Monday, November 30, 2009

The Rose Fellowship Makes its Way to Chicago

I was invited to attend a reception by The Enterprise Rose Fellowship in Community Architecture at the Ransom R. Cable Mansion last month to welcome Chicago's new Rose Fellow, Daniel Splaingard, as well as recognizing the inaugural Fellowship in Chicago.

Katie Swenson, Senior Director of the Enterprise Rose Fellowship and co-author of Growing Urban Habitats, Seeking a New Housing Development Model was nice enough to make herself available for an interview. Here is a summary of our coversation

Steven Pantazis: When the Fellowship was first formed, did they imagine it being as far reaching as it is today? Is it as far as they wanted it to be?

Katie Swenson: I think the original concept of the Fellowship is unchanged and that's something we're very proud of. We wanted to give young architects and designers a full experience in community development, not just an experience in one component of architecture, drafting for example, as they normally would coming out of school. So when we place them in a Community Development Corporation, they are exposed to design, construction, maintenance of the buildings upon completion, providing mortgaging and credit counseling to potential residents. In this way they walk away from the program with a much broader experience. We felt it would be useful for emerging architects to have experience from the developers' perspective.

One thing Jonathan Rose mentioned recently that was unintended as a huge benefit to the program is the network amongst the fellows that has developed and is maintained over the years. As far as the program being where we thought it would, you know, the original funding for the Fellowship was thought of as seed money so, yes, we are very happy with how far it has come. We have programs all over the U.S. and this year we are planning a Fellowship in Puerto Rico. We're also working with six tribal groups in the southwest to establish sustainability programs. This program spawned from what was originally a one-off resulting from one of our Fellowships.

We have a new program with the National Endowment for the Arts called the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute which pairs a team of resource practitioners with Development Directors for a few days in an exchange of knowledge similar to the Mayors' Institute.

SP: You mentioned Fellows being exposed to multiple disciplines, are Fellows expected to be generalists upon completion of their term?

KS: Not necessarily. The goal is to provide the Fellows with the tools they will need to make educated decisions, and very specifically, where they want their careers to go. Some went on to work for firms that work with community developers. Fellows are engaged with community development corporations which are mostly non-profits and some have stayed in that field. In fact, 85% of CDC's go on to hire the Fellow after the term which I think is a testament to the success of the program. CDC's don't realize the value of having an architect on staff until they have a first hand experience with it.

SP: So it's a learning experience for both parties.

KS: Exactly. And the focus of Enterprise has always been to support CDC's. Architects understand good design but you don't always have a developer that appreciates the benefits of good design.

Daniel with Joy Aruguete, Executive Director, Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation. Photo by Harry Connolly.

SP: As a Rose Fellow Alumnus, what impact has the Fellowship had on your life and career?

KS: Well, first of all, I think it's impossible to separate a career between a personal and professional identity. So in that regard, the Fellowship allowed me to unite my personal mission and professional mission. It gives you the ability to say you want to use your work and career to make a difference by giving you the opportunity to develop skills, vision and confidence. The three years allows you to have the experience and make it into a career path so that, after the Fellowship, you can be more specific about what you want to do.

SP: The Fellowship is nearly 10 years old, why is Chicago just getting the opportunity now?

KS: Chicago had not been on the Fellowship's radar before, but it is the heart of American architecture and has such a robust community development world. But there's always room for more. That's why Enterprise has a local office in Chicago. And, of course, Monica [Chadha] was instrumental in bringing the Fellowship to Chicago.

SP: What have some of your favorite projects been? Who has set the bar for Chicago?
KS: San Francisco has been an important model for us. We started there with one Fellow in the first class and because of him another CDC came forward. From there another foundation stepped forward. So it grew upon itself rather organically. And San Francisco is an incredible leader in design excellence in affordable housing.

L.A. and Portland are really excellent examples.

We found CDC's often don't look outside their own cities. Looking nationally works to encourage an exchange of ideas so we've been encouraging CDC's to look to what is being done in other cities.

SP: How can other cities get involved?

KS: It works in different ways. Sometimes we identify a city or sometimes a CDC comes to us. For example, in Puerto Rico we started by working with a CDC based out of New York. On the other hand, in Cleveland, we new we wanted a Fellow deeply engaged in the foreclosure crisis there, so we started by identifying the city and the problem and potential CDC's we could work with.

