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Architecture for Humanity

Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr, recipients of the first Curry Stone Design Prize Vision Award, have been committed to social impact design since co-founding Architecture for Humanity in 1999. Concerned by reports of a growing refugee crisis in Kosovo, they took action by creating links between people in post-disaster areas with architects and designers. Early efforts included a competition for innovative refugee housing designs that brought a response from 220 architects and resulted in Architecture for Humanity’s first transitional housing prototype. Sinclair and Stohr used Architecture for Humanity’s growing network to shepherd reconstruction projects, responding to post-disaster devastation sites hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

For close to fifteen years Architecture for Humanity leveraged the goodwill and expertise of architects worldwide who collaborated on community-led design/build projects. The organization identified and provided funding for local partners, from construction managers to case workers. It hired local architects and paired them with design fellows who could help apply lessons learned from years of reconstruction work, and it provided oversight on construction quality as well as long-term monitoring of project outcomes.

To help facilitate this work, Architecture for Humanity created the Open Architecture Network, the first open-source community dedicated to improving living conditions through sustainable design. The site, which had 41,954 members, posted open-source architectural plans, drawings, and CAD files, and provided the platform for Architecture for Humanity’s design competitions.

Architecture for Humanity had 59 chapters in 16 countries and completed more than 200 projects. Staffers and volunteers built schools in West Africa and Haiti, managed multisite programs for sports and cultural centers in South Africa and South America, and worked on long-term rebuilding efforts along the U.S. Gulf Coast, in India, in Myanmar, in Sri Lanka, and in Japan.

Architecture for Humanity’s hallmark was its sensitivity to sustainability and community needs. One of its most recognized collaborations is a series of sports and education centers for the Football for Hope Movement, which uses football as a tool for reconciliation in post-conflict areas and as a draw to get disadvantaged youth to participate in life skills and job training. The Kimisagara Football for Hope Centre, in Kigali, Rwanda, was designed with a focus on sustainability: concrete was minimized and replaced where possible with local stone, brick, and compressed earth. A large shading roof, which extends over activity areas, harnesses rainwater that is filtered for potability. The football pitch also collects rainwater used for flushing toilets, washing clothes, and irrigating the landscape. Water storage and filtration facilities were constructed from shipping containers. Solar-powered LED lights allow the center to be safe at night. Architecture for Humanity designed the football pitch and community center so that they connect to and activate a pedestrian walkway along a nearby canal; this makes the center accessible from the dense residential core and allows better access to this water source and the informal vendor areas and public spaces that line it.

Architecture for Humanity works against the one-size-fits-all attitude prevalent in post-disaster reconstruction. For the Biloxi Model Home program, implemented in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, the group paired families with a team of designers to work side-by-side on new homes that were affordable and sustainable but personalized. For example, Architecture for Humanity devised a shifted, double bungalow design that wraps around an oak tree in the center of a property owned by the Nguyen family, which included four teenage children. The tree had been the site of family cookouts and the wraparound design allowed this tradition to continue on the shared deck (the original house had floated 50 feet down the street).

Work in the Gulf Coast produced one of Architecture for Humanity’s hallmarks: starting reconstruction projects by building a “design center” that serves as a one-stop resource for the affected community, providing access to everything from financial assistance to design services. Shaped by the communities they serve, these design centers can take on surprising forms: in northern Japan, a wish from fishermen for a place to get “hot noodles and a beer” prompted Architecture for Humanity’s team to build a beer garden from reclaimed materials, which became a space where residents came together to discuss reconstruction.

Sinclair and Stohr’s influence on the humanitarian design community extends far beyond Architecture for Humanity’s completed works. They are the coauthors of the best-selling book Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises (Metropolis Books, 2006). With case studies of innovative and sustainable social design solutions, Design Like You Give a Damn has served as a call to action for designers and architects around the globe. A second volume, Building Change From the Ground Up, was published in 2012 to similar acclaim.

In the fifteen years they led Architecture for Humanity, Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr helped bring design thinking to humanitarian aid and have set the bar high for post-disaster reconstruction. Moreover, they’ve created important resources that help architects share inspiration and bring their projects to fruition.