Panel 1 – Activist Architecture Firms

These firms have a standard practice but are also producing new models for public interest design of exceptional quality. The panelists will discuss what public interest practice means to them and how they do it.


  • John Folan, Carnegie Mellon University, Moderator
  • Steve Schuster, Clearscapes
  • Joy Meek, Wheeler Kearns Architects, SEED Award Winner
  • Stefan Schwarzkopf and Greg Kearley, Inscape Publico, SEED Certified Consultants
  • Jeff Davis, Architectural Nexus, SEED Certified Consultants
John Folan is the T. David Fitz-Gibbon Professor of Architecture, Director of the Urban Design Build Studio (UDBS), track Chair of the Masters of Urban Design (MUD) Program, and member of the Urban Laboratory faculty at Carnegie Mellon University.  Registered as an Architect since 1995, John has created the Urban Design Build Studio, a rigorous two-semester-plus-summer-sequence of courses. The program allows for the unique community collaboration between PROJECT RE_, Construction Junction, and the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh.  Prior to joining the faculty at Carnegie Mellon University in 2009, John was a tenured Associate Professor at the University of Arizona. While on the faculty at Arizona he was a founding member of the Emerging Materials Technology (EMT) group. He also co-founded and served as an executive board member of the Drachman Design Build Coalition (DDBC); a university affiliated, non-profit, 501(c)3 corporation dedicated to the design and construction of environmentally specific, energy efficient, affordable housing prototypes.
Steve Schuster, Clearscapes engages projects that often help define community. This work has everything to do with place. They are frequently publicly funded, but that is not a requirement. The common element is that they are heavily used by the public who cares about them. They are often revising existing structures that have, for decades, contributed to the fabric of the community. These projects demand public engagement. The involvement by the community leads to buy in and ownership but, more importantly, the process influences the results and leads to solutions that are better because of the very participation by the users. Being an activist architect goes beyond an approach to projects. It embraces all forms of service including participation on planning commission, historic commission, appearance commission, task forces, non-profits, professional associations, etc. The active involvement by designers in their communities builds their credibility and helps shape the public conversation about place.
Joy Meek AIA, is Principal at Wheeler Kearns Architects. As a project architect at Wheeler Kearns, Joy has worked on a wide range of projects including residential, institutional and adaptive reuse. Joy served as the project architect on the renovation for the Art Institute of Chicago’s Photography Department and Gallery, the original Marwen Arts facility and more recently, the expansion of the Marwen Arts campus which doubles their instructional studio space and provides a new exterior court, entry gallery and reception space. Joy joined Wheeler Kearns Architects in 1998 and became a principal in 2006. She graduated from University of Illinois with a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies with University Honors and graduated from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design with a Masters of Architecture. She has served as a mentor for the Illinois Math and Science Academy’s Student Inquiry and Research Program, and as an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University. Joy is a licensed architect in the state of Illinois and a LEED accredited professional.
Gregory A. Kearley, AIA, LEED AP, is Managing Principal at Inscape Studio, and Executive Director at Inscape Publico. After receiving his Master of Architecture from Catholic University, Greg began his career in Washington, DC at Ellerbe Becket.  While there, he worked on a number of commercial and institutional projects. After leaving Ellerbe Beckett, Greg joined Travis Price Architects where he worked on various residential and commercial projects for this award winning firm.  Greg established Inscape Studio in 1998. In shaping Inscape Studio it was not Greg’s intention to create a singular stylistic approach to architecture, but to put into place a framework for a collective design process. It is acknowledged that in describing the work of Inscape Greg speaks with a collective “I”. In 2010 Greg co-founded Inscape Publico, a nonprofit architecture firm. The mission of Inscape Publico is to provide professional architecture services to other non-profits so that they can further their missions in the spaces created by Inscape Publico. Greg founded Project 4, a contemporary art gallery, in 2006 with three colleagues. The doors closed at Project 4 in 2015. Project 4 exhibited works of emerging and mid-career artists. The space, designed by Inscape Studio, provided a platform for showcasing a variety of media, including installation, video, painting, sculpture, and site specific works.
Stefan Schwarzkopf, AIA, LEED AP, is Principal at Inscape Studio, and Design Director at Inscape Publico. Always believing in the power of good design and the benefit to making this accessible to more people, Stefan has been involved with a variety of pro-bono work throughout his career, including such diverse projects as a large scale art installation in a public park, graphic design and layout for music CDs, and set design for a community theatre. His professional experience has spanned from single family residential work at Waring Architects in New Orleans to an airport expansion at Baker and Associates to a variety of commercial projects at Gensler while working in the Baltimore, Washington DC, and Shanghai offices. Before being particularly aware of terms such as social impact or public interest design, Stefan strove for finding a balance of meaningful work, which led to him to join Inscape Studio in early 2009 where he has enjoyed participating in a collaborative approach to a high level of design on a variety of project types and scales, all linked with the thread of social responsibility and environmental sensitivity. In late 2010 he cofounded the nonprofit firm Inscape Publico, which works in tandem with Inscape Studio and increases Inscape’s capacity to do a greater number of pro-bono projects for nonprofits.
Jeffery L. Davis, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is a Principal and Director of Sustainability at Architectural Nexus. Jeff’s work includes public outreach efforts within culturally and socio-economically diverse neighborhoods and creating diverse multi-generational spaces. Leading the design of buildings that engage the occupants in managing their environment at all levels while simultaneously finding an aesthetic inspired from nature is what Jeff does.  Jeff’s passion for architecture and its influence on our communities, families, and lives sets the groundwork for his efforts. He recognizes the intrinsic relationship between humans and the spaces they inhabit. That enhancing human interaction through the use of scale, detail, light and behavioral engagement creates comfortable, beautiful, functioning spaces. Jeff believes that “remembering people” in the planning and design of spaces creates unity and ownership. Presentation Abstract: Seeking All; Going to “them” . . . Who are they? Whom do we seek?  When reaching out for inclusion how do we encompass everyone who either wants or needs to be included because of the impact a project will have on “them”? This presentation will share a pattern to Nexus’ success that includes: how to define the community for inclusion, going to “them”, tools that bridge barriers and inclusion through ownership.  People are the most important part of what we do.



