"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Designing a New Life for the Garden… Together

In this post I discuss Saturday afternoon at the Walled Village project run in collaboration with Imogen Heap.

After spending our morning preparing the field, we took a different approach to the afternoon. Clear Village, the organization facilitating the open air lab in the Walled Garden, uses a participatory collaborative design process to ensure that various voices influence the shape and texture of projects. After all, Clear Village views itself as a catalyst organization for sustained community change. The project would fail without solidly involving the community in the project design.

My own work in engineering education has shown me that there is a lot of mystique around what it means to be a designer. When people come to see their daily activities as design activities, it can remove some of the underlying assumptions that to be a designer, one must have the right profession (such as architecture or engineering). Clear Village also finds the educational process important so a facilitator led a discussion around a design process. I particularly appreciated how the facilitator described a design process, acknowledging that a lot of people have created variations on the design process theme. For the most part, we also avoided making the process linear. And, like a lot of things, you really learn about design as you actually attempt to design something.

Because of the sheer number of people on site and everyone’s different interests, we divided first into a plants team and a structure team. Owing to some spontaneous tree clearing at the wall, some in the group had already hit the first point of structural inspiration to make tripod structures with the sycamores. We then divided the structure team further so more voices could express ideas. As an engineer with sketching experience, I found myself coordinating a team.

Personally, I often embrace a definition of engineering design as design under constraint as a useful tool for thinking. Our structure had to have potential to cover the entire field, allow people into the structure to tend to plants, and provide protection from birds (netting) and frost (horticultural fleece). We had 50 bamboo poles 4 metres in length as well as the earlier fallen sycamores. To allow for people to move around the structure easily, all teams worked with a human access height of 2 metres.

Putting numbers in created an interesting design dynamic. “Covering the field” meant either being designed to the field size (roughly 10×10 metres with a smaller area for actual planting) or designing for fractal expansion where a core would repeat itself. It was also a little strange to have the field size influencing design when we had actually never measured the field and worked from very rough estimates. To provide frost protection for the plants, the horticultural fleece actually has to be a lot closer to the ground than 2 meters, creating upper and lower structural concerns.

For our part, my team focused principally on designing to field size. All of the design teams wanted to avoid the standard rectilinear structures easily built with bamboo. We explored echoing the various polytunnels around the site in combination with various triangular structures. I’m also not the best orthogonal-view artist, so we struggled a bit to communicate how the five different structural components came together to cover the field.

Both the structure and the plants teams needed to work together. After all, the plants team couldn’t put plants in the ground until the structure established locations and shapes for the various beds. All three structural design teams shared their ideas, and a couple of members of the planting team proposed an idea based from their earlier tinkering with the sycamore tripods.

I thought the Clear Village facilitators did an excellent job at making sure the different designs could be discussed even as some teams lobbied hard for their design. Our discussion focused on the various merits of each design, identifying how various design ideas could come together. We ended the time with a weighted vote where people could vote with 3 stones to either strongly vote for one design or divide their preferences by putting stones on the various sketches.

My team’s sketch didn’t do so well. At the same time, all of the teams benefited from the thorough vetting of similarities and differences between designs. I felt good about getting stuck in with whatever design concept the next day. Something magical happens when you actually start to build up the design.

Then a whole new group of people joined in on Sunday, creating some different dynamics. In the next post, I’ll discuss Sunday morning and the surprises of prototyping.

[And as an author’s note, I will be pulling pictures into these blogs in the near future as more and more team members are getting their pictures posted online. Right now I’m focusing on writing.]

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