We rely on government, local and national support and actively fundraise at the local level for each fellowship. So it's really important, for the fellowship to work, to have a commitment from the community as well as from Enterprise.

SP: This is one of the worst years the architecture profession has ever seen. How many Applicants did you get?

KS: Lots. We received more applications for the CHicago Fellowship, many more, than we had ever received in any other year. It felt almost brutal the amount of incredibly qualified people that applied. But, we decided, from the very beginning, that we wouldn't question their motives on how they got interested in working in public housing. We just looked at every applicant as we normally would and tried to select the best candidate

SP: Can you describe the selection process? What made Dan stand out?

KS: The way it normally works is a local committee narrows down the selection of applicants before they are placed in front of the national committee. They then go over the list with the host CDC. This year was different in that they got down to four and couldn't get any further. We just had so many applicants and so many of them were extremely qualified. They interviewed the four finalists in Chicago and it was the CDC who made the final decision.

Dan understood the broad range of a project from the big idea at the beginning to the final minute details, maintenance on the final building, for example, at the end. He was able to connect the entire process from the design to the living experience of the residents to the maintenance of the properties. One of the things he said was, from his experience at the [Sam Mockbee's] Rural Studio [at Auburn], he called himself both a dreamer and a janitor. So Bickerdike believed he had qualities that would make him both a team player and a leader.

Chicago-based Rose Fellow Daniel Splaingard with Andrea Traudt of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, Daniel’s host organization. Photo by Mitchell Canoff

SP: How did you select Bickerdike?

KS: The CDC selection is a more closed-door process but I can tell you that Bickerdike embodies so much of what we look for in a CDC; a combination of deep, long term real estate development and neighborhood focus. Plus their executive director is on our national board so she had worked with Enterprise before. Also, this was the second time they applied. They applied initially seven or eight years ago so this told us they were familiar with the program and really interested in participating.

SP: Have you received any feedback from either the Fellow or the host on how things have progressed thus far?

KS: Yes, Dan is deep "in it" which is the best sign. I know that they both have a sense of the long-term commitment so from Bickerdike's perspective they have identified what he needs to learn early so he can be more effective later. But Dan is being more proactive as well. He has identified areas, such as Revit, that he needs to improvement on and is working on those areas. He also decided on his own accord to take the LEED right away and not wait.

SP: When will there be another Rose Fellowship to apply for in Chicago?

KS: I don't know. I can’t answer that at this point.

SP: Will there be another Urban Habitats Competition?

KS: I don't think so. The competition was more theory and I'm more interested in applying that theory to practice. The competition was great; trailer parks are fertile ground for either good or bad design. They're not like normal neighborhoods because the people living there have no rights to the land so the developer can do whatever he wants.

Some of the experiences coming out of the fellowships is theory and research in a way, though. We're learning how we could better hone our skills to make the areas of design and practical construction not so divergent and how we can pass on that knowledge.

SP: Does that mean another book could be on the way?

KS: I certainly hope so. Right now we're more concerned with matching Fellows with CDC's.

SP: You mentioned, at the reception, the desire for Enterprise Community Partners to work with emerging architects. How does an emerging architect go about getting noticed by Enterprise?

KS: The CDC's are finding that in order to develop high quality, green affordable housing, they have to be more savvy about design. Our goal is to have all CDC's have someone like a Fellow on their staff. I would advise emerging architects to expand their horizons a little bit to understand policy regulations, financing, etc. You know, I think I mentioned Shaun Donovan at the reception and he's a prime example that if you broaden your experience to understand the other aspects that go into public housing, then you're perhaps better prepared to make a difference in the areas you want.

SP: Enterprise has a presence in cities all over the country, are they actively seeking to do more work in Chicago?

KS: Absolutely. We have a local office there with multifamily mortgage and asset management. We've been working on the green retrofit funding with Chicago. We also look for a bit of guidance from local agencies, the CHA for example.

SP: So, what I'm getting from you is, if we wanted to work with Enterprise your advice to any CDC's in Chicago would be to be a bit more proactive and reach out to Enterprise rather than to wait for Enterprise to reach out to them?

KS: Absolutely, it couldn't hurt.

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