Member Spotlight: Melissa Hill Threatt, Assoc. AIA, SEED
How I found my way...
It was March of my fourth year of undergraduate architecture study at Clemson University. I sat alone one night at the little row of desktop computers in the fourth year studio and contemplated my next steps. What should I do after graduation? Where should I go? Straight to a graduate program, or somewhere to work? I had already visited Washington University in St. Louis and had been accepted into a dual degree program in Architecture and Social Work. But what did that mean? Why was I so interested in that
connection? And how was I going to pay for 3-4 years at WashU? I found myself Googling (did we use Google back then?) things like "architecture + social services" and "architecture + community" because I could not shake the thought that architecture - the built environment that we all know, love, and work every day to create and improve - had a role to play in social services. That architecture, at its very core, was about protecting people and making them better. I have since fine-tuned that Google search to my standard response when asked what my career aspirations would be which is - I strongly believe that the design of the built environment directly impacts the families that come into contact with it and the children who grow up in it.
But back to that Google search. Somehow, and I desperately wish I could remember how, I found my way to the Community Housing Resource Center of Atlanta's website. Something led me to click on Events and I saw that the Center (which by the way is called something completely different now) would be hosting a conference of the Association for Community Design in just a few weeks. "Association for Community Design?!?" I thought. "Really?!" I immediately wrote to the contact listed there and he responded that in fact it was not to late register and he would look forward to seeing me in a few weeks. I convinced my fellow classmate and boyfriend (now my husband of seven years) to attend the conference with me and away we went. To try to make a long story shorter, I will summarize that weekend with these words: perspective-altering, career-defining, life-changing, relationship-forming, and fabulous. I met a veritable Who's Who of community design. Bryan Bell of Design Corps (Raleigh, NC), David Perkes of Mississippi State University's Gulf Coast Community Design Center (Biloxi, MS), and Sergio Palleroni of Portland State University (Portland, OR) sat right next to me at the first session. I had a conversation with David Baker of David Baker + Partners (San Francisco, CA) about jet lag and time travel and who knows what else. He is a rock star of public interest design and talked to ME?! The magnitude of the influence of those around me did not become clear to me until I was back in Clemson, and even still I find myself making connections to "Hey, wasn't he in Atlanta too?"
Fast forward 18 months from then and I found myself sitting in an office in Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, around a table with so many of the same people. They had all answered a call to come to New Orleans to try to make a plan for recovery. I was a graduate student at Louisiana State University working in the Office of Community Design and Development. The entirety of my time in graduate school became about Katrina rebuilding efforts and the possibilities therein.
Fast forward eight more years, and this year, in March of 2013, I found myself sitting in an auditorium in Minneapolis, MN at the inaugural Public Interest Design Week, surrounded by these SAME folks and feeling the SAME way I did back in 2004. Only this time something was different. A lot had changed over the past eight years. Community design practice and education has somehow found its way to the forefront and is not just reserved for Auburn University's Rural Studio anymore. Almost every school of architecture in the country has some sort of public interest design component or focus or studio that is doing work similar to those few folks I met in Atlanta. And everyone is doing it and rallying around a central battle cry - Social, Economic, Environmental Design. Known as SEED, this initiative was begun in 2005 by my same group of colleagues during a roundtable workshop at Harvard University. That meeting that I went to in New Orleans? Yea, it was what would become known as the second ever convening of the SEED Network. And I was there. How many people can say that? I know now that I am meant to do this type of work and just need to position myself in the right way to do it. Is it possible in Greenville, where not much similar work is done? Of course. Would it be easier in a big city where I could learn from someone like Katherine Darnstadt in Chicago before stepping out on my own? Probably. Whatever happens, I am excited about it.
I was not in that auditorium in Minneapolis by chance. I was there because I managed to get the most new signors to the SEED Network pledge, and I was awarded the trip for my efforts. I was given a chance to attend the Public Interest Design Institute where I received SEED Certification and the right to place those letters after my name professionally. And that is where I met our October guest, Katherine Darnstadt of Latent Design! SEED, similarly to LEED (named similarly on purpose, yes) provides a framework by which projects can be certified for their social, economic, and environmental impact to the community for which they are planned and in which they are built. It is my great hope that projects in Upstate South Carolina will some day (soon) earn the SEED certification. We are already doing so many wonderful projects in our cities that would qualify and be welcomed into the ranks of SEED certified projects.
You may contact Melissa at: MThreatt@dp3architects.com
Check out where she works here: http://www.dp3architects.com/