“Isn’t that ironic?” Gans continues. “But why should architecture be less beautiful for poor people or less useful for rich ones?”

The benefits of personal touches soon became apparent in the design of a state-of-the-art elementary-school desk. Originally hired by the New York City School Construction Authority to create a desk with space for students to both write and use a computer, the architects uncovered other pressing issues.

Their research resulted in a 24-inch cube known as the Workbox, which has storage space for books, steel casters (due to overcrowding, many students have to set up camp in, say, the cafeteria), and built-in white boards and chalkboards. “It’s a piece of furniture, but it’s also an environment for kids,” says Gans. “It’s a nomadic house.”

Gans and Jelacic also have turned to the global challenge of disaster-relief housing. The duo hopes to invent an entirely new approach to the current model: a sea of tents set up far from refugees’ former homes. The architects have designed units that can be transported back to the city or town where the refugees previously resided (as basic dwellings) and ultimately turned into the infrastructure around which permanent homes would be built.

Says Gans: “Displacement is an architectural issue.”