Shanghai-based We Design puts the building in capacity building for grassroots nonprofits. By offering pro-bono design services, they provide professional help at a quality that many organizations and communities cannot afford. We Design began in early 2010 when three architects, an interior designer, and a landscape designer joined forces to open a branch of the international nonprofit Architecture for Humanity (AFH), which provides a platform for architects to offer their design skills to nonprofits. In January, the group decided to transition away from AFH while continuing to engage with nonprofits in need of design assistance.
Now with around 20 steady volunteers and a database of 100 professionals, We Design is finding itself in high demand as they work to fulfill their philosophy of designing “safer, more sustainable and more innovative projects that are assets to their communities and an ongoing testament to the ability of people to come together to envision a better future.”
Drafting Community Development
Although they are still a new organization, the We Design team has worked on projects from Shanghai to Yunnan. In 2010 they collaborated with Habitat for Humanity on a pilot project to refurbish the interiors of elderly Shanghai residents’ homes to make them safer. HFH and We Design installed nonslip floors and secured electric cables for people with no family members to help them.
Also in conjunction with Habitat, We Design won one of two Asia grants from Nike’s Gamechangers, which gives grants to sports and community development projects. The grant provides We Design with US $25,000 to design and implement a public sports field in Ganhaizi, a village inhabited by the Miao people group who are already active in basketball competitions within their region. Alex Mok, one of We Design’s founders says, “[They] had a very rundown basketball court so we are going to use this money to refurbish it and put lights there so they can use it at night. It’s a community facility for all sports in the village. We are pretty proud of it.”
Most recently We Design saw the launch of a project they helped design with Compassion for Migrant Children in Beijing. The concept called Community Cubes creates 90 percent portable community centers that allow CMC to move with the transient communities they serve. We Design worked remotely to develop the idea, which is the first of its kind in China. Already over 120 children visit the center every day to attend CMC programs, work in the computer lab, do homework, and read books in the center’s library.
But finding good projects can be a challenge admits Alex. Many clients do not have a clear idea of what they want to do and sometimes funding and project management issues prevent the original design from being carried out as planned. Alex says, “Our biggest challenge is seeing projects realized.”
Alex doesn’t anticipate any such problems with their current project at the Renewal Center, a Shanghai-based resource center and jobs program for marginalized workers who recycle plastic and other objects found on the streets. Plus We Designers get to exercise some creativity. The Center specifically asked them to use as much recycled materials as possible in their design.
“The nature of the [Renewal Center’s] guests is that they are collectors,” says Alex. “We tried to come up with ideas like using old tiles to make a huge mosaic floor pattern for the shower area. The workers can collect the tiles so are part of creating the final design. Also reusing materials saves them money.”
As We Design transitions into its own organization, they look forward to working with more organizations like the Renewal Center. Up to this point, Alex acknowledges that their criteria for new projects has been pretty low, but as We Design matures, they look to being a little more choosy so they can work on more organized and impact-driven projects.
We Design is also looking forward to being more involved in projects. While under AFH, they signed a contract limiting their involvement to the design stage to prevent liabilities, but as fellow architect and We Designer Lina Hsieh says, “it’s hard to step away from a project. I want to say we want to be there until it’s finished.” For projects outside of Shanghai, the group will be limited in their ability to provide onsite consultations. But for those in Shanghai, the team hopes to increase their involvement as unforeseen challenges often occur while contractors implement their designs.
We Design also looks forward to experimenting with projects that go beyond architecture and provide creative solutions that help the impoverished. Alex says she was inspired by an AFH project in Bangladesh that revamped food carts and in so doing multiplied the earnings of street vendors and improved food hygiene. Such ideas are easily transferable in Shanghai, and as their base of professional volunteers grows We Design looks forward to increasing their influence on communities in needy
communities Shanghai and beyond.
We Design holds monthly meetings for volunteers and is always looking for new projects. For more information visit their webpage (which is still under AFH) or contact Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org.