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What is Co-Design, and How Does it Help Advance Equity Through Building Design?

Project teams may set out to design and construct a building that supports the needs of its occupants and the community as a whole. However, the design process does not typically involve examining the lived experiences of future occupants or the surrounding community.

This missing piece is called co-design, and it’s a crucial practice for creating healthy, safe, and equitable buildings.

Co-design is gaining traction as more project teams prioritize social equity and inclusion as part of their project goals. When community members and future occupants that represent diverse perspectives and lived experiences are part of the design process, the finished building is more likely to support the needs of building occupants.

Read on to learn how project teams are successfully implementing co-design to advance equity through building design.

What is Co-Design?

Many believe that design is a human activity that all people are capable of informing based on their own lived experiences and interpretations of the world.[1] This ideology lies at the heart of co-design, a collaborative process in which professional designers consult with end-users as subject matter experts of products, environments, and systems.

Co-design originated in Scandinavia in the 1970s and has since been adopted across different disciplines, including healthcare, government, public policy, business, and education.[2]

Co-design has recently burgeoned in the field of architecture as a pathway to diversify design systems across a profession that is lacking in diversity.[3] Through co-design, architects seek to collaborate with community members, key stakeholders, and end-users of projects to elevate voices that are often underrepresented in the design process.

Co-Design for Equity

Co-design—also referred to as integrative design, participatory design, stakeholder-engaged design, etc.—is an emerging trend for bringing greater equity to the design of buildings and communities. Feature C02 Integrative Design in WELLv2, for example, encourages project teams to consult stakeholders during the planning and development processes to ensure health and wellbeing needs are represented across all populations.

But the implementation of co-design can be fraught with challenges. Co-design and similar efforts are often criticized for failing to truly reflect a diverse range of perspectives and lived experiences.[4]

Research also suggests that power imbalances often exist between designers—who are typically seen as “leaders” of the process—and community members, who often must relent to preconceived ideas driven from a top-down approach.[5]

Co-Design Recommendations from the Field

To explore these challenges, we conducted interviews with practitioners and community members leading co-design efforts in the field. Three key recommendations emerged for ensuring an equitable approach to co-design:

Recommendation #1: Establish Genuine Partnerships

Co-design has philosophical underpinnings in democracy, empowerment, and inclusion, yet power imbalances often exist between designers and end-users. To address this challenge, Nicola Springer, Executive Vice President, Director of PK-12 Projects at Kirksey Architecture, draws on her experience leading the co-design process for Norman-Sims Elementary School in East Austin Texas to underscore the importance of building genuine partnerships:

“You should actually want to befriend your client. Especially when working with communities, you have to be willing to connect at a real human level to build that trust. That might mean, as an architect, being more vulnerable than some people might want to be to engage the client.”

Wendy Mills, Principal of Norman-Sims Elementary and participant in the co-design process echoes this sentiment:

“During the design process of Norman-Sims, our students, staff, and community brought a wealth of expertise and knowledge to the table to inform the environment we have today. Throughout the process we felt valued, heard, and respected. This type of partnership ensured our school was designed both with us and for us.”

Recommendation #2: Elevate the Role of Community Members

Participation alone is not enough to address power imbalances that may occur in co-design processes. Rather, research suggests a “bottom-up” approach in which community members and end-users assume the bulk of the decision-making power.[6] Ben Horn, Associate with RATIO Architects shares his experience supporting the community during the co-design process of an elementary school in Southeast Raleigh:

“I think it’s important for architects to understand the community they are designing for. Our job is to talk to people and be open to listening and asking the right questions to help the community realize their vision.”

Recommendation #3: Bring an Inclusive Lens to the Process

Principles of Inclusive Design can enrich co-design processes, both by ensuring a wide representation of voices and by leveraging all forms of human diversity to inform design. Alexa Vaughn-Brainard, a landscape designer and accessibility specialist at MIG and founder of Design with Disabled People Now sheds light on the importance of inclusion in co-design:

“I see co-design as absolutely necessary for us to create a more accessible public realm. If we don’t include the disabled community, we won’t really be making the world a more accessible and inclusive place. When it comes to co-designing with the disabled community, there are many misconceptions and ’fears’ due to ableist perspectives, stigmas, and just general discomfort reaching out to folks different from themselves. I think non-disabled designers need to step into the responsibility of including disabled community members—in addition to BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and other minority groups—in the design process.”

Co-Design Resources

Before embarking on your next co-design effort, be sure to educate yourself and team members on ways to bring diversity, equity, and inclusion to the process. Initiatives such as Design Justice Principles, Spatial Justice, Queering Public Space, and Universal and Inclusive Design can help to bring an additional equity lens to your practice.

These resources, coupled with the recommendations outlined here by practitioners and community leaders, will help to inform effective co-design processes to create more equitable spaces truly designed with and for all.

Authors: Victoria A. Lanteigne, WELL AP, Principal, Research, Steven Winter Associates; Alexa Vaughn-Brainard, Landscape Architect, MIG; and Nicola Springer, Executive Vice President, Kirksey Architecture

Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank Wendy Mills, Principal at Norman-Sims Elementary School, and Ben Horn, Associate with RATIO Architects for sharing their insights and experiences on Co-Design processes.

[1] Banathy, B.H. (1996). Designing social systems in a changing world. Plenum Press.

[2] Gregory, J. (2003). Scandinavian approaches to participatory design. International Journal of Engineering Education, 19(1), 62-74.

[3] Equity by Design. (2018). Equity by design: Voices, values, vision: 2018 equity in architecture survey

[4] Costanza-Chock, S. (2020). Design justice: Community-led practices to build the worlds we need. MIT Press.

[5] Pallesen, K. S., Rogers, L., Anjara, S., De Brún, A., McAuliffe, E. (2020). A qualitative evaluation of  participants’ experiences of using co-design to develop a collective leadership educational intervention for health-care teams. Health Expectations, 2020(23), 358– 367.

[6] Arboleda, G. (2020). Beyond participation. Journal of Architectural Education, 74(1), 15-25.

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