Open-Source Goes Hammer and Nail

Cameron Sinclair's Open Architecture Network aims to connect architects around the globe to struggling communities

At 10:30 on a Friday morning in February, Cameron Sinclair dropped two heavy bags onto the floor and sank onto the leather banquette at Balthazar, the bustling New York bistro. The executive director of the San Francisco-based Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit dedicated to finding architectural solutions to humanitarian problems, was in town to speak with journalists about his new Open Architecture Network (OAN).

Launched officially at last week's TED Conference, the free Web-based network is part database of architectural projects, part design tool, and part community for anyone dedicated to improving living conditions through innovative and sustainable design—be they architects, engineers, non-profits, government agencies, or donors (see, 3/12/07, "The Talk of TED"). As its name implies, the OAN aims to bring the philosophy and collaborative methods of the open-source software movement to architecture, in the hope of meeting the housing needs of the millions of people living in slum settlements and/or displaced by war or natural disasters, as well as the general need for healthcare, education and civic buildings.

But before he can get into the details of the project, Sinclair says, he needs to call the organizers of a conference he's speaking at in South Africa.

"It's probably too late to call, but they've had to rebook my flight to Cape Town tonight," he explains. The restaurant is already filled with the clinking of plates and glasses, and the chatter of SoHo's breakfasting class, but Sinclair pulls out his Treo and starts dialing. After a brief conversation, he checks e-mail for the new itinerary, and groans. "You don't want to know how much the new ticket cost," he says. "We could build a house for that."

Early Focus

The "we" is Sinclair, his wife and Architecture for Humanity co-founder and Managing Director Kate Stohr, and the quick-response network of nearly 30,000 architects around the world ready to respond to the next humanitarian crisis (see, 10/14/05, "From the Rubble, Foundations of Hope").

Founded in 1999 while Sinclair was a project architect at the New York firm Lauster & Radu, and run on a shoestring budget out of the couple's 300-square-foot studio in downtown Manhattan, AfH initially focused on three things.

First, Sinclair became an advocate, talking to any person and conference audience who would listen about the 1 billion people in the world living in abject poverty, and the ham-handed approach of traditional aid organizations to housing needs. Second, AfH organized competitions—to design, for instance, housing for refugees returning to Kosovo and an AIDS clinic in South Africa—that generated both media attention and entry fees, the organization's then sole source of funding.

And finally, as the organization's network grew, AfH became a connector, linking architects with relief agencies and communities in need of architectural aid, and sometimes even funding some of the resulting projects. For instance, the day after an 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.

Mechanistic Model

Sinclair and Stohr have been vocal critics of old-school humanitarian efforts in which thousands of tents are shipped from far away, often at great cost, and assembled into refugee camps. They aren't the first critics of the tent-mentality. "In emergency-response situations, it often behooves those responding to have pre-established methodologies and equipment," says Mark Frohardt, the vice-president for Africa, Middle East, Health & Humanitarian Media at Internews who formerly held many jobs in the humanitarian world. "It's more expensive, but it allows them to move more quickly and to save more lives. So they just say, 'Let's deliver as many tents as quickly as possible.'"

But according to Frohardt, the refugees themselves often don't want the agency's housing solution. "When the refugees were returned to Kosovo after the war, the U.N. peacekeepers distributed kits of blue plastic sheeting and wooden poles. The people said, just give us the money you're going to spend on the plastic, we know where to find the materials to rebuild our homes. But agencies and often military bodies involved have a very mechanistic way of looking at things. They want to control everything."

AfH, like Frohardt, is influenced by Fred Cuny, the disaster-relief specialist who disappeared in Chechnya in 1995 but always advocated a more localized approach to relief efforts. AfH's building projects are tailored to the specific requirements of the community in question, and always incorporate local labor and materials. It's a bottom-up model of humanitarian aid that leverages the power of the community—both local communities in need and the global community of designers—and aims to spur local economies.

Helping Hands

In Bam, for example, the organization 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, according to AfH. And with their new construction skills, the residents went on to build a school. For Sinclair, the money flowing into the local economy and the residents' new skills are as important as the new roof over their heads. "The question is, can we create an economic model that will help improve the living standards of 5 billion people?" he says.

Even with its growing network of architects (there are now 152 self-organized "chapters," with 3,400 members around the world working on local projects) and partners such as engineering company Ove Arup, architects Polshek & Partners, and various relief organizations, AfH can't meet that challenge on its own. Which is one reason Sinclair launched the OAN (which is entirely separate from AfH). As an open-source effort, OAN can scale more quickly than any company or organization and has a better chance of meeting the challenge.

Sinclair unveiled the OAN at the TED Conference because the network grew directly out of his 2006 TED Prize, a unique award that provides $100,000 and, more important, help from TED's powerful network of attendees and sponsors to fulfill the winner's wish. Soon after Sinclair described his desire to create an open-source repository of architectural ideas, Sun Microsystems (SUNW) donated two 3-terabyte servers and its engineering services, AMD (AMD) offered to host the servers (and is also now funding the $250,000 Open Architecture Prize, a competition to design a computer lab that can be adapted for developing communities), and the small San Francisco-based Hot Studio volunteered to design the Web site.

Licensed to Build

Working with OAN to create one of the most critical—and radical—features of the site, Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that has developed alternatives to standard copyright law, adapted its intellectual-property licenses to build structures that allow designers to stipulate usage rights.

In total, Creative Commons drafted eight licenses for the network, including a Developing Nations license that lets an architect retain ownership of a design in the developed world but also allows the design to be freely used or adapted elsewhere, a "public-domain" license that frees a work from copyright entirely, and a more restrictive license that allows a design to be studied—think of it as an architectural case study—but prohibits changes or commercial use. The range of licenses should satisfy the concerns of all architects, even those reluctant to give away their hard work.

