Designing To Make A Difference In The World

Design Like You Give A Damn: Architects for Humanity

Lisa Selin Davis and Jeff Muckensturm interview Cameron Sinclair from Architecture for Humanity, in person on April 26th, 2007

Architecture for Humanity is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization “founded in 1999 to promote architectural and design solutions to global, social and humanitarian crises… Architecture for Humanity creates opportunities for architects and designers from around the world to help communities in need. We believe that where resources and expertise are scarce, innovative, sustainable and collaborative design can make a difference.” AFH, Website. Their work can be found all over the world– from the tsunami ravaged regions in South-East Asia, to the devastation of the Gulf Coast in the US.

Architecture for Humanity’s latest milestone is the Open Architecture Network. The Open Architecture Network is an attempt to bring crowdsourcing to building design. The site facilitates the sharing of design information and allows its users to adapt specific designs to fit their local needs. This interview focuses on the Open Architecture Network.

Jeff Muckensturm: What was the inspiration for the website? Were you thinking, I like wikipedia, we should do something like that for architecture?

Cameron Sinclair: It’s funny cause it wasn’t Wikipedia or the web 2.0 world that affected us at all. What affected us was frustration. We were really frustrated in the way we were working. What was weird was people were writing about Architecture for Humanity, and how pioneering we were. But behind the scenes we were so frustriated because we had projects in 8 different countries, we had architects working on similar issues, but nobody could share knowledge.

A good example is in Sri Lanka, Suzie’s working on one project where over the last 2 years she’s generated over 19 GB of stuff: Community discussions, photographs, drawings, materials, research, stuff. And she has to travel a day to do dial-up to send an email to us. But we have 40 or 50 other designers around the world who would really, really like to see that information because it would effect their project as well. It’s kind of like best practices, what’s happening right now. Like, you’re dealing in the tsunami two years later, what does that mean, how are you responding, what are you finding working and isn’t working. So, we would end up manually sending people stuff. It was very slow process.

Coupled with that, I stopped doing design conferences because I felt I was preaching to the converted. I would get up in front of designers and say, “we should do this because it would effect people’s lives.” No one’s going to stand up and say, “no we shouldn’t.” No one’s going to be like, “No, actually I prefer to design for only the very rich.” So I began speaking at business, technology, and political conferences and began to show them what architects and designers were doing around the world. And I would go through a litany of projects very quickly, and the question would arise again, and again, and again. Where can we get this information? And I would give the same response, well email me and I’ll email you. And it would take 6 months before I could get information to someone.

So the Open Architecture Network was something we thought about before we got the TED prize. How do we share these ideas? When we heard we were getting the TED Prize in late 2005, I knew that was what we wanted to do. Figure out a way to share these ideas.

I also was working on a project in Africa, and we decided to use Creative Commons (CC)licensing. And I began to challenge Creative Commons in asking, “Why can’t we use this for structures?” And their response was, “Well, no one’s ever done this before.” So I said you guys did it for music, no one’s ever did before for that.

The idea of an all or nothing copyright control is really limiting. You want designers to be able to hold on to their creative copyright, but distribute it to people they really want. If I came up with a house design and I know there’s a grave housing need in India, I’d want to be able to give it away because you can effect more people. But I don’t want to give away my intellectual property away completely. So the some rights reserved was very relevant. So we did one project using Creative Commons and it was the first ever-building using Creative Commons license. It was in South Africa. It was a youth sports center that doubles as an HIV outreach center.

That played into the idea that, not only can we collect all these ideas, now we have ways of protecting them and sharing them. It was technology companies like Sun Microsystems, AMD, and all these companies that came in after the TED Prize that started questioning about can we be proactive. Could we find a way for designers around the world not only share ideas, but implement ideas.

We began talking about technology apartheid. Which is that over the 80s and 90s as CAD programs have become more and more the norm in architecture, less and less people have access to that technology. And as a result, in order to do development work, you need to have a certain level of technology to even play the game. So it means that somebody from a developing nation, if they don’t have AutoCAD and all the support that’s needed, the large Epson printer and things like that, then they can’t even get the job. And so you’re having western dollars funding western firms doing outdated western technology. And it became apparent that we not only needed to create a system that was a way to build a repository, but also was a way to allow open sourcing the design process. That’s a growing process. We’re not trying to bring in applications that have never been open source before. It’s going to be like making a cake that’s never been made before. We’re even talking to AutoDesk now. And now the people who realize what we’re doing realize how big it is.

The site’s only been up a month. And it’s going to be a slow push trying to convince architects and designers that this is a good place to put your work. But migrating them into Creative Commons as a way of licensing their work. You can either choose CC or choose to put it into public domain.

Lisa Selin Davis: Those are your two options when you upload a project?

A: We have 7 different CC licenses. They go from the most restricted, which is like attribution, noncommercial, basically someone can look at the design and use it without changing it in a noncommercial setting. All the way to like public domain. And the one that our organization uses is the developing nations license. Which means it’s open source and anyone in the developing world.

