‘Business of Architecture’ is one of today’s most popular architecture-centered podcasts. It primarily explores concepts around the management of architectural businesses through interviewing successful firm owners and highlighting what it is that makes their practices so effective. One of the most inspiring episodes that has been produced is the one in collaboration with Chris Hildrey: ‘Going Beyond Buildings to Create Social Impact’. By sharing Hildrey’s story and uncovering the route he took towards becoming an architect that creates immensely positive social impact, the episode serves as great inspiration for any designer looking to use their skills to make a real difference.
Guest Profile: Chris Hildrey
This episode of the podcast focuses on the work of architect Chris Hildrey, the founder of Hildrey Studio and ProxyAddress. His firm, which was established just three years ago, aims to harness design skills to improve the environment in which we live, keeping a focus on social impact and applied research. He launched ProxyAddress in an effort to ease the negative effects of homelessness. By setting up a platform that linked those experiencing houselessness to an address of one of the UK’s 500,000 empty houses, Hildrey managed to support thousands of people. This service means that these people don’t have to lose access to the many vital services that require the provision of a fixed address for registration.
Aside from this work, Chris Hildrey is passionate about combatting other issues within the built environment. He works to achieve this goal by mentoring the next generation of architects and undertaking research. His work has earned him many awards, including the RIBA President’s Medal for Research, and the title of RIBA Rising Star.
The episode begins with a discussion of unpaid internships. The pair also discusses architectural education, noting how rather than designing buildings, we learn applicable skills in university, which allow us to design buildings that address a diverse range of issues upon entering the world of architectural practice after graduation. Chris Hildrey links this idea to his own work with ProxyAddress, a project that is not directly architectural, yet is one that recognizes that designing a building might not be the most effective way of improving access to essentials for people forced into houselessness. Diversifying our approach to designing architectural solutions might just be the best way to effectively meet the needs of communities.
It is also noted that one of the main challenges for architects is the difficulty of securing public engagement. Due to a lack of care about the construction industry amongst the general public, it can be very difficult to get the population involved in the process of designing the built environment. Unless we actively engage people in architecture by making the industry more socially and economically accessible, architects may become increasingly redundant. Architects themselves also need to consider the economic sustainability of their work: securing funding for projects can be quite difficult, particularly for projects which are more charitable. The world of a charity is quite difficult: you can become reliant upon donations and other sources of funding that can be very hard to obtain. For this reason, ProxyAddress was set up as a social enterprise so that it can be economically sustainable, continuing to create a positive impact whilst remaining financially independent.
Chris Hildrey also talks about the journey he has taken to reach the point he is at in his career, along with giving more details about the development of ProxyAddress. With regards to this, he emphasizes the power of constraints in creative processes, arguing that having more restrictions in place to design around usually results in the most effective solutions being proposed. It is for this reason that Hildrey takes pleasure in solving difficult challenges. This is an attitude that all designers can take inspiration from: enjoying a challenge rather than complaining about design constraints is the best way to create great solutions.
What We Can Learn
All designers can be inspired by this conversation with Chris Hildrey. Like Hildrey, we should consider prioritizing positive social impact over excessive commercial gain or extravagant yet uninformed designs. We should work to diversify the field. By breaking through the misconceived boundaries of the design and construction industries, we can broaden our minds to consider a wider range of creative possibilities. Through this, we can imagine innovative solutions to global issues. The episode also teaches us to harness the skills we have gained from education to inform the solutions we propose, whether the final design is directly related to architecture or not. In summary, by applying a wide range of knowledge, diversifying our approaches, and allowing our minds to be opened to global challenges, we can, like Hildrey, practice architecture in a way that benefits the communities who experience it.