Deans’ Design Challenge finalist: Wendy Fok

This is one in a series of interviews with the finalists of the Deans’ Design Challenge. 

WendyWFokWendy Fok (DDes candidate) is an architect and assistant professor at the University of Houston, where she leads the digital media and design program. She is the founder of WE-DESIGNS and atelier//studio-WF and winner of numerous awards, including the ADC Young Guns 11 Award and AIA Dallas “Express Yourself” Women in Architecture Award. Her project Resilient Modular Systems is a finalist in the 2014 Deans’ Design Challenge.

What attracted you to the Doctor in Design (DDes) Program at the GSD? It was the opportunity to combine work in two programs at Harvard: the Graduate School of Design (GSD) and Harvard Law School (HLS). I’ve been working with Antoine Picon and Martin Bechthold at the GSD and William Fisher at HLS. I’ve always gone outside the spectrum of my learning. For my MArch I also did a policy degree at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. Even as an undergrad, I studied architecture and economics. That duality is how I think.

What prompted you to enter the Deans’ Design Challenge? I’ve studied bioplastics in a project similar to Resilient Modular Systems since 2005. The idea re-emerged in the Harvard i-lab Scramble that I attended in October 2013. I never thought about how my research interests were relevant to each other, but with the Deans’ Design Challenge everything serendipitously came together. The finalist team realized we can find a better distribution chain and with the right business partners, make a venture happen.

Describe your project proposal. Resilient Modular Systems seeks to be a leader in innovative products that provide resilient, sustainable construction solutions within emerging markets. This means modular components made of composite materials from readily available locally sourced resources–like bamboo, for example. We picked the word resilient, which means renewable, recyclable, sustainable and also durable.

We’re exploring applications like roofing and brick for low-knowledge on-site construction, so it’s easier for unskilled workers to use. In emerging markets the competitor is corrugated metal, which rusts, leaks, is acoustically poor and offers horrible thermal comfort.

We wanted to go beyond green technology to even expedited decomposition if needed for temporary structures. It would be useful for disaster rebuilding because people can just pick it up and use it for themselves.

The business model is also about adaptability to the local market. For our pilot project in the Dominican Republic, we’re looking into what types of resources in combination with what kind of manufacturing is there.

So you want to situate the manufacturing near the site of use? Right. We didn’t want to manufacture overseas because it adds time and uses energy resources. If there’s a local factory that can pump out these things, we distribute them locally, and the radius of production and distribution is reduced. When you’re shipping across the ocean, there’s risk and you’re not helping local manufacturing.

What was the process you went through to develop the proposal? A lot of the design decisions have been relationship-based. A teammate has family in the building sector in the Dominican Republic, so we tested the viability with NGOs like Un Techo Para Mi Pais, a volunteer housing organization in Central America. Another potential partner is Prenova, an Argentine structural and engineering company founded by a friend’s father. Prenova ships a patent metal mold to whatever country they’re building in, where they partner with a toy company–they know how to make plastics–and they pump out gigantic forms that you can distribute in the local area.

Who’s on the team? As project lead, I’m responsible for product development and design, with Natalie Rodriguez, who worked under my guidance in Houston. Jared Sisk from Harvard Business School (HBS) has experience in operations and logistics. Eileen Sun, finishing her PhD in biochemistry, has experience in materials and industrial engineering. And there are collaborators for the business aspect: Bill Lyman looking at investors and private partnerships, Jean-Christophe Ratacjzak, a principal structural engineer with AECOM. Having people outside the design field gives complementary perspectives.

Who or what has helped you throughout this process? Martin Bechthold’s work has been a true inspiration. He helped with basic questions: do you design something and license it away or do you make it into a project venture?

Dean Mohsen Mostafavi has been very encouraging and has given good practical advice without favoring any project within the Challenge. A lot of GSD courses complement the research and the library obviously is important.

Joe Lassiter at HBS has mentored this project extensively and helped on private versus public sector choices (e.g., in the private sector things happen quicker, but there could be greater impact working with NGOs).

How did you become interested in this topic? The catalyst was my interest in how to execute and assemble something via unskilled workers. Here in the West people automatically think that you need a set of blueprints to assemble something, but not everyone understands them.

I have firsthand experience of the favela from my research in Brazil, and teammates studied informal settlements in Colombia and the Dominican Republic. The GSD’s lectures have provided insight into how much of the world is unskilled and how things get built within emerging markets.

How do you see this project evolving in the future? Eventually we’re looking at South and Southeast Asia because we see that there are storms and informal settlements in Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand that need help.

The reason we’re thinking about NGOs is their volunteers are not designers, and if you can convince them that they can snap it together in one day, you can probably convince contractors who hire unskilled workers that they will be able to use this product. For us it makes a greater impact knowing users can use it instantly.

What would winning the Deans’ Challenge mean to you and your team? Winning would offer an opportunity to make a full-scale test. We’re looking into provisional patents; those are expensive. Winning would confirm there is the potential to execute and there is public interest.

This Challenge made us aware that something is missing out there that we’re trying to attack with a local, more resilient system that produces jobs for people. This will be a versatile product that allows the crowd to assemble it themselves.