Steve Schuster

Union Station Project

  • Partners: Federal, State, Local governments + 5 Railroad companies
  • $85million in public funds
    • Needs public engagement:
      • Held over 100 meetings with public
      • Have public help / struggle with the issues and tradeoffs of the project
      • Result: a better project with more popular support
  • Site: Warehouse district
    • Original Union Station still there at end of Martin St – an “industrial cathedral”
    • Surrounded by three active freight lines – requires two new Railroad bridges
    • Create a Civic Plaza for the public
    • Recycle as much of the materials existing in the building as possible

Joy Meek

Core mission of Wheeler Kearns: Strive to work directly with end users (not speculative or development-driven projects). They end up with a lot of public interest projects, often for small non-profits.


  • Southwest Women Working Together
    • Women/families in situations of domestic violence
    • Needed renovation and addition to existing building
    • Safety a priority
  • Mather LifeWays
    • Small senior services centers – “Starbucks for Seniors”
    • Create spaces and venues for seniors to inhabit in their own communities
  • Christopher House
    • Social services, mostly for immigrant population
    • Wheeler Kearns decided best solution was not to add on, but to demolish part of existing building to open it up to use and create more space
  • Inspiration Kitchen
    • A kitchen and restaurant for the homeless within a food desert
    • Created a neighborhood garden, restaurant, and job training

Stefan Schwarzkopf and Greg Kearley

Inscape Publico

  • Non-profit architecture firm in DC
  • Provides professional architecture services for non-profits and people they serve
  • Pro bono (for the public good) – not free services, but reduced fee
  • Often they do their own fundraising

Inscape Studio

  • Regular, for-profit architecture firm – triple bottom line
  • Socially responsible and environmentally sensitive

Typical division of work:

  • Inscape Publico
  1. Pre-Design
  2. Schematic Design
  3. Partner Fundraising
  • Switch to typical firm: (Inscape Studio or another)
  1. Technical Drawing
  2. Permit-filling / Contract Proposals
  3. Construction admin

Recent Project: eCasa Housing Prototype, Washington, DC

  • Address affordable housing needs
  • Goal: net zero energy
  • Funding: DC housing development
  • Work within existing row house fabric

Jeff Davis

“Seeking all; Going to them”: Defining inclusion – who do you reach out to?


