Extended interview, March 2011

Architect, eternal optimist and founder of a now-formidable humanitarian relief organization, Cameron Sinclair chats about the transition from design to development guru, the politics of humanitarian intervention, and sending architects into many of the decade’s biggest disaster zones. [See published feature in the South China Morning Post at AFH 2011]

“The idea of designing without ego …”

When we won (the grant) from TED we were a 60, 000 dollar organisation, now we’re closer to 6 million; that’s in four or five years. It wasn’t TED that made us explode, though it really gave us awareness and projected our methodology to other people; the idea of designing without ego, sharing openly, using adaptation as opposed to repetition, which was a really big shift: saying, different neighbourhoods have different issues, adapt the building to that. The thing that really made us explode was just prior to TED, when we started responding to the tsunami. We had partners with a website called World Changing, and we said we wanted to raise 10,000 dollars. But we raised half a million. And there was something frustrating me about our business model. It had been thoughtful, had integrated stakeholders, used the right materials and technologies, and we’d hand it off and they’d just build crap… It’s like cooking a great meal for someone, and then them making toast and walking off! Everyone uses this Ghandi phrase: be the change you want to see in the world. It had been playing on my mind. We needed to go beyond design service, to design and construction management – to be the bank. The tsunami was our test case. It was phenomenally successful: 20 plus schools, 12 community centres, maybe a hundred houses with very little money.  Coupled with a series of natural disasters where we were ready and prepared, we were able to prove our model.

“It was push and pull – between us deciding to work on something and the community telling us to.”

After the TED prize we started working on Katrina, we had raised 50,000 before we’d even announced that we’d be there. So part of it was push and pull: between us deciding to work on something and the community telling us to. We learned not only do you have to manage construction and finance the process but boost on-the-ground methodology. If you scale that on the ground, the impact you have scales. We’re a one stop shop: we will give you pro bono advice, help you know how to get money, help with all the legalese, do case assessment on families. And NGOs started to come in by the dozen asking to partner. So we started to partner with everybody. We had an anonymous funder who we could only later announce was Oprah.

It led to a really diversified investment donor strategy. 60% is pro-bono, say if Oxfam or UNICEF want to finish a school, they hire us to be architects and construction managers. We only take jobs that are in humanitarian, in the non profit world, so there’s no infringing on the professional sphere, but we realised that the best non-profit is set up like a for profit. It wasn’t the sexy buildings – it was the business models and the investment. But we’re a fun organisation, you can see tangible evidence. Donate 50 bucks and there’s a physical structure that you get out of it.

“The school is a 24-hour building.”

Every two years we hold a design competition around a systemic issue. In 2009 it was to design classroom of the future, to involve kids, teachers, architect, and in that process we realised that the school, in many instances, is a 24-hour building. Where mobile health comes, communities gather, if you’re in rural areas anyway, and the school is the heart of the community. And if we can improve design and construction quality from those schools, people will steal the best ideas locally. It’s like open sourcing.

You can see what I mean with one of our designs, which this year was a finalist of the Aga Khan award. What was unique about that building is, they went back four years after, and you began to see that all the homes around the facility had copied the roof details and the rain water catchment. The urban acupuncture structures end up creating a ripple effect with the community.

Throughout Latin America, Nike and FIFA had come to us because we’d done a number of Sports for Social Change facilities, which double as headquarters for local NGOs to tackle conflict resolution or HIV. Sports is really a central gatherer of people; kids come out and parents too. We’ve completed 17 sports for Social Change facilities from Afghanistan to Brazil. I think on average to be a successful organisation we need to be doing 30 – 50 projects at any one time.

Bringing in international designers never works. They begin to overlook the cultural sustainability aspects, things that are important that you can’t see. It happens to everyone: once you get so far removed from your daily life you can become overwhelmed. In a village with high mortality, no drinking water, you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulder if you don’t design the perfect school! But you tend to get the same-old-same-old. Real magic happens when you marry an international designer with a local designer. So on every project we have a locally licensed architect or engineer.

The local chapters do pro bono, but we have a stipend for every designer in the field. It’s a ridiculously small amount: on average about 1,500 dollars plus travel and health care. We pay them to hold them legally accountable. We then pay the local architect too, and it still works out less than the big NGOs.  We have architects and engineers on the ground, and integrate sustainability throughout. Every building we design have universal access. And you’ll be shocked to find how few do in the developing world in humanitarian built buildings, even in schools, places with civil war and large amount of amputees!

“Clinton… the Lone Sheep”

We do a lot of post disaster reconstruction. Last year Haiti was everything anyone could talk about. This year at [the World Economic Forum in] Davos no one talked about it; only Clinton, the lone sheep. You know the largest amount of funding we got was from kids, high school kids, and they are really the engine that is keeping us in Haiti. Then there are corporate grants, and the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund has funded a programme to elevate construction standards. We’ve trained a few thousand Haitians so far and put a few thousand to work, but we’re hoping to have 30,000 in the construction industry, to keep the reconstruction funds in the hands of the Haitians to avoid flown in pre-fab solutions.

The thing about Haiti is, you have to raise all the money in the four first weeks that will last four years, because after that no one cares. It’s the same for Pakistan and Chile and New Zealand… we were really lucky in our Pakistan and New Zealand