Q: What is the impetus for someone who has designed something and gotten paid for it, what is the impetus to share that?

A: Because it’s not like you can get paid again. And all they have to do is change a wall and it’s now mine. There’s actually less control in design than there is anywhere else. And also most architects and designers want to do something that makes a difference in the world. They’re in this strange dilemma. We had this with this project in Africa with a mobile health clinic. We had our design, we had a client, a little bit of funding, and the firm that was behind it, after the publicity, understood the potential of this being used for a for profit thing in the western world and got really scared that if they gave it away in Africa then anyone would steal it. So they then balked and said we can’t do this project simply because of copyright. That’s how we ended up with CC. We got to find a way where designers can share their ideas with those who are without the financial resources to support them.

It also works in reverse. For instance, we always thinking in the western mind set. We want to give stuff to the developing, to the poor, to the nonwestern world. We’re not talking about a western solution. A majority of the people on the site right now are not from America. We have Nepalese architects who are using CC because if they have their idea bought in the west, they want to be financially compensated. They can make western dollars for a developing world invention.

That’s something we’ve been dubbing “leap back.” You have the leapfrog technologies that we’re saying, “we helping the developing world leapfrog outdated technologies.” Leap back is when inventions are created in the developing world and we re purpose them in a first world setting. So it’s not like we’re imposing. That’s what we’re trying to find out. Are their areas in Bangladesh prone to flooding that can teach people in New Orleans about how to build housing?

Q: Do you think the OAN can create more innovative and sustainable ideas then a private entity?

A: When you have a common cause, I think it can be more sustainable. We can put up design challenges on the OAN. Which we’re going to do. We’re going to do a competition starting in the summer, which is for a technology training center. AMD has funded that, it’s a $250,000 prize. All the designs will be put on the OAN. In a traditional design competition you get between 300 to 600 entries. A jury meets, they decide a winner, then only the winner gets shown to the general public. Then the rest of them get thrown in the bin. Or maybe 20 get shown in the exhibit. So it’s a huge monumental waste of creativity. However, with the network, everyone submits their project, there is a winner, but we turn every single project live again. This work is without ego. People will look at other people’s designs and begin to say, “I didn’t begin to think about that.” And they’ll be able to contact that designer. So you can say look, we didn’t win but if we worked together we would’ve kicked the ass out of the winner, the winner sucked.

It’s like if you had an Indian engineer with some really great design within the context because they lived in the area that they’re building. And someone from Oregon who had this really cool off the grid design and if they’d known about each other six months prior, then they would’ve come up with the winning solution.

Q: Do you think architects generally have a sense of proprietary?

A: Well it’s never been discussed or taught in school.

We live by individual donors. We raised close to $2 million last year. Using the Internet, using blogs. It’s a very different way of fundraising. That’s something that’s very new. We’re making projects kids can get behind. They want to give their pocket money. Like last month there was a mini marathon near Boston, and they raised like $4,000 for us. I had no idea about it until two weeks ago.

And this is happening everyday. I get a Google alert. Alerting me to a bake sale in Des Moines.

Q: So people find AfH because you seem to be speaking all the time and all over the world?

A: Right. That’s the mandate of this organization. We’re a little bit guerilla. In 2003 I just drove from San Diego to Seattle just stopping off at architecture schools and doing lunchtime lectures by just showing up. And occasionally I’d give a lecture to 20 people and a faculty member would ask who invited me. And I’d say, “No one, I just set up my projector and started speaking.” I’d have a couple of colleges that’d give me an honorarium to stay another night and speak to the rest of the school. So that’s the way we’ve been working, and that’s the spirit of the organization.

Q: What are some of the problems you’re facing so far?

A: We built it to be low-tech. We had beta testers all over the world. A lot of people want it to be slicker and cooler. Like, “Can we have video?” We made it so you can eventually take the code and put it into your own site. Sun gave 6 terabytes of server and AMD are hosting it for free. So now we’re letting the design community upload all their stuff, store it there, and just mirror it onto that site. That way they don’t have to worry about memory shortages.

And you know, taking a person in Ghana, and taking them from Web 0.1 to Web 2.0 or something, and that’s a really hard jump.

I eventually want to work through all the UN agencies. Because there are tens of thousands of happening every year in different UN agencies. And they don’t even know what they’re all doing, or the technology they’re using, or the procedure they’re using. So you have UNIFAM working on women and family issues, then you got UNICEF working on children’s empowerment, and each one of these have their own book of projects. Imagine if you got all the UN agencies to share their work and how productive that would be.

Q: How will you evaluate its effectiveness?

A: By its implementation. One thing we haven’t done yet, and I believe this is the killer app, is to be able to allow people to adapt a project.

So you should be able to go to a project, click “adapt this license,” look at all the files in there, which ones you would like, and then the whole thing gets poured into a new project, with the tags replicated, and then you can change the design based on the license. What that means is you can have a design for a house in the Netherlands, then 20 different people download it in different areas. They can adapt it to climatic differences, to the cultural differences, to the religious differences, to all the thing that make a building what it is. It’s about localization. It’s not about projects made for modular replication, which usually fail cause they don’t take into account localization, local materials, etc.

