Local Architect Discusses Innovative and Sustainable Designs

Jane Humphrey | April 19, 2021 | Home & Real Estate People

Talk about global innovation. With a recent home rebuild in Cambridge and countless projects in the works that are redefining architecture, MASS Design Group (massdesigngroup.org) co-founder Alan Ricks is a man in high demand.
Rendering of the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture RENDERING BY IWAN BAAN
Rendering of the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture

MASS Design Group is about collaboration—how has that worked in the past year? I am grateful to be surrounded by inspiring collaborators who constantly remind me of the privilege to do this work and to be a part of this collective. We hold monthly all-team meetings to bring together the 150-plus people at MASS around the globe. While most things have been challenged by remote work, this has somehow become more special. Instead of a webcam looking at a sea of people in an office, we get to see each individual’s face and hear them more clearly when they talk. I feel like being in those all-team meetings— surrounded by people from over 20 countries who are all contributing their personal experiences—has been a reminder of the diversity of our team and what we gain from that breadth of perspective. Hearing about what people are working on and what it means to them is a form of inspiration that I draw upon regularly.

What are you currently working on? I like to say the first, longest and biggest project is the design of our practice. It was always our hope to create a place for people to build careers doing this type of work. We’ll finish construction this year on the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture, a very unique new program focused on training entrepreneurs to address the food insecurity seen not only in the region but in the world. And we’ve gone through the entire project thinking about how the design and construction could embody those same ambitious principles. The project is entirely off-grid and will become climate-positive within a decade by not only offsetting all the carbon used to create and operate it but also becoming a carbon sink. We’ve developed low-carbon construction practices that are less common in this region, such as rammed earth and mass-timber structure. And we’re doing a lot of the construction and fabrication ourselves across over 50 different buildings on the campus and 800 hectares of land.

What are you most excited about in terms of the future of design? We are really interested in expanding the idea of sustainability from how efficiently a building performs to thinking about it more like the way the slow-food movement is thinking about food—what are the ingredients it is made of, and is it being ethically produced? Instead of just a building’s performance, we want to also think about its provenance, and to think about this as our clearest path to cutting emissions in half—this is done by looking deeply into the supply chain and thinking not just about climate but also about investing in the people and communities where our building products are made.

You’re also working on your Boston home, yes? After a decade of living in the South End, my wife and I decided the fifth-floor walkup apartment wasn’t tenable with three kids—all under the age of 4. We bought a 100-year-0ld home in Cambridge [to renovate]. I’ve done the design work, and it’s brought me back to a much more intimate scale of working on projects. It’s been a great experience.

Photography by: Iwan Baan