Interview: Michael Murphy on architecting health

Michael Murphy, Founding Partner and Executive Director of MASS Design Group is an architect who explores questions with an anthropologist’s sensitivity to cultural context. A 2011 Social Innovation Fellow, he was just awarded designer of the year by Contract magazine.

His PopTech 2011 talk examines design solutions to a set of questions including: If we require a building to give jobs only to the community in which it’s built, how many people would be impacted? What economies would be created if only local materials were used for building and construction? How would buildings look if they responded specifically to the climate and landscape in that region? We caught up with him to find out about his plans and new projects.

PopTech: What have you been working on recently?
Michael Murphy: We've been hired by USAID to draft a primer for international health facilities. All health infrastructures that they fund or build will be informed by this primer policy document. Besides what happens with an individual building, we could change policy globally, which would be really substantial for us.

We broke ground on Phase Two of the Butaro Hospital in Rwanda. We'll be building around 20 or so houses for staff, doctors, visiting surgeons and surgical residents who will be coming from Brigham and Women's hospital. We want to build dignified residences to help keep doctors on staff. That should be completed by this June.

Butaro Hospital, Rwanda

We've started a new immersion phase with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to develop improved spatial guidelines of a facility design for the treatment and care of cerebral palsy patients. As part of that project we're doing extensive ADA compliance research. It's another example pointing to the fact that universal guidelines are universally geared toward no one. We argue for adaptability and contextually relevant application of better standards and guidelines.

Who are you looking to for inspiration?
The work of our mentor, Paul Farmer, and his group, Partners In Health, continually inspire me as well as the other Social Innovation Fellows and people I met at PopTech. We've been talking with [PopTech 2009 Social Innovation Fellow] Josh Nesbit who runs Medic Mobile, a telemedicine group, about collaborating. We'll be looking at how dramatically TB rates have been reduced since building the Butaro Hospital in Rwanda, and we'll collaborate on our two platforms, mobile devices and physical architecture, by collecting data through those mobile devices to show the relationship between data and health.
 
When you’re getting ready to dive into a new project, what's your research approach?
We take a page from anthropology in our approach to public health. Immersive research is core to our practice, engaging in context and understanding the deeper questions that should be asked. We start with a blank slate and spend weeks seeing the site and understanding the deeper considerations and issues.

We do rigorous interviewing, discussion, and follow-up processes with stakeholders, community members, and leaders to understand where the challenges and opportunities are. While some of that is not atypical to architecture, it certainly, especially in resource-poor settings where we work, requires more extensive on-the-ground commitment. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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