  • Mill Creek Community Center
    • Senior center
    • “house rich” people, over time living on fixed income
  • High school project
    • Input from 9th graders going into high school
    • Input from teachers: design curricula to go with architecture
  • Glendale Library, Salt Lake
    • “multi-cultural center”
    • Public outreach meeting: NOT successful
      • Changed outlook: go to them – go to events where people are, for example, unity fair, cultural fair, talk to kids’ moms during story time

Cyclical loop of design process: Listen – Analyze – Design — Report (repeat)

Questions & Answers

1. What is the role of the people you work with? How do you decide who comes in when, and how do you engage them?

  • Davis: We ask that they put together a stakeholder group – bring in important community members.  Do public outreach meeting before any schematic design.
  • Schuster: The stakeholder role is vital, but cannot talk only to them – public often has different point of view
  • Meek:  Their role depends on the organization and their time.  For example: cannot have a public meeting for a domestic violence group – however for many projects community engagement is essential from beginning

2. How do you generate fee?

  • Schwarzkopf: It’s painful. People don’t know what a non-profit design firm is – their company had to work for almost two years with little income before having work to show funders.
  • Schuster: Be a partner in helping groups to raise funds – not a typical role of architect, but we have a belief in community work. From a business perspective, because of the work we do, we attract the best and brightest staff.
  • Davis: At a larger firm, every project doesn’t have that kind of impact.  Their firm has a philanthropy program – they encourage employees to spend time on these projects.
  • Meek: She is part of a 19-person traditional architecture firm.  They use a reduced-fee structure for non-profit clients, they don’t do no-fee projects.  Some call it the “Robin Hood” model.

3. How much does fee structure incentivize you not to let planning fatigue set in?

  • Schwarzkopf: Charging some fee rather than none makes client more committed
  • Davis: Define scope of project clearly to client and steps they need to take.  Stay in contact with them and help them meet their goals.
  • Meek: Try to be a part of overall schedule and development with group.

4. Is public interest design a stance you take with all your projects?

  • Davis: Yes, for every public project.  Not all clients want to do this, but they try to steer them in that direction
  • Schuster: Community involvement translates to public ownership

5. How do you market yourselves as public interest designers and get these clients?

  • Schuster: Our staff is involved in the community and demonstrates that they are engaged

6. How do you mobilize the public that is typically not involved?

  • Davis: It can be an overwhelming task.  We typically reach out through government, churches, and libraries – go to the public.  We use different tools, such as dot boards and blocks, that engage people and children in a fun way.  For example, for a library design in a rural area, we went to high school basketball games and grocery stores with our community engagement tools, because this is where the community was.
  • Folan: I heard of a firm that went to a Chinese buffet in town for community engagement because it was the most popular place in town, and they got a lot of feedback.

7. What does “Activist” mean to you?

  • Schuster: I’m uncomfortable with that term, it sounds a bit self-promoting. The work I do is a conscious choice, if others label me as an activist I’m okay with that.
  • Davis: It depends on what you mean by “activist.”  If it is about wanting to change the world and make it better, then yes, we are activists.
  • Schwarzkopf: I think about it at a fundamental level, that it is about choosing not to work passively.

8. How do we make sure we’re not underselling our expertise?

  • Davis: You have to go to places, and have clients that value input from the public
  • Schwarzkopf: We as a profession are undervalued. With clients that pay a reduced fee, we communicate what the regular fee would be alongside the percentage they pay.
  • Meek: The clients who need a reduced fee are usually the ones that value the firm’s skills the most.