Citizen Architect – Emily Roush-Elliott, AIA

A social impact architect, Roush-Elliott has worked in the United States (and abroad) to design and execute projects that improve public health, preserve affordable housing, and increase equity within the built environment. Through two organizations she has founded with her husband, builder Richard Elliott, Roush-Elliott currently works throughout the Mississippi Delta region to leverage their own creativity, public and private partnerships, and undervalued construction assets to enhance equity in rural underserved communities.

Roush-Elliott began her career as a social impact architect in Biloxi, Mississippi., where she and her future husband, Richard Elliott, built and designed hurricane-resistant housing. While pursuing an M.Arch degree at the University of Cincinnati, she joined the Village Life Outreach Project, a Cincinnati-based nonprofit that works in three remote villages in Tanzania to assist in the design and implementation of projects that help reduce poverty. Today, Roush-Elliott is a member of AIA's Government Advocacy Committee and a leader of the AIA Housing and Community Development Knowledge Community. Roush-Elliott also served as an architectural intern at BHDP Architecture in Cincinnati, and as Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow co-host at Mississippi State University’s Carl Small Town Center and the Greenwood-Leflore-Carroll Economic Development Foundation (Greenwood, Mississippi). She also served as adjunct faculty member at the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. She and Elliott founded the Delta Design Build Workshop in 2014.

“Alt rock—that’s what social impact architecture used to be,” said Delta Design Build Workshop Co-founder Emily Roush-Elliott. “When I was in school, social impact architects were the Nirvana or Weezer of the design community. But if you ask students today, social impact architecture is just regular rock ‘n’ roll.”

Many architects—if not the majority—are thinking about how they can enhance equity, sustainability, and opportunity through the design of public spaces, commercial buildings, and family housing.  

Roush-Elliott and her husband, social impact builder Richard Elliott, don’t look the part of alt-rock royalty Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain, but they have devoted their careers to finding ways to bring this new “genre” of architecture and construction to the masses.

“I fell in love with architecture as a way to help people as an undergrad,” said Emily Roush-Elliott, “and I’m fortunate to be doing this work today.”

The two met in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 2008 where they were both working—she as an aspiring architect, and he as a builder and project manager—to rehabilitate housing on the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.

There are numerous opportunities for citizen architects and social impact builders to get involved after disaster, Roush-Elliott said. “For architects looking to provide community support immediately following storms, I recommend finding a way to plug in where you are using your existing expertise,” Roush-Elliott explained. “Too often in these situations people try to do something that feels urgent, but isn’t something they understand well. And people who aren’t plumbers acting as plumbers can result in a smaller disaster following the primary event.”

While in Ohio, Roush-Elliott met Dr. Christopher Lewis, founder of the Village Life Outreach Project. A physician, Lewis founded the nonprofit in 2004 with the goal “to have an impact on the health of hundreds in a part of the world where there is one doctor for every 33,000 people.” In 2010, Roush-Elliott moved to Roche, Tanzania, where she oversaw the organization’s effort to build the Roche Health Center, which now provides healthcare to 20,000 villagers.

When working abroad as a social impact architect or builder, Roush-Elliott believes it is important to ensure close coordination with local experts and officials.

“One of the most wonderful things about being mid-career is that I can confidently say, ‘I don’t know,’” said Roush-Elliott. “And this is more important the less familiar a person is with a place. Anytime we work somewhere that we don’t live, whether it is a continent away or 60 miles down the road, we do so at the invitation and following the guidance of a local group.”  

Often, through strong advocacy, leaders on the ground quickly foresee the benefits of the types of projects Roush-Elliott builds, including the education and training benefits. In Tanzania, for example, while she,  and her colleagues at the Village Life Outreach Project oversaw the design and construction of the healthcare center and school, the work on the ground was executed by members of the community.

“What we loved about the Village Life Outreach Project was its commitment to a place and to people,” said Roush-Elliott. “There is no exit strategy from the community. It is a long-term dedicated partnership to those villages and to improving life there.”

An Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship brought Roush-Elliott back to Mississippi after Tanzania. Roush-Elliott worked for the Greenwood-Leflore-Carroll Economic Development Foundation and Mississippi State University’s Carl Small Town Center on a comprehensive neighborhood reinvestment project. Elliott oversaw construction for Beard + Riser Architects in Greenwood.

Emily and her husband also founded Delta Design Build Workshop (Delta DB) in 2014 with Village Life’s commitment to place in mind. Delta DB’s mission to improve public health, address inequity, and establish jobs in the region became even more important after witnessing the events of 2020.

“Disasters bring to light for a broader population the conditions that marginalized communities have suffered long-term,” Roush-Elliott said. “One woman called me [in April 2020] and explained that she had been living with the type of stress COVID was causing for years as she watched mold grow on her ceilings. There are always people facing extremely challenging conditions, and architects are well-equipped to respond to community needs—not just after a storm or during a pandemic, but by addressing the myriad ways in which the built environment is, and has been, inequitable.”

Roush-Elliott also is working to improve equity in American communities through her work on AIA's Government Advocacy Committee. She helped develop AIA’s first-ever bipartisan policy platform, which calls for expanding new construction of affordable housing, promoting toxic-free environments, and partnering with all levels of government “to enact anti-racist housing and housing finance policy that counteract policies such as redlining, which have been unjust to Americans of color,” said Roush-Elliott.

As a first step to becoming a citizen architect, Roush-Elliott recommends her industry colleagues read the platform to “find the part that speaks” to them most. “Find an area that you are excited about and become as informed as possible about that topic,” Roush-Elliott said. From there, the next step is likely to be obvious.

“Just raise your hand,” Roush-Elliott concluded. “Once you have that level of knowledge about one area of policy, you’ll know who to call and where to start.”

-As told to Kerrie Rushton

Image credits

Emily Roush-Elliott and Richard Elliott with their team

Harry Connolly