Then say you get ten more replications of five previous replications. Then you have a family tree of that single design. The attribution is attached to the original designer. So this designer has now given birth to 150 different ideas. Now you get the idea that your design idea lives on longer than you. It’s not about whose living in my design now. It’s about what are future generations doing with my design.

There’s a global housing crisis going on right now that nobody’s talking about. It’s not newsworthy. It’s a really boring UN 20-page book news. 1 in 7 people are living in a slum or refugee camp. And in the next 20 years it’s going to be 1 in 3 people. So there’s a massive population boom in slums. Coupled with that, in the next 20 to 40 years we’re going to double the number of structures on the planet. Even if you didn’t care about anyone, just the simple environmental, political, and urban issues attached to that are incredible.

So one solution is let’s just make the same chicken coop box and replicate it, stick vinyl siding on it and make people live in it. On the other hand we can empower communities to come up with their own designs, marry them with hybrid technologies so you’ve got environmentally sustainable structures that can empower people economically.

How do you let someone live on a dollar a day design and live in a house that’s not only a basic human right, but is sustainable? Now imagine if you had a refugee camp, say in Angola, and make every shelter have a solar reflector. And that you not only generate energy for the camp, but you sell the energy back to the state, so it becomes a positive. There are 9 million refugees. That’s 9 million potential solar collectors. The have a very little amount of energy use, and they can get a little bit of money from that so that they can stop being a refugee.

Q: Have you had any critics?

A: Oh yeah, I think we should have critics. It’s like the Gandhi quote, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

There’s an assumption that if I’m helping people, then I must not like design. But that’s not true the reason I became an architect. So people assume I’m critical of the celebrity architect or the “starchitects.” I look at it like this, in the medical profession. There are plastic surgeons, and people need them, but we’re in the emergency room. There’s always going to be a need for both. I don’t mean that in a rude sense. I mean that in like you have different roles in your industry.

It’s like if you have a star architect convincing someone to go from a 5,000 sq. foot home to a 3,000 sq foot home, that’s far more than I can do for the environment building a clinic in India. Because the energy consumption that person is producing, or saving, outweighs what I’m doing for 400 people. So we need both, it’s not an either/or.

There are 4 billion people looking for basic shelter. I have enough clients and I don’t need anymore. So I’d rather focus on the work that we’re doing, and bring more architects to our work, because the need is so grave.

Q: I’m curious about how you’ve seemed to reach this sort of rock star status. When did that start and why?

A: 9/11. It was like four things. First you had 9/11 that effected a lot of people into thinking, “what on earth am I doing with my life? I’m sitting here designing hotel doorknobs when I could be doing something that actually made a difference in people’s lives.” Then just as people were recovering from the self-assessment post-9/11 world, then you had the tsunami, Katrina, Pakistan earthquake, it was just a litany of natural disasters. And the coupled with that you had the whole environmental movement maturing. In the 80s and 90s it was being green. Being green was about giving up. You had to suffer to in order for your planet to survive. So sustainability put those skeletons to bed and said you can build better, design better, you can create better things to improve the environment. It wasn’t an either/or. We can do both. So all those things made people say, “Could I help people, could I improve people’s lives?” And then they started looking. Every time we’ve had a natural disaster we gain another thousand people. We quadrupled in size after 9/11. People were just desperate to get involved and find out what’s going on.

I would say because of blogs, and because of Google, we’ve got a lot of coverage. If you put disaster, recovering, and rebuilding into Google, chances are we come up pretty high. We’ve had funny incidents where National Geographic published out home phone number on the back of their magazine.

Also, there was the TED Prize. Like pre-TED we were the pre-teenage. We’re no longer a child anymore, we’re actually building stuff. But then after TED Prize I went from sitting down with a few people over beers to sitting down the people who invented Google with them being genuinely being interested in what I was doing.

Nowhere on the OAN does it say that you need to be an architect. It’s not the Open Architects Network, it’s the Open Architecture Network. It’s not just for architects. So what if you began to have slum dwellers begin to share their ideas with other groups.

The network is its own beast. If it’s associated with social justice, then that’s great. And it may be a place where architects are not the dominant force. You’ll get the education you never got in college, where you were able to talk with someone on one of these settlements.


Cameron Sinclair is the Executive Director/Co-Founder of AfH. According to his bio, on the AfH web site, Mr Sinclair trained as an architect at the University of Westminster and at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. He is co-author of a book on humanitarian design called “Design Like You Give A Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises”. In 2003 he was named a Nice Moderist by Dwell Magazine. He is a recipient of the ASID Design for Humanity award and the Lewis Mumford Award for Peace. In 2004 Fortune Magazine named him as one of the Aspen Seven, seven people changing the world for the better. Most recently, he was one of three winners of the 2006 TED Prize and shortlisted for the UK Designer of the Year.