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Engaged Spirituality in the Design Studio: Ethics and Values in Architectural Education

Thomas Barrie
North Carolina State University


This paper will present projects conducted by the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Initiative founded at NC State in 2007 to research, document, and disseminate innovative and applicable solutions to the housing and urban challenges that North Carolina communities face. The Initiative’s mission is primarily educational – to educate future leaders in the profession and provide research and design resources for government, non-profits, community leaders, and the general public.1 In particular, the roles that the design of the built environment can play in solving problems such as the lack of affordable housing or creating economically, culturally, and environmentally sustainable communities, and the ethical responsibility of the profession to do so, are emphasized. The paper will focus on a 2018 project, Micro Housing for Homeless and Disabled Veterans, which was sponsored by the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness.2


Ethics and values are essential components of the world’s major religions. Though each may present them differently, they share the dual virtues of developing one’s character and serving others for the common good. Ethical questions provoke reflections regarding who is most served by architectural and built environment projects, and who is ignored or harmed.3 Ethics provides a framework and praxis for how to best serve the greatest good and includes virtue ethics of personal development and actions, dutyethicsof serving others, socialcontractethicsthat seeks equity and justice, and the utilitarian ethics of policies and their enforcement. Engaged spirituality comprises practices centered on serving others, addressing needs, and effecting social change. Engaged Buddhism (as articulated by the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh), and the liberation theology movement in the Catholic Church, are contemporary examples. Contrary to popular spirituality, which focusses on personal development, in engaged spirituality personal development is the outcome of service. 4 The Zen Priest Bernie Glassman described it as follows: “We commit ourselves to healing others at the same time that we heal ourselves.”5

The Micro Housing for Homeless and Disabled Veterans project envisioned design, planning, and programming solutions to veteran homelessness in North Carolina. Micro house villages are groupings on a single property of micro houses – small, complete, single dwellings that range from 150 to 400 square feet – that allow residents to live independently while benefiting from supportive services. During a semester-long project, eleven graduate students conducted research on veteran homelessness and support services, documented precedents and best practices of micro house villages, and designed prototypical micro house villages for a variety of sites. The process included a design workshop and presentations to various constituencies. It also incorporated design input from national and local experts on affordable housing and micro house villages, who shared their projects and design approaches during visits to the campus. An Advisory Committee comprising local homelessness, veterans’ affairs, affordable housing, and design experts provided input at critical points in the project process. The outcomes included a 100-paqe report, and a five-minute film that was a finalist in the AIA Film Challenge.


The projects and partners of the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Initiative illustrate the ethical responsibilities of architects and the profession by providing design expertise to the underserved. Even though engaged spirituality is not explicitly part of the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Initiative, its values inform the studio projects that are chosen, the ethical positions modeled, and the pedagogical methods employed. Similar to Public Interest Design6 projects incorporate social, ecological and economic priorities (the “triple bottom line), which, along with spiritual orientations, comprise a quadruple bottom line.7

I am committed to employing the research and design capacities of a research-intensive, land grant university to serve its state and citizenry. In addition to service learning projects, I also engage in local education and advocacy efforts. As a tenured, full professor, I recognize that I not only have the ability to speak out publicly about controversial issues and challenge those in power, I have a responsibility to do so. Consequently, while during the course of the projects design excellence may be emphasized, its definitions are expanded beyond the instrumental aesthetics and technological materialism of the dominant architectural culture to incorporate social responsibility, ethics, and the necessity of activism to effect lasting, positive change. 8 Consequently, while students learn about the power of design to effectively solve problems such as the lack of affordable housing, they also learn how to be citizen architects. These are some of the not-so-hidden agendas of the projects, activities and advocacy conducted by the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Initiative.

The paper will conclude with a screening of the five-minute film on the Micro Housing for Homeless and Disabled Veterans project.


1 All projects are documented on the initiative’s website as an open-source, educational archive. last accessed 05.11.2022.

2 The project received Architect Magazine’s 2019 Studio Prize.

3 Thomas Fisher, The Architecture of Ethics. London: Routledge, 2019, pp. xxiv- v.

4 According to Gregory Stanczak and Donald Miller, “In order to fully understand the relationship between spirituality and social change, we must discuss spirituality in ways that are more complex than the stereotypes of individual transcendence or reflection.” Gregory Stanczak and Donald Miller, Engaged Spirituality and Social Transformation in Mainstream American Religious Traditions, Center for Religion and Civic Culture, USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences, 2004, p.5.

5 Bernie Glassman, Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace, New York: Bell Tower, 1998, p. 84.

6 Public Interest Design began with community design centers in the 1960s and was popularized by the Rural Studio at Auburn University founded in 1993.

7 Stuart Walker, Designing Sustainability: Making Radical Changes in a Material World. London: Routledge, 2014, p. 55).

8 As Jason Pearson argues, “design innovation is inseparable from social engagement, and thus is inseparable from public service.” Jason Pearson and Mark Robbins, eds., University-Community Design Partnerships: Innovations in Practice, Washington, DC: The National Endowment for the Arts, 2002, p. 5.

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