Architecture for Humanity leverages sustainable design for the benefit of mankind.
by Dante’ A. Clemons
Kosovo War. 1999.
What most of the world labeled a tragedy, Kate Stohr and Cameron Sinclair recognized as a unique opportunity to help. Stohr, a freelance journalist and documentary producer and Sinclair, an architectural designer, realized a second disaster loomed on the horizon. Although the war was ending, Kosovo’s residents had little housing to return to. Armed with a desire to offer assistance, the duo began the initial work of what would become Architecture for Humanity(AFH), a charitable organization founded to seek architectural solutions to humanitarian crises and bring design services to communities in need. With little money and no experience in refugee resettlement, their initial strategy was to launch a competition to design transitional housing for returning war refugees. As his one-room apartment filled with presentation board submissions from over 220 design teams representing more than 30 countries, Cameron Sinclair realized he was onto something big. Very big.
Now, in its eleventh year of operations, Architecture for Humanity employs numerous full time staff members, has 53 affiliates in 13 countries and boasts upwards of 7,000 participants. Each year, over 10,000 people benefit from structures designed by AFH. Understanding that local designers can interpret the indigenous building language and construction standards far better than someone living in the other hemisphere has been critical to AFH’s strategy. Utilizing an open source organizational model, AFH has established over 80 chapters throughout 25 countries. Professionals equipped to solve design issues within their own communities operate each chapter.
AFH’s launch of the Open Architecture Network further illustrates the strengths of community-based design. The Open Architecture Network is a web-based network offering open source access to design solutions created around the world. The Open Architecture Network enables AFH to connect communities and humanitarian groups with designers and architects. This groundbreaking online network supports project management, file sharing, a resource database and online collaborative design tools and is the first of its kind. Specialists from various backgrounds and occupations are encouraged to join and share ideas, including those knowledgeable in real estate development, health care and social work. Design ideas are protected by Creative Commons Licenses, which enable designers to share their ideas for free without the risk that they’ll be sold for profit. The Open Architecture Network offers eight unique licenses with varying copyright protection for rights and distribution.
As a catalyst of innovation, AFH’s comprehension of how a structure can “affect the environment, how it will improve the lives and livelihoods of its occupants, and its impact on future generations, including its vulnerability to disaster” is a significant contributor to the organization’s effectiveness. Outfitted to offer services in disaster relief, Architecture For Humanity assembled quickly in response to the January 12th earthquake in Haiti, offering a plan for rebuilding within five days of the 7.0 magnitude quake. Both environmental and economic sustainability are critical components of AFH’s work, as founder Cameron Sinclair states in his TED video, “When you’re living on $4 a day, you’re living on survival. You have to be sustainable.”
Architecture for Humanity has offered a blueprint for a successful humanitarian organization in the 21st century. The organization survives by utilizing a network of professionals willing to lend their services to communities who need them the most, but often times cannot afford it. Due to the current economic environment, many architects and designers are out of work, yet AFH is growing and hiring new employees. Catapulted by the release of their book, a 2006 TED Talk award and a world in endless need, AFH is poised for continued growth. AFH has realized that discovering remedies to the world’s ills can be greatly accelerated by utilizing the power of design. As founder Cameron Sinclair states, “Design is the ultimate renewable resource.”