In short

My doctoral thesis responds to the challenging, rapid and widespread process of population growth in developing countries and the pressure this puts on the built environment and especially on social and public institutions like housing and medical care. The fast transformation of the environment in cities in the developing world makes it a challenge to maintain and achieve sustainability. A hypothesis is that this objective will be easier to achieve in the architectural design process if solutions are rooted locally. One way to support this endeavour is to engage the users of the buildings in the design process.

The focus is on how the architect can learn from local knowledge and through an empathic approach in the design process create ownership amongst the users, thus anchor it locally. I am studying, applying and analysing methods that support user engagement utilising research through design as a methodology. The objective is to promote an architectural design process that results in aesthetic and culturally embedded design that meets the needs of the fast-growing population while at the same time contributes to equity and sustainability.


The research is done as a compilation thesis. The first article functions as a background illustration of my past and my motivation for this kind of work. I have been working with architectural projects in developing country settings for 25 years as part of the team Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects and Ukumbi NGO (Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects, 2019; Ukumbi, 2019). In this paper we ask how architecture can be a motivator for change and what the benefits are of involving users in the design process and, using local materials and building methods. We are reflecting if this kind of architectural practice, combining our know-how from the North with local heritage is a form of neo-colonialism (Lokko, 2014), or if it is beneficial.

In the Global Architecture Political Compass created by Zaera-Polo our architecture practice was positioned in the segment or activists (Zaera–Polo, 2016). What here was considered activism, I argue should be mainstream: to involve inhabitants in the design process, use local materials, base the design on local ways of using space, and design according to local climate. In this paper we discuss how a project can enhance the self-esteem of the end users and how a self-serving approach of the designer can be counter-productive. We claim that a building project in low-resource settings have both positive on-site and off-site effects and that collaboration with end-users is the key to a successful project.

The Global Architecture Political Compass. Made by Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Guillermo Fernandez-Abascal and published in El Croquis 187.

The second article paints the picture of user engagement in architecture in relation to sustainability. As a background we go through sustainability theory, participatory design and human-centered design theory. In this article we look for the aspects to take into account to obtain sustainable results in affordable-housing design in low-resource settings? We combine two existing sustainability assessment tools, UN-Habitat (Golubchikov and Badyina, 2012) and Qsand (Qsand, 2014) to create a framework to use for analysis of three existing housing projects, not our own design.

We find that there are multiple factors in the sustainability framework that require inhabitant involvement. We are concluding that using human-centered design methods will support architects in the planning phase to achieve a sustainable design result.

The white bubble indicates which of the aspects of sustainability require inhabitant engagement where methods of Empathic Design could be applicable.

The third article is an analysis of different human-centered design approaches (Steen, 2008, 2011, Sanders et. al., 2010) that I have used in an affordable-housing project in Zanzibar town, in Tanzania. I am analysing which methods borrowed from human-centered design are useful in architectural housing design in developing country settings (Hussain et. al., 2012). The findings are that some methods borrowed from human-centered design are useful in different stages of the design, due to their flexibility. some are more useful than others in these settings.

I conclude that an empathic approach is extremely important in these settings, and particularly design probing, as this has not been much used in architecture, is a good addition as a tool for user engagement in developing country settings.

Workshop with the inhabitants of Ng’ambo

In the fourth article we dive deeper into human-centered approaches and methods, particularly empathic design and design probing, using two different projects of our own as examples. We are asking how design probing support architects working with reconstruction and development projects in low-resource settings? We are claiming that engaged communities will build resilience and have more capabilities to act sustainably. As a theoretical background to this claim we are studying sustainability and resilience theory as well as empathic design and design probing in more detail.

We find out that design probing help architects to identify social factors and architectural features to be protected, cared for and honoured. We also suggest that combining informative and inspirational probing is possible. In this article we conclude that empathic design methods, and particularly design probing is one appropriate means for architects to strive for sustainable and resilient development.

Design probing exercise to mark liked and disliked elements of the home. Ali did not like the fact that there was no cross-ventilation in his home. The other window was blocked by a shed.

The fifth article expands the understanding of empathy and empathic design studying the concept of empathy through different disciplines, psychology (Maiboom, 2017; Rogers, 1959), architecture (Pallasmaa, 2015), and design (Sanders and Stappers, 2014; Koskinen and Batterbee, 2003). Among scholars of varying disciplines, we could identify commonalities as well as conflicting perspectives. Within the field of design, one conflicting perspective in the empathic approach was the distance between ‘me’, the designer and ‘the other’, the user. Additionally, the ‘empathic action’ is seen differently for instance in empathic architecture and in empathic design. Another observation is, that the approach of empathic design is pragmatic and tends to move fast into tools and techniques (Mattelmäki, 2006), without the psychological depth, that Akama and Yee (2016) call for in their approach of intimacy.

With an aim to enable this depth in the design process, we examine and combine different perspectives on empathy. We investigate empathic design through a maternity ward design project that we were part of and discuss in what kind of circumstances and situations it is challenging for an architect to practice empathy. The contribution of the article is to enhance connections and dialogues within the design process in the pursuit of sustainability. Regardless the conflicting perspectives and prevailing challenges, we are able to determine a selection of complimentary means to conduct the design process with empathy. We conclude that an empathic approach in architectural design can improve quality, reinforce sustainability and ultimately support empathic engagement to happen in the designed architectural space.

Newborn in Kivunge hospital, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Improving hospital architecture with an empathic approach can support quality of care and save lives.