The Pillars of Architecture for Humanity

DLYGAD-2013-webWhen an organization shutters, its institutional knowledge, like a stricken ship, takes on water and submerges. The knowledge isn’t erased, but becomes very hard to access. The knowledge breaks apart, settles into unknown and invisible valleys beneath the surface of our collaborative consciousness. Over time, the knowledge is buried and forgotten.

You’d think (and many I suppose assumed) that a high profile organization like Architecture for Humanity had sufficient resources to have redundancy measures in place for all its practices. In truth, we never quite got out of Startup mode. Few nonprofits do.

The cofounders had discussed capturing the experience of our various endeavors in narrated, illustrated, diagrammed volumes – Football For Hope, Nike Gamechangers, Tohoku Rebuilding, the Open Architecture Challenge…. Kate and Cameron envisioned a full shelf of the lessons and wisdom collected from their organization’s years of tough, on-the-ground endeavors, showcasing the work that hundreds of selfless designers brought together to navigate and overturn intractable circumstances of the built environment.



(In fact, AFH had managed to produce the first book of this series. In 2009, the Biloxi Model Home Program hit Blurb shelves. By 2013, AFH was preparing a second on disaster reconstruction’s next iteration, the Haiti Rebuilding Center. A writer who covered Greensburg had even started interviews with Haiti staff.)

The silver lining of AFH’s closure is the collective of practitioners eager to carry on the organization’s mission – life rafts from our sunken ship, all clutching a single, sturdy rope. While the organizational structure of this Chapter Network will be completely retooled, the aim is to carry on AFH’s unique practices and values in community-centered design.

In 2013 HQ developed an advocacy package for introducing the nonprofit’s values – the distinguishing processes which elevated their work above their peers. Pillars of humanitarian design, if you will. Maybe the Chapters can internalize these stories for their new organization, and for the ongoing practice of architecture for humanity.

  1. Deliver. Shelved plans, designs, and intentions can do far worse than not count.
  2. Justify innovation. Innovation must be outcomes driven.
  3. Open architecture facilitates. The community client is project design lead.
  4. Quality calls the shots. If quality is compromised, expediency is worthless. As is that seductive design.
  5. Build for the long term. Social, environmental, and economic sustainability and resilience are than lofty ideals…but the prevailing “relief market” routinely disagrees.
  6. Address the root issue. Typically a building is a tool to addressing a deeper problem which can equally be confronted by the design. This often demands breaking down barriers of conventional professional practice.
  7. Measure your impact. (Show your work.) What good is architecture? Few are substantiating its impact, and fewer are  investing in tools that do so.
  8. Include. Advocacy; Mentorship; Camaraderie; Compassion. This is the new architecture, and we should all get on board. (And of course we’re all invited.)


kbobblog_maeami-C-H-7800_900This is (useful) architecture.

1. Deliver.

Shelved plans, designs, and intentions can do far worse than not count.

The relationship between humanitarian designer and disadvantaged client cannot be treated capriciously. Even the greatest and most clever ideas developed with a community mean bupkis if they aren’t carried through. “If it’s not built,” someone said, “it doesn’t count.” This rings especially true for clients and partners without options. In fact, a designer can cause incredible damage to a community by backing out on them. The circumstances make no difference.


This is (responsive) architecture.

2. Justify innovation.

Innovation must be outcomes driven.

The second stroke of an outcomes driven ethic is “need necessitates new.” While explorations in reinventing the built environment are laudable, AFH made sure that its own innovations were necessitated by project and community needs, and certainly not finding a client for a revolutionary design idea.

(Often it is difficult to persuade stricken and shocked communities to embrace strategies that feel effortlessly progressive to those lucky enough to afford entertaining them. I’m thinking specifically of Santo, Haiti, a planned rural community that shunned composting toilets. Despite the absence of water treatment infrastructure in this rural area, the nascent Santoans favored an attractive, traditional flushing Western toilet. This is obviously the beginning of the design process, not the recommendation resulting from one.)

Where innovation does work is when it is tailored to the circumstances of the project and welcomed by the benefactors.


Maeami-hama Community House. Many small fishing villages on the Tohoku coast were decimated by the 3.11 tsunami. For over a year thereafter the region faced construction material and labor shortages. Enter Tokyo-based Kobayashi Maki Design Workshop and Keio University who co-developed a building structural system made entirely from CNC-cut plywood. The system worked well in Maeami-hama where the fishermen were accustomed to physical labor and proactive about self-executing construction, guided by a foreman.