Sinclair describes the OAN that went into beta on Mar. 8—growing to 2,241 registered users and 220 projects (some completed, some in progress) at press time—as a "platform for collaboration." Users can search for architectural designs by a growing number of criteria, including location, materials, cost, and project type, and can view a project's evolution from sketch through blueprints and construction drawings to completion, in either a high- or low-resolution format.

Added Incentive

Users can comment on a project or upload their own—"all you need is a camera and a cell phone [with Internet access], and you can be an architect on the OAN," says Sinclair. Users can also click the "Adapt this Project" button, which downloads all of the related files so that they can be improved or adapted to the requirements of a different building site. The goal is to enable the community to easily refine designs over time.

The OAN team also built a private option, giving only registered members of a project team access to certain documents, and tools to support team communication and collaboration. While large, well-funded architecture firms have systems in place to share documents with the client, engineer, or other members of a project team, this feature will be a boon to the typically smaller, underfunded, geographically distant, and sometimes pro-bono teams that often take on AfH-type projects. The founders hope the feature will provide an added incentive to join the network.

The OAN is still a work in progress. A resources area will, its founders hope, ultimately contain information and user feedback on thousands of products, as well as a database of building codes around the world, so that users can determine if a project originally built in Ghana would be legal in India. OAN also hopes to develop software to translate CAD computer files to the jpeg format and, ultimately, to offer an open-source CAD program (a basic CAD program costs some $15,000 currently).

Liability Issues

Like Linux and Web 2.0 efforts such as the open-source Wikipedia, OAN's success hinges on community involvement. Unlike those initiatives, OAN faces hurdles specific to the building industry, not least the issue of liability. Architects are legally accountable for the safety and structural soundness of the buildings they design. But what if someone uploaded the blueprints and building documents of say, a three-bedroom house designed for a site in Massachusetts, to the OAN, and the project is downloaded and rebuilt in an earthquake-prone region of Pakistan. Is that person liable for the repercussions?

To protect the original designer, OAN worked with a team of lawyers to develop disclaimer language stipulating that if a design is downloaded and constructed without professional or expert oversight, then the original designer cannot be held liable. But how a case would shake out in court—not to mention what court would have jurisdiction—isn't clear, and OAN insists that, at the end of the day, it's simply "a clearinghouse for ideas."

This might give some architects pause, and Sinclair admits that the network will fail to live up to his vision if the community doesn't embrace it. Still, the realization of this long-term goal is a milestone for Sinclair, who for years didn't have the resources to do much more than advocacy—something practicing architects who resented the attention he got sometimes griped about in the past.

Tech Trouble

"The [2004 Southeast Asian] tsunami was a turning point," he says. And it's true in more ways than one. Financially, AfH aimed to raise $10,000 that it could use to help a single community start rebuilding. They met the goal within 24 hours. In fact, they raised half a million within three weeks, much of it in $50 donations. And in October, 2005, the organization won the inaugural Index:2005 Award for Community, a Danish competition with a roughly $122,000 bounty (see, 9/27/05, "Designing a Better Tomorrow").

Suddenly, AfH could do more than just talk. Since then, it has poured $600,000 into the construction of 18 structures in India and Sri Lanka. After hurricanes devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, the organization connected local families with national architecture firms and poured $1.3 million toward a total of 14 construction projects—and Stohr says AfH consulted on or gave advice to architects working on dozens more. In total, AfH is now involved in 49 building projects around the world.

But with the funding and the projects came the realization that the group's technical infrastructure—AfH and its collaborators communicated with e-mail, Meetup, Google (GOOG) Groups, and other Web-apps—wasn't up to the task. The founders also recognized that even with deeper pockets, a "larger" staff (recently increased to five full-time people), and working relationships with establishment organizations such as the Red Cross and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), they would be hard-pressed to raise the living standards of 5 billion people.

"No Silver Bullet"

Rather than growing larger, the organization aims to stay small and agile and to focus on funding pilot projects, often in collaboration with organizations such as U.N. Habitat and faith-based groups. Their hope is that such efforts will have ripple effects, whether by giving a community building skills that can be used down the line—as happened in Bam—or by bringing new thinking to more traditional relief organizations.

The group has helped provide professional pro-bono architectural and engineering expertise to established organizations who are "great at raising money and mobilizing people but can easily be hoodwinked by prefab homesellers," according to Sinclair. And of course, through the OAN, they hope to establish a "platform for innovation" that will take the movement open-source.

"There's no silver bullet for housing issues," says Sinclair. Today, one in seven people live in slum settlements. By 2020, it will be one in three. And Sinclair and Stohr have little faith that established agencies using traditional approaches will be able to meet that challenge. "It took the U.N. 20 years to reinvent the tent," quips Sinclair. "What did they do? Add a space divider."

Remodeling Architecture

To be fair, in addition to the privacy screen, the remodeled tent has a new shape to maximize interior space, improved insulation and air circulation, and, because it's made of synthetic materials, it's smaller and lighter to store and ship than the traditional canvas version. It's currently being tested, and the UNHCR may introduce additional changes when the model is fully adopted.

But even the perfect tent is hardly the perfect solution to most humanitarian crises, as Internews' Frohardt and others make clear. "A tented site may not be the ideal solution for the displaced," Stephane Jaquemet, UNHCR's representative in Lebanon, admitted when tents were shipped to that country after fighting there ceased last summer. "But there's an urgent need to find alternative housing."

No single organization is going to meet the global challenge. But by building out the AfH network and empowering architects and aid agencies alike with the OAN, Sinclair and Stohr hope to find the solutions that will improve the living standards of 5 billion people. And the OAN may end up reshaping the architecture industry in developed countries in the process.

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