The Art of Listening

photo by Ema Peter

photo by Ema Peter

When designing for sociability the talk is the walk. Or rather, listening to the talk. Buuuuuuut unfortunately architecture has a legacy of exclusivity that, let’s be honest, hasn’t lent itself well to genuine community engagement.

So we decided to reinvent the wheel… and turned it into a cube.

The design cube at the UBC Student’s Union Nest project, for which our Bruce Haden was Co-Designer while Principal at Dialog, was the starting point of our journey toward truly connecting with the communities for whom we were designing.

Bruce’s innovation, as Student Engagement Lead, was an accessible space on-site that welcomed students to drop in, ask questions and have conversations with the design team that worked from the cube throughout the design process. These ongoing connections seeded the entire design process and ended up bringing such value to the project that the communication was continued throughout construction via social media.

The Cube (insert) and The Nest post occupancy, photo by Ema Peter

The Cube (insert) and The Nest post occupancy, photo by Ema Peter

That experience was orbiting Bruce’s mind as Human Studio held an open house for its Charles + Nanaimo project, a difficult discussion as it was bringing a small rental development to a neighbourhood of single family homes. We feel this type of development can ease the agony of our current housing crisis but we also recognize that a construction project in an otherwise quiet neighbourhood is disruptive. When the open house took a divisive turn and a member of our team had an unearned explitive thrown at her, it confirmed for Bruce that the way architects and developers communicate with communities had to change. He walked outside and started up a one on one conversation with a person standing outside. Within moments, the barriers eroded and a genuine conversation about what that person felt their community needed was had.

The foundation was laid and since then we have been adding to the evidence with every job. Pictured below is a conversation within the existing Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, imagining what Human Studio could create as an extension for the community, the honor of which would contain the creation of a space to house and to hold the art collection of the Inkameep Day School, a priceless piece of our collective history.


Currently we are working with the West Coast Kids Cancer Foundation on building a summer camp environment for kids in cancer or blood disorder treatment. The footage below is a glimpse into the second of our ongoing series of listening sessions with a group of nurses from the oncology department of BC Children’s Hospital. This followed a session with the Kwantlen Nation upon whose unceded land the camp proposes to be. The results of both sessions have gone far to sculpt what will one day be a built space.

Its not a perfect formula (being human never is) but what we are learning is that if our buildings are to connect people then we have to connect with people from the onset of our design process and that only when we check in for a final time, long after the building has been lived in, do we get a full understanding of the project.

Peter Atkinson