6 Things We Learned About Modular Design

June 19, 2017 | | View Comments

Last Friday, Design Museum Portland held our second-ever Design Museum Mornings featuring Todd Ferry!

Todd is a faculty member at the Center for Public Interest Design, a research center at Portland State University’s School of Architecture. Todd spoke about the social impact of modular design, and how the mobility and scale of modular spaces allow for enhanced community involvement.

If you missed the event or want to re-live it, here are 6 things we learned at Design Museum Mornings:

1. You can be houseless but have a home

One area of focus for Ferry has been houselessness. While many people use the term “homeless,” there is a movement towards the term “houseless.” While houseless people lack four walls and a roof to call their own, they find themselves at home when communing with their friends in the neighborhoods and tent village communities with whom they reside. “[These communities] are really a result of probably what most of us would do if we found ourselves in the street. [We’d] probably find like-minded people, form a community, and start to build.” Houseless people don’t have any trouble creating homes and neighborhoods for themselves, but they do need public support in order to attain the safety and privacy of a secure house.

2. A design’s best and most useful critics are those who will use it regularly

Ferry spoke about a powerful experience he had during the design process of the POD Initiative, a project that built sleeping pods for Portland’s houseless. Throughout the process, initiative leaders brought in members of the Hazelnut Grove houseless community to provide feedback on their plans. Those community members gave invaluable (and often harsh!) critiques of their designs, which helped to tailor each pod for the needs of houseless people. “When we had questions, I’d say, ‘let’s ask Hazelnut Grove, let’s ask Dignity Village’”—these were the people who would be using the pods, and as with any design project, the needs of the users had to be heard in order for the design to be successful.

3. Sometimes a design has to change perceptions

When creating a design, the needs of the user are the most essential to take into consideration. When designing for public interest, there can be several other impacted groups whose opinions and needs are important as well. For Ferry and the Village Coalition, it was essential to create something that neighborhoods would embrace; they had to do more than just design attractive structures. “There was a need to change perceptions…. You can design whatever you want, but if it’s not accepted by the community, there’s no point.” The Village Coalition worked heavily with local houseless communities and with local neighborhood organizations in order to create a design that transformed how people think about houselessness. This process couldn’t happen overnight, and indeed, several pods sat unused this winter so that local communities could have the chance to provide their input, and ultimately vote before a group of pods could be installed. This process underscores how public design needs to change minds if it will be successful, which often requires patience and strong community engagement.

4. Modular classrooms are the future of school design.

A third of all students in the U.S. will spend time in modular classrooms—so why not make these classrooms as great as they can be? Ferry and the Center for Public Interest Design also created SAGE Classrooms, aiming to make modular learning spaces “a much healthier place to be.” More than 50% of all classroom construction is modular, rather than traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms. Modular design can’t be ignored when it is the more common way of constructing our future leaders’ schools.

5. Anyone can enjoy a night at the opera – without the opera “house”

Modular spaces can also be used to expand the reach of accessibility to the arts. The Portland Opera called on Ferry to change people’s perceptions—this time, it was to show that opera is something for everyone to enjoy, not just the elite. Ferry worked directly with the people whose minds he wanted to change, as he transformed a food cart into a portable Opera stage and brought it to the public arena of Portland. After performances, Ferry and his team would ask the audience what they thought about the performance, the cart, and how its design aligned with its goal of bringing opera to the people. As Ferry’s work on this project demonstrated, public design and social impact design always involve working with the public, the users, the affected communities, in order to find a design that unites people.

6. It takes a village to make a village


Tackling multi-faceted social challenges such as houselessness takes a collective effort. There isn’t one catch-all solution to a challenge as widespread as houselessness, but rather a combination of many different prototypes and iterations. It requires the help of everyone in a community, with each person contributing their share—“in some ways, we’re kind of the modules of the community network.” It is important to take charge and do what you can as an individual and to rally other individuals, rather than relying on a bigger company, organization, or government, to take on the problem themselves. “[Regarding the POD Initiative] We decided we were going to do something, and the city, it’s up to you to respond.” In confronting these challenges, it is important that everyone do their part, and whether you’re an art director or an architect, everyone has something to contribute.

Incredibly, Todd left Design Museum Mornings to head directly to Kenton, where he and his team opened the Women’s Village Coalition with the designed PODs. This project is one of impact, community development, and survival.

If you missed out on June’s Design Museum Mornings, don’t worry! Design Museum Mornings pop up every month in a new location around Portland to present a different design topic. Catch our next event on Revitalizing the Workplace on July 21st with Jen Teckenburg, Living Office Specialist at Herman Miller!

Design Museum members get in for free, so become a member today for as little as $5 a month!

Photos courtesy of Portland Photographic Society and PSU Center for Public Interest Design.