within their unique contexts.

We’ve been meeting with rural practitioners, universities and experts in community development to understand where challenges in their work lie and how the AIA could better support their practice going forward.

AIA recognizes the same thing that HAC does, which is that the definition of rural as “not urban” isn't good enough; it doesn’t capture what it means to be rural or live in rural environments.

Omar Hakeem often works hands-on with locally sourced materials PC: Zain Islam Hashmi

In your estimation is rural design a separate discipline from urban design and planning?

Omar: I don't think of it as a separate discipline at all. The most significant difference between the two is that often in rural communities there are fewer resources to get done what people want to do. Fewer resources forces everyone involved to be more resourceful. Rural projects require being hyper practical and creative.

In rural areas there are different building typologies and requirements. The population density is different, which affects the spatial layout, but every architect should be practicing one of the key measures of good design—informed design.

Informed design doesn’t just mean community engagement, which is sometimes used in the world of public interest design as a kind of catch-all. There are other pressing questions: Are we responding to the issues that are specific to the rural communities that we are purporting to serve? Are we being responsive to climate issues?

Do you have any examples from either CIRD or your own practice about how design expertise has mixed with local know-how and how you’ve each learned from the experience?

Omar: We always learn so much from our clients, and given TBD’s focus on community-engaged design, we are inherently setting up a shared learning process within each of our projects.

In Davis, West Virginia, we've learned a lot about the difficulties of rural affordable housing in a community that is undergoing a period of rapid growth and change -- which comes with benefits as well as major challenges. Land values are rising sharply and appraisals have not caught up. In addition to that, there has been an influx from large city centers like D.C. which is shifting demographics.

In our work there [in Davis] with Woodlands Development Group, we're trying to provide support for the local community as they navigate this transition. Affordable workforce housing is a huge need and we’ve worked hard to make sure that this stays front and center in the design process.

We have tried to make sure that design responds to those challenges through the housing design itself, different types of construction delivery solutions, thoughtfulness about site layout, relationship to sensitive wetlands, and of course water and sewer infrastructure.

The project has shown us that, as architects, we need to do more than just provide design support. The role of the architect is growing; in rural communities, people are used to rolling up their sleeves and wearing a lot of different hats in order to get things done -- architects need to be doing the same.

Another recent project (supported by CIRD in 2020) that we learned a lot from is the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society. Learning about the history of that region in Ohio and the Black Appalachian experience in particular shifted my understanding about that time period in our shared history.

Our work to preserve and re-imagine their building was all about making spaces that share the story of that Black Appalachian experience as well as support the generation of new stories by creating spaces forgathering and cultural production.

Was there an experience from earlier in your career that was foundational for you and set you on the path to creating TBD Studio?

I've been fortunate to have worked in several different rural communities throughout my career.

In 2006 I went down to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and volunteered. The experience fundamentally changed my understanding of this country. I had trouble reconciling what I was seeing with the wealth and power of the U.S. Even four or five months after the storm, people were living in horrific, unsafe conditions.

After a particularly long day of work I sat down under a tree and promised myself that I would use the opportunity I was afforded, and my skills as an architect, to help right the rampant inequity that the storm exposed.

That took me to Biloxi, MS, during graduate school, where I helped create a “study abroad” program to work there and other rural areas around the Gulf Coast to help rethink and rebuild disaster-affected homes.

Later on in my career I worked in Brownsville, TX, along the border of the U.S. and Mexico. There I had an amazing opportunity to work with very hard working, smart, effective, community developers and organizers. Communities along the border are facing a lot of challenges, health issues, concentrated poverty, and racism. On the flipside, there is so much opportunity to bring creative solutions to these problems, and as architects we’re trained to do just that.

I'm now back in D.C. where I grew up, and still getting to work on many of the same issues, locally within our city, regionally in places like WV and of course nationally on programs like the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design.

TBD Studio seeks to harvest the power of good design PC: Zain Islam Hashmi

How about you, Zain. As a designer, what most inspires you about working with To Be Done Studio?

Zain: What draws me to the work of TBD, beyond the design and architectural work we do, is the relationship we have to people and society at large. Our practice takes a stand and takes action more widely, and I think more diversely, than some practices tend to. It positions us to be able to pursue more interesting and diverse means of engagement with our local community.

A good example is the Ballis project, on which we worked with HAC and local photographers to document the work of rural housing developers. The project engages photographers outside of the architecture world, and is useful as a means for advocacy and retrospection. Using creative media such as documentary photography creates a conversation with the built environment, policy, and even journalism.

Those are all areas that touch each other, but syncing them together is what our practice aims to do now and in the future. We want to create works that go beyond who or what everyone is thinking about.

Besides CIRD, what's next? What are you guys working on at To Be Done Studio?

Our current work really runs the gamut: we are designing solutions to food insecurity in rural Arkansas with a nonprofit called Communities Unlimited that offers technical assistance to rural entrepreneurs. We are designing and building art installations at the Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C. to better connect the park to the surrounding neighborhood. We have partnered with Empower DC, a local community organizer, to facilitate design discussions on repurposing the condemned Crummell School in Ivy City (a D.C. neighborhood) into a Community Center, and doing some pro-bono work with Rock Creek Park Conservancy to help rebuild a historic structure in the area. We are also in the midst of wrapping up a project with Good Success, a historic Black church in D.C., where we are designing a new building to house their community support activities, food bank and cafe. If that weren't enough...pretty soon here we are delivering some custom furniture elements we've designed and built for DC Central Kitchen’s new cafe at the Martin Luther King Junior Memorial Library downtown, so stay tuned for that!

Things are busy right now, but to us it’s a sign that there is a need for the work we are doing now more than!

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