From an initial investment of US$700 twelve years ago to what is now an annual budget of US$5 million, Architecture for Humanity and its founder, Cameron Sinclair, has redefined international development. Sinclair and what is now a global non-profit has left a wide impact with various spaces, sight lines, and energy efficient features around the world, including a library in South Dakota, sporting venues in Brazil, schools in Kenya, and homes in over 50 countries.
Yesterday Sinclair spoke at the Sustainable Industries Forum in Santa Monica and talked about the impact Architecture for Humanity has had on the sustainability movement, NGOs, and most importantly, people. What some peers once called stubbornness has now proven to be visionary, and he offered lessons on what could be done in areas traumatized by disaster like New Orleans and Haiti. No matter what a project may entail, Sinclair’s mantra is that architecture is for people, not spaces.
Sinclair, raised by his grandmother, grew up in a rough neighborhood in South London. Early on he realized that architecture could have an empowering effect on people. Life in and amongst blighted buildings had a demoralizing impact on the folks who lived in such areas, and Sinclair realized that difference when he visited communities that boasted parks dotted among better designed and buildings that were cared for. Architecture’s influence on people motivated Sinclair to attend architecture school, but he learned rather rudely that studying to be an architect was all about design and buildings, not people. A passion was born, and Sinclair became determined to design and construct buildings to create an environment where people cared for, not hurt, each other.
Fast forward to today, and now Architecture for Humanity has a mission to embed architects and engineers within communities around the globe. All of the organization’s building designs are on an open source site where anyone can access them for free. Furthermore, whether Architecture for Humanity is reconstructing a disaster zone or building a much needed school in a poor village, the local project team actively involves the local community. Rather than fly in talent, Architecture for Humanity trains locals in needed skills like masonry or plumbing, and local materials end up in these buildings so that the local economy benefits.
Much of the money that Architecture for Humanity raises is from students around the globe. To that end, celebrities and corporations are more than welcome to contribute to projects, but Sinclair explained to the audience that no logos are slapped on buildings, nor are buildings named after donors. The buildings are for the communities, Sinclair explained, and to that end, themes on which he repeatedly expounded included cultural and generational sustainability. Since many folks around the world actually stay in the communities in which they were born, Sinclair insisted that buildings have to fit the context of the towns in which they are located. Locals’ involvement also guarantees that the building will endure for generations: mothers who help build a school will see their children, and grandchildren, learn and thrive in the building constructed with their hands.
As far the sustainability of Architecture for Humanity’s buildings go, Sinclair made it clear that his organization builds facilities that are comparable to LEED or even exceeds such standards; the only difference is that his organization cannot and will not pay for the certification. Sinclair wants to see the US Green Building Council incorporate community involvement in its points system–which is in alignment with his focus on buildings for the locals, not the architects, designers, or engineers.
From Oakland to Sri Lanka, Architecture for Humanity has a long legacy of projects for which this article cannot do enough justice. Full disclosure: Sustainable Industries paid Sinclair for talks at all four cities in which the former operates–the funds of which will go to more of Architecture for Humanities’ good work. With all the clichés over “building communities,” it is refreshing to learn more about an organization that actually builds them.