October 2nd, 2017

David Stairs


courtesy TheNation.com

The iconic images of Houston under 10 feet of water should have by now burned themselves into your brain. “How did we get to this point?” you ask. With one word: Design.

Plans have been underway to protect Houston and Galveston Bay from huge storm surges since at least 2008 when Hurricane Ike ravaged the area. Just prior to Ike a Rice University environmental engineer named Philip Bedient set up the Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center. Working with academics from across the region, Bedient developed H-GAPS, the Houston-Galveston Area Protection System. H-GAPS was a collection of improvements that recommended raising roadways as evacuation routes, heightening the Texas City Levee surrounding Galveston and installing levees protecting the Houston Ship Channel, and building storm gates across the Bolivar Roads inlet to the bay. Trouble was, none of these ideas were ever implemented.


courtesy H-GAPS

Houston occupies a flat coastal prairie about 50 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. It has undergone massive growth over the last quarter century, reaching 2.2 million residents in the city proper, and upwards of 4.4 million when its surrounding county is included.

Houston is considered a developer-run city. Its citizens have rejected stringent building and zoning codes several times. Many homes in this flat city, only 80 feet above sea level, are constructed on a concrete slab. Local resident Sam Brody, quoted in the September 5th edition of the Chicago Tribune, stated, “Houston is the Wild West of development, so any mention of regulation creates a hostile reaction from people who see that as infringement on property rights and a deterrent to economic growth.”


courtesy politifact.com

When I say “design” is the problem, I mean several things. First off, developers happy to construct buildings they know meet sub-standard building codes in an area increasingly subject to serious flooding employ negative design, or design known in advance likely to fail. Secondly, officials in Harris County who have failed to enforce wetland mitigation regulations hid behind the apparent design of a solution to rapid expansion— an unenforced plan— knowing it was inadequate. Finally, since planning is the heart and soul of design, the planning around Houston which favored growth over everything else was the sort of failed design that emerges anytime avarice is in the driver’s seat.

Many periodicals are now quoting a Texas A&M report that reputedly states that from 1992 to 2010 30% of Harris County’s wetlands were filled or paved (Henry Grabar in Slate states it could actually be as high as 45%). And, according to the article I cite from Quartz, Houston developers not only don’t offset wetland destruction, but in over half of cases don’t even file completed permit paperwork.

Federally subsidized flood insurance allows nearly 10 million American households to exist in the 100-year flood plain. As a result of Donald Trump’s recent executive order rescinding Obama-era flood protection standards, Rob Moore, senior policy analyst for the National Resources Defense Council quoted in Quartz says, “What’s likely to happen is we’re going to spend tens of billions of dollars rebuilding Houston exactly like it is now, and then wait for the next one.”

Figures for relief and rebuilding in Houston run as high as 180 billion dollars. To allow people to continue to be nonchalant about risk while being callous about their surrounding environment is not only stupid, but is what I call a classic case of design and planning as problem rather than solution.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project

August 13th, 2017

The third and final article in our series on the American prison system. —Ed.

Hannah Boyd

For you, DJ, the person who shared part of his life with me.

And for you, former mayor of Indianapolis Greg Ballard, the person who vehemently rejected the concept of prison slave labor, the implications of the 13th amendment, and the profiteering by corporations that makes everyone complicit in the practice of neo-slavery(1).

On day one of our architecture studio, we are tasked with designing a 4,000 bed jail with 27 courtrooms and administrative offices. The project had been an effort by former mayor Greg Ballard to consolidate the sprawling jail network that currently exists in Indianapolis (2). The project never came to fruition, and the new mayor, Joe Hogsett, is currently reviving the project with new ambitions (3).


The 13th Amendment

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June 23rd, 2017

This essay continues our investigation of America’s prison system, and extends D-A-P’s collaboration with Ball State architecture students into the fifth year. —Ed.