3. Open architecture facilitates.

The community client is the project design lead.

Designs suited for public use and life are developed with robust community engagement, in which a design officer is embedded as a consultant and facilitator.The officer may fill a gap within the community to making a project successful, but not overstepping what the community can provide themselves.

(You may not end up maximizing design, uh, sexiness. Instead, you get a supremely functional, practical, strong, delightful, and dignifying product, including profound buy-in from those who assumed a leading role through the process. This approach quickly leads you to wonder what sexiness even means for, or has at all to do with, successful architecture. Fashion is not a given of good design – we should think about marketing architecture outside its influence.)

Humanitarian designers must be invited to engage communities in a project. Essentially, the community knows the issues at hand, deserve the loudest voice in the conversation, and dictate the terms of what abilities a foreign entity, regardless of their profession, will exercise in revising their community.

[Villa Rosa slideshow]

Villa Rosa Community Design project practiced facilitation to a tee. A planning project for an informal community in central Port-au-Prince, not one step left the community voiceless – from neighborhood surveys and need analysis (identifying for instance that as many as 18 residents share a toilet) to identification of intervention opportunities in the built environment (“urban acupuncture”), to execution of those interventions. Designers step in to facilitate workshops and develop concepts into sound, structural designs. AFH Design Fellow Nazanin Mehregan talks at length about this project in a 2012 interview.



This is (inclusive) architecture.


4. Quality calls the shots. 

If quality is compromised, expediency is worthless. As is that seductive design.

It’s incredibly easy, when working with vulnerable communities or areas of the world with a low bandwidth for QA/QC, to cut corners in order to get to a quicker or cheaper end product. These practices (which happen all the time) are unconscionable. AFH prioritized taking the extra time, care, and resources to build to the highest possible construction standards, even where they are not enforced. The Haiti office followed the International Building Code and the California Earthquake code – and began training Haitian engineers to inspect projects and enforce quality construction. These values made the work much more difficult and added complexity, yet met no protest from team members or community clients.


The largest (surmountable) challenge in Haiti became communicating the import of these practices, and redirecting deep-set tendencies and attractive shortcuts not only among local builders but laterally to some of the international organizations at work there.


I have also visited sites of high profile international organizations building very progressive designs in Haiti. The designs were developed in the United States – distant from the overwhelming realities here, including unsophisticated construction practices, poor local building materials, and steep import costs (the trifecta of time, money, and corruption). On a particular half-complete project, the crew was challenged to execute a specified structural connection. I found it to be a lot of misplaced effort caused essentially be a marketing team a thousand miles and a world away.

Design in challenging environments must often address challenges like material scarcity, or gang presence. It becomes very difficult to perform this work remotely, or without robust local representation on your team.


In Haiti, the École Baptiste Bon Berger (“Good Shepherd School”) in Montrouis and, below, the Argentine School in Port-au-Prince and École La Dignité outside Jacmel suggest a new language of a locally-sourced architecture strong enough to rebuild trust and straightforward enough to encourage replication. Haitian engineers working on these projects will be able to easily carry new, internationally sound building techniques into future projects.



This is (contextual) architecture. 


5. Design for the long term.

Social, environmental, and economic sustainability and resilience are than lofty ideals…but the prevailing “relief market” routinely disagrees.

A few years ago, the crown of humanitarian design catchwords was passed from “sustainable” to “resilient.” It’s a good thing – the design conversation grew from improving built environment performance against known impacts to preemptively strengthening against continuing change.

The long-term thinking is refreshing, and is related to another intractable, systemic problem: how to prioritize and value consideration of the long term? For instance, when a disaster strikes, and compassion is stirred around the world, the loudest voices call for immediate relief. (To this point, relief awareness, measured in money donated, lasts about 36 hours.) But the voices considering the lasting impacts, recovery, and resilience of stricken communities are much quieter. Their job is harder. Their mission is less straightforward. Their work will last decades. That is, IF anyone addresses it at all.

AFH stepped into this role. Believing that disaster recovery meant more than a fictitious 18-month bounce-back period, the organization invested in permanent projects that would withstand future calamities and empower communities socially and economically, affecting lasting change.


biNGOPassengers in the Haiti office Tata being ferried around Port-au-Prince are presented a fantastic opportunity to glimpse the life of Haitian streets, take in the music from passing cars and stores, and trainspot the variety of white, tinted-glass SUVs bearing the logo of a relief organization. The AFH Haiti volunteers invented “NGO Bingo.” These NGOs were fueled by a massive amount of disaster relief funding following the 2010 earthquake – and AFH staff and volunteer interns watched as, over the years, the number of white, branded SUVs on the streets dwindled. Relief missions were accomplished, and organization after organization uprooted and went home.


Of course, the reality of “relief” was provisional solutions for rampant and systemic problems not only caused by the disaster, but uncovered by it. No one is unfamiliar with the tent camp turned into a permanent community. (Orgs would set to building “transitional” shelters with a designed lifespan of six months, which AFH Haiti then studied to develop ways of extending that life to a more realistic two to three years.)

Post-disaster sites receive a vastly disproportionate amount of relief to long term reconstruction investment: professional training, economic development, property law reform. Few organizations had the wherewithal to pursue 20-year projects, plans, and initiatives through which communities could actually be sustained.

The real beauty of “resilience” is it applies to everybody. Every community needs to consider how they can be stronger (and the solutions are often social in nature), assess what (inherently local) strength means, and envision and engage their environments to achieve time-critical changes. Unlike relief, resilience design dodges symptoms-only treatment to heal the body before sickness even occurs.

Now, what does that mean for design to approach this consideration?


This is (tenacious) architecture.

6. Address the root issue.

Typically a building is a tool to addressing a deeper problem which can equally be confronted by the design. This often demands breaking down barriers of conventional professional practice.

Consider this:

  • When disaster struck Haiti, and no one knew anything about how to recover, except that Haitians, like anyone, would not wait on bureaucracy and take initiative in rebuilding themselves, AFH’s first product was a “Rebuilding 101” manual – a 35-page peer reviewed graphic instruction manual on the basics of building, black and white and 8 1/2 x 11. Initial disaster volunteers helped translate the book into Haitian Creole. The manual was completed within six weeks of the earthquake, a first of many such (increasingly complex) construction manuals to circulate in the country.
  • Once on the ground and having established school clients, designs, and funding, and seeking Haitian hands to build, AFH established a construction training and oversight program to transmit international best construction practices to local builders. This require the skills and wherewithal of an in-house structural engineer, and we still owe Rick a great debt of gratitude for his passionate and tireless work.
  • Economic prosperity was another challenge that the Haiti Rebuilding Center addressed by launching a Bati Byen economic investment program. Surveys of local businesses were conducted along commercial corridors. A grant program was envisioned to support compelling small businesses, but the banks were never ready to fully commit to the vision themselves.
  • Confronted with the harsh realities of informal communities and great unknowns in what services are reaching or not reaching tens of thousands of people, a planning team was assembled to survey residents of Villa Rosa and map their access to potable water, toilets, pedestrian pathways, and other resources. This information then fed into a series of micro-interventions in the built environment.
  • Confronted with the inconvenient reality of a lack of digitized maps of rural communes, their streets and government centers…well, you get the idea.

Perhaps the stickiest scenario of all in Haiti, as it is in many “developing” nations, revolved around land ownership. An old and idiosyncratic system was in place establishing property boundaries, or the limits of familial rights to property. This meant that building permanently on securely-owned land was next to impossible, and contributed greatly to the sluggish recovery we’ve seen in Haiti. AFH participated in a “Property Law Working Group” that set out to identify exactly what the process was to claiming land ownership, translating that process to make it more accessible, and then pursuing that system’s reform.

One could argue that following the thread of work outside one’s original scope will lead to muddling the clear mission of an organization. I don’t disagree, and the Haiti office was perhaps hard to market – except for the fact that, on the ground, the office had a rare clairvoyance and professional leverage to recognize what gaps in recovery were not being met, and doing something about it. Was property law or community mapping or economic anchors outside the bounds of architecture for humanity? Probably, but they enabled architecture to happen. More importantly, architecture enables communities to happen, happily, and that’s the actual point of all this work anyway.

In Haiti, this took shape in programs such as informal neighborhood surveys, regional mapping, and property law working groups – all critical elements to making permanent construction even possible in Haiti (and much of the developing world)

The subsequent disaster program in Japan ran economic development workshops out of the Ishinomaki storefront MakiBiz, and coordinated a grant program to local businesses to fight against flight from the region and from downtown. Often reconstruction depends on the economic possibilities of an area, not simply the condition of building stock.

7. Measure your impact. (Show your work.)

What good is architecture? Few are substantiating its impact, and fewer are  investing in tools that do so.

Humanitarian design measures twice: before and after.

You don’t see a lot of available grant funds or large sums of individual donations for architecture. It’s expensive, sure, but it also does not have a long, quantifiable track record for impact. You could blame the profession for valuing more ethereal qualities of the trade, or the unfounded conviction of the midcentury Modernism, a deep shadow we’re still trying to emerge from…regardless, the infrastructure for measuring the impact architecture have not been tracked and is scarcely budgeted for. The profession is in a paradox: the value of architecture can’t be identified without metrics, but there’s no value established for the process impact tracking.

AFH attempted to jump this broken circuit, putting metrics front and center: cost of construction, building capacity (primary beneficiaries), size of community (secondary beneficiaries). But this is only the very naissance of a practice that deserves rigorous tracking, whose methods have simply not been employed. What could be measured? Changes in property values, changes in economic activity…plenty of things that takes years to watch shift. The timeframe of architecture also discourages investment. Ideally, a post-occupancy evaluation would be conducted six months and six years after opening.

8. Include.AFHCN-2015-work_100

Advocacy. Mentorship. Camaraderie. Compassion. This is the new architecture, and we should all get on board. (And of course we’re all invited.)

Predatory rideshare businesses aside, the sharing economy is real – enabled by technology and a zeitgeist around open source, transparency, and creative commons.

Theoretically, architecture could and should join the movement. Cameron dedicated his 2006 TED prize to it. The following year, the Open Architecture Network was born – a free, online platform for members to post not only (mission driven) projects, but the process, the trials and successes, and technical drawings, making their solutions shareable and re-implementable.

But the OAN was an imperfect vehicle for revolution. It was built largely pro bono by Sun Microsystems on simple, accessible web language (amenable for slow connections) just too soon before a lot of its tools would be outpaced by web 2.0 applications, and WYSIWYG page editors. As I learned the system working at AFH, training Design Fellows, and helping with troubleshooting in the field, I understood every shortfall and glitch in the Network – but it still didn’t affect the platform’s power as a tool for simultaneous marketing, reporting, tracking, and (practiced at a lesser degree) management of a project. Nothing like it has been built since, and it was slightly heartbreaking to have witnessed a window where visioning and pitching yielded no dedicated investors. Now the OAN has been taken offline, and many practitioners seeking to share their work in this unique way are encumbered to do so.

The Open Architecture Network – not a perfect tool, but an important tool the likes of which have never been seen again. A free, member-build project portfolio, management, and marketing platform. It also explored tracking metrics of design impact. Currently the OAN is down for the count, but whether or not it’s out is still pending.


This is (open) architecture. 

The network of volunteer chapters that organically formed around the AFH mission became the next logical evolution of “open architecture.” Membership was open to any and all willing participants to join AFHs affiliated ranks and engaged communities in participatory design. A modest infrastructure was built to address what was being found to be an enormous demand for professional development in these skills, mentorship in project management and community outreach.

Chapter Network Platform – again, ambitions greater than means, but an important foundation was laid from which local groups could self-organize, leverage the AFH umbrella or resources (coordination, web presence, annual conferences)


Cameron would be the first to argue that Architecture for Humanity, as it was built, had outlasted its relevance. In a time where more awareness and more firms are engaging in PID and CSR projects, the late nonprofit’s very name was a riposte to the inhuman work exhibited by the world’s most prominent starchitects riding a wave of prosperity.

Far from saying the work accomplished is unimportant – but we are beginning to suspect that the nonprofit’s closure was inevitable and necessary to allow a new (more resilient?) format to emerge, address the emerging needs of designers and  communities, and deliver AFH’s product: nothing less than the collaborative, site-sourced construction of pride, place and prosperity.

In fact AFH’s Chapters Network (a completely unsolicited phenomenon, as Cameron would be the first to tell you) is the ultimate conclusion of AFH’s development. Every professional is a neighbor or local to the communities engaged. The social network that has spontaneously grown and continuously welcoming new members can share and democratize design solutions and fulfill the dreams of an Open Architecture Network.


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