2020 Collaborative Achievement Award Recipient

The Collaborative Achievement Award recognizes the excellence that results when architects work with those from outside the profession to improve the spaces where people live and work.

A prime example of how design can tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges, the Global Design Initiative for Refugee Children (GDI) has emerged as a new model for collaboration to address the needs of the most vulnerable refugees. GDI comprises leadership from Boston’s design community and a number of nonprofit aid and development organizations, all aligned in an effort to mend the divisions and social rifts that follow conflicts around the world.

“An initiative that began as a few well-meaning architects meeting in the evenings at BSA Space to grapple with the question of how to make a difference in children’s lives has now evolved into a multidisciplinary group that uses design to answer that question,” wrote Polly Carpenter, FAIA, director of public programs for the Boston Society of Architects (BSA), in a letter supporting the initiative’s nomination for the Collaborative Achievement award. “Now an official committee of the BSA, the group meets biweekly and includes young designers, artists, landscape architects, contractors, and academics—all united in the belief that strategically placed design will create opportunities for children to safely grow and play.”

The exodus spurred by civil war in Syria has revealed the urgent need for the profession to develop new tools and methods to assist the humanitarian response through design. On its surface, GDI, begun in 2016, is an effort to support safe play among displaced children, but it represents an important first step in developing a collaborative process for creating child-focused spaces that support healing and social cohesion in refugee contexts.

“This initiative gave us the unique opportunity to think together as interested professions—architects, landscape architects, urban designers, artists, play equipment manufacturers, and behavioral scientists—in alliance for recognizing the importance of play as a human need and a human right,” wrote Erik Walsh and Dr. Suzanne Quinn of KOMPAN, a playground and fitness company, in a letter supporting GDI’s nomination.

GDI selected Lebanon as the site of its first project because the country hosts the highest number of Syrian refugees per capita and lacks formal camps, leaving refugees scattered across more than 2,000 urban and rural communities. The selection was further supported by the number of professional contacts many members of Boston’s design community have there and by the fundraising efforts that delivered more than $50,000 from academic institutions and private foundations.

Centered on the idea of “permanent impermanence,” the project, completed in 2018, features modular wood frames constructed by a Syrian millworker that are easily assembled and disassembled should relocation be required. It addresses a wide range of needs for both children and their parents and includes swings, climbing structures, hammocks, and other play spaces. Since then, GDI has tackled additional projects in Lebanon and Dorchester, Massachusetts.

“This cause has served as a magnet for activity, rallying not only practitioners and students, but also engaging industry partners in this collaborative effort. There’s the landscape architecture photographer who just ‘wanted to give back’ and who donated his services to document the project. There’s the construction firm founded by Lebanese immigrants who jump-started the firm donations,” wrote Gretchen Rabinkin, AIA, executive director of the Boston Society of Landscape Architects.

Beyond improving the daily lives of children, GDI has created a road map for design professionals seeking to use their skills to serve the greater good and solve issues of global importance. The initiative has also published a graphic how-to pamphlet that provides insight on the key considerations for developing a transnational, cross-disciplinary collaborative process.


Timothy C. Hawk, FAIA (Chair), WSA Studio, Columbus, Ohio

Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, Brooks Scarpa, Hawthorne, California

Peter MacKeith, Assoc. AIA, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Oswaldo Ortega, AIA, Gensler, Chicago, Illinois

Julia Laue, AIA, Bureau of Architecture, San Francisco Public Works, San Francisco, California

Image credits

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Global Design Initiative for Refugee Children

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Global Design Initiative for Refugee Children

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Global Design Initiative for Refugee Children