Julia Voigt

Despite jails being one of the most recognizable typologies of the built environment, the criminal justice system itself is far removed from the realm of the architectural profession. This lack of attention given to the penal system within the profession highlights a larger, societal issue at hand: that, as noted by author Michelle Alexander, “… criminals are the one social group in America that nearly everyone–across political, racial and class boundaries–feels free to hate” (Alexander 228).
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April 16th, 2017

David Stairs

Every once in awhile you meet a group of students that stands out. This was the case with my Junior studio a year ago. When we collaborated with the School of Businesses’ entrepreneurial contest, they were all in, and we just clicked. I knew 2017 would be my year to mentor our Graphic Design capstone project, and I wanted it to be good, so I signed up to teach the Fall senior studio leading into the winter capstone.
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February 25th, 2017

David Stairs


Image: David Stairs

I recently started reading Volker Ullrich’s biography HITLER: Ascent 1889-1939 out of a curiosity to better understand the motivations of the man often ranked as history’s most malevolent monster. Along the way I became fascinated by the parallels between Uncle Adolf and a more recent demagogue of the American ilk. These are the similarities I noted:
•Mendacious use of facts
•Scapegoating a religious group
•Extreme nationalism
•Intolerance for criticism
•Bullying as a defense tactic
•Narcissistic
•Authoritarian
•Inciting violence
•Histrionic
•Temperamental
•Censorious
•Contempt for adversaries
•Dislike for administrative work
•Prima donna tendencies
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January 13th, 2017

David Stairs

Control is the object of consolidation, what Nietsche once called the “will to power.”


Soul Searching

Consider the rise of multinational corporations. Monopoly is the capitalist ideal. Although shrouded in so-called antitrust laws preventing market domination— the idea being that competition is healthy for markets— captains of industry have always sought market dominance. For brief periods of time some capitalists, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller to name two, dominated their industries and became enormously wealthy.
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November 20th, 2016

Carter Scholz

In the prehistory of personal computers, Lee Felsenstein and some others created Community Memory in Berkeley in 1974: a publicly available teletype terminal, connected to a mainframe computer via 110-baud modem. Users could post and read messages at a few different sites. Felsenstein had read Ivan Illich, and he saw this as a tool for conviviality. It was a novel vision in a time of monolithic mainframes: computers as liberating and empowering, both personally and socially.


Lee Felsenstein / Courtesy Lee Felsenstein.com
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October 22nd, 2016

David Stairs

When I think of blue and red the notion of Democrat and Republican naturally come to mind. One can find any number of red-blue maps online that attempt to represent our political differences. I even wrote about it here after the last Presidential election. Happily, there is another, earlier visual application of red and blue: the road maps of the 1930s to 1950s.

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September 19th, 2016

David Stairs

Downtown Mount Pleasant, Michigan on the morning of July 16th, 2016

Some things about the Michigan summer are a certainty: mosquitoes, humidity, and recreation vehicles. Summer’s the season when snowmobile trailers are swapped out for boat hitches, and the weekend traffic going north on Michigan’s highways likely includes people from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois headed for resort towns near Michigan’s lakes.

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August 19th, 2016

David Stairs

I’ve written the past couple of summers about Portland, Oregon and its environmentally-friendly culture. I visited my family again last month, as I normally do in July, just in time for the unveiling of a major new corporate/municipal project. On July 19th Portland launched the Biketown bicycle-share initiative. With a fleet of Dutch-designed bikes, and a system of around 100 rental stations, Portland joined the ranks of cities like New York, in pursuit of the notion of universal car-free mobility.


A Biketown bike locked outside the Niketown store on MLK Boulevard in Portland

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July 15th, 2016

David Stairs

When I first saw the house, a big old Victorian three-story I thought, “This place is great, but it’s way too big.” I’d been living abroad for a couple of years, and returning to rental space in a college town, where rentals are either of the townhouse variety, or student-destroyed older homes, had me on the real estate market. I already owned one house, but it was in another state, and this wasn’t helping my current situation.


photo: Al Wildey

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June 13th, 2016

This is the third in an annual series of essays by students of the Ball State University Architecture program. Previous works by Jesse McClain and Phil Borkowski appeared in 2014 and 2015. —Ed.

Kenna Gibson

I am from a small town 10 miles away from Muncie, Indiana. Muncie: home of Ball State University, former home of Ball Corporation, BorgWarner, Delco Remy, General Motors, A. E. Boyce Company, and Westinghouse Electric. The list of industries that have left the city is much longer than the list of those that have stayed. For my third year architecture studio, we were to connect machines with the rust belt. What we were supposed to create, probably something that would aid the citizens, neither I nor my professor, Wes Janz, really knew. Easy enough, I thought, because I live in the Rust Belt.

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May 7th, 2016

David Stairs

It’s been 10 years since this article first appeared as Bruce Mau and the Apotheosis of Data. We’re re-posting it here in our continuing celebration of D-A-P’s tenth anniversary, and because it is no less pertinent now than it was in 2006. —Ed.

Soothsaying: The New Science of Designing For Nine Billion
“The wits, therefore, of the Utopians, inured and exercised in learning, be marvelous quick in the inventions of feats helping anything to the advantage of wealth of life.” 1 —Thomas More Utopia

Foretelling the future has been professionalized. Once the domain of soothsayers, astrologists, and mountebanks, now, futurology has become the domain of designers and other improvers of humankind.

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April 7th, 2016

David Stairs

Last week I was talking with my 16-year-old about his piano lesson when I asked him whether his tutor had emailed him before rescheduling a recent lesson. “Dad,” he chuckled, “I can’t believe you said that.” Translation: no one of sound mind uses anything but text as a means of communicating these days. I reminded him that not long ago I might have wondered if his instructor had “called” him with the message, but the point was made. There isn’t a day that passes when I am not reminded of how quickly I’m obsolescing.

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March 7th, 2016

David Stairs

Design Altruism Project started ten years ago today with this post. From its humble beginnings it essayed to represent new notions of professional practice from a variety of viewpoints, both new and established. We wanted to celebrate our tenth anniversary with an uplifting story.

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February 2nd, 2016

David Stairs

I haven’t yet been able to locate a source that estimates the overall number of vehicles that have been manufactured in the last century. In 1950 there were 50,000,000 cars in the world, not necessarily including all of the 16,500,000 Model Ts Ford produced between 1908 and 1927. In 2010 the number of passenger vehicle on the world’s roads passed 1-billion for the first time, figuring among them parts of 23,500,000 Volkswagon Beetles, and 40,000,000 Toyota Corollas. Let it suffice to say, we’ve built a helluva lot of cars since Henry Ford instituted the $5 workday.

With oil prices tanking to under $30 a barrel, car ownership is becoming a reality for greater numbers of people worldwide. China is now the world’s largest auto manufacturer, having produced upwards of 20,000,000 units in 2015. Ironically, car sales in America have declined, while pickup and SUV sales are booming. This closely follows the overproduction of oil, and implies a short-term lack of concern about climate change.


The all-time best-selling American vehicle, the Ford F-150 Courtesy of Consumer Reports

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January 1st, 2016

David Stairs

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: design is not supposed to be about self-expression. It’s iterative. It’s altruistic. It’s problem solving. But it’s not supposed to be self-expressive. Considering the number of huge egos in the design world, this feels less and less plausible with the passing of time. In his lecture of 2003 celebrating Archeworks 10th anniversary Victor Margolin wrote that “Design is essentially a middle class profession that has delivered a comfortable life for middle class people, while also indulging the wealthy.”

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November 12th, 2015

David Stairs

I first met Evelyn Nabooze as a shy, pretty girl of thirteen in 2006 in a partly finished building near Bombo, Uganda when I served lunch to her and some other kids at James Lutwama’s place. James and I had been friends since he’d first approached me outside my apartment at Makerere University in 2001 hoping to collaborate.


Serving lunch at Arcadia Valley in 2006

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