From the Rubble, Foundations of Hope

When catastrophes strike, Cameron Sinclair's Architecture for Humanity offers innovative and cost-effective ideas for housing the homeless and rebuilding lives

In the days after the devastating earthquake that hit Kashmir on Oct. 8 -- as people around the world watched the death toll climb from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands -- different numbers were running through Cameron Sinclair's mind.

"I kept thinking of the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people now homeless," says Sinclair, founder and executive director of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit dedicated to finding architectural solutions to humanitarian problems. But in a year of calamities -- the tsunami in Southeast Asia, Hurricane Katrina, the Kashmir quake -- Sinclair and co-founder Kate Stohr recently got some good news.


 In October, Architecture for Humanity won two lucrative prizes: the inaugural Index:2005 Award for Community, a Danish competition with a roughly $122,000 bounty, and the TED Prize, the $100,000 award given to three people annually by the TED Conference, a yearly confab of leading thinkers in technology, entertainment, and design.

"Cameron has been at the forefront of the world's response to this year's disasters," says Amy Novogratz, director of the TED Prize. "He has become a resource for everyone from architects to the U.N."

The prizes reflect the feat that Sinclair and his partner have managed to pull off. By organizing design competitions (the first was to design housing for the refugees returning to Kosovo) and simply by linking up people in need and those with ideas, they have bootstrapped a network that promises fast, cheap, and appropriate solutions.


  The total $222,000 is a windfall that, among other projects, will allow the organization to hire one or two architects in Pakistan to coordinate a local rebuilding effort. But the recognition also raises the question: even with a couple hundred thousand dollars, can the efforts of a handful of true believers working out of a small office in Bozeman, Mont., really compare to the impact of, say, the Red Cross or the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees?

Architecture for Humanity can't airlift in 10,000 tents, let alone provide food and medical treatment to hundreds of thousands of victims. On the other hand, it's not trying to.

Rather, it offers a new model of humanitarian aid: working from the bottom up, leveraging the power of the community -- both local and global -- and aiming to spur local economies.


  Here's how it works. The day after the earthquake rocked the Iranian city of Bam in December, 2003, Sinclair located a Japanese architect on vacation in Tehran and sent him to the crumbled city to find out what was needed. The organization ultimately helped fund Los Angeles-based Relief International's effort to build 800 homes using a steel, quake-proof substructure covered in traditional building materials.

By using local labor, each house cost $1,200 -- just $350 more than a winterized U.N. tent. (And with their new construction skills, the residents went on to build a school.)

After the tsunami in Southeast Asia, Sinclair tapped his network again, raising $500,000 to fund a rebuilding effort that is still in progress. "None of that money goes to design," he adds. "All of our design services are donated by architects in our network, which means we can use our funds to hire local people for the reconstruction effort. The No. 1 thing that people need post-disaster is a job."


  Too often, typical relief efforts can hamper local economies, flooding them with well-meaning volunteer labor and cheap materials. By coordinating or funding its own pilot projects, like the school it is helping to build in Pottuvil, Sri Lanka, Architecture for Humanity hopes to move the relief Establishment in a new direction.

Architecture for Humanity has grown into a movement much larger than its founder anticipated. There are 152 AFH meet-up groups and chapters around the world working on their own local projects. In this regard it has something in common with the global Linux movement launched by programmer Linus Torvalds.

Over the long term, Sinclair aims to adopt the open-source model more literally. From the beginning, he has tapped the knowledge of his members through competitions; one, to design a mobile AIDS clinic for Africa, generated a record 530 proposals from 51 countries. While the entry fees have helped keep the organization operating, the real value is in the designs themselves.


  Under a usage license that Sinclair plans to develop with the help of the Creative Commons, a group developing copyright alternatives, Architecture for Humanity's database of designs would be open to relief agencies and communities everywhere. It would be fully searchable and include construction blueprints, cost, and any other information needed for building.

"The database has been put on the back burner because of all the disasters this year," admits Sinclair. "Which is a shame -- if it had been in place, architects in Pakistan could immediately have found five or so designs that have worked elsewhere."

Still, if it's possible for a catastrophe to have a silver lining, it's this: "All of a sudden, people are starting to take design for disaster seriously," says Sinclair. "Next month, I'll be part of a group talking about a disaster-mitigation plan for Los Angeles. I guess I've become the go-to guy."

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