Video from 2007 features McCoy and others talking about the early stages
of the Ritzville project.

By Victoria Marsh, CAHNRS intern
SPOKANE – A project to repurpose a historical small-town building has expanded in the state, drawn national interest and could be adopted as a global model.
The Rural Communities Design Initiative, founded and run by Washington State University Spokane associate professor of interior design Janetta McCoy, originally tasked students with renovating the old high school in Ritzville, Wash.
Much more than just good looks
The goal of the RCDI is to work in rural communities of 2,000 or fewer people to redesign derelict or abandoned community buildings and transform them into functional establishments capable of producing revenue for small-town economies. The hope is to prevent the loss of valuable people along with their knowledge and talents.
“What we are trying to do is have others realize it’s not just about design as a mechanism for looking good,” McCoy said. “It’s about preserving small communities and creating sustainable economies.”
Students worked with the Ritzville community as part of a studio class. The town eventually determined to create a Center for Historic Preservation Trades in the old school.
In the meantime, McCoy has expanded the model of design intervention with five additional rural communities in Washington. And students can earn summer internship credit for participation.
Gaining national and world acclaim
Recent validation of the initiative came in the form of interest from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has partnered with Ritzville’s center to develop a consortium of schools focusing on trades relevant to historic preservation.
When the program was presented at the 2010 Environmental Design Research Association conference in Washington, D.C., there were numerous responses from international participants who saw value in transferring the RCDI model to other countries and other cultures.
McCoy said the response was unexpected, but she is excited about the possibility of universities and design students around the world becoming involved in preserving rural communities.
“Rural populations around the globe are shrinking as economies respond to new technologies,” she said. “People move to urban areas with the hope of finding employment, draining the countryside of talent, skills and brain power. And they don’t necessarily find work in the cities, so finding ways to invigorate rural communities makes sense to a lot of people all over the world.”
McCoy said the methodologies developed for RCDI are not culture-specific.
“We go into a community and figure out what their local culture is. It’s not a top-down approach,” she said.
Students gain hands-on experience
McCoy puts effort into making the program a superior academic experience for her students.
“The program is a showcase of what rural life could be like to my students. It’s often a different culture for them,” she said.
The students spend a week in each town to interview and get to know the locals, their community and the property that will be the subject for redesign. They eventually hold open workshops to engage the community in the design process and discover its specific needs. This hands-on, face-to-face experience yields critical information used by the student designers as they consider new purposes for old buildings.
“My students are fantastic,” said McCoy. “They realize these projects are more than just putting in a new window. They see the projects as posing critical questions: What can we make this building be in order for it to stimulate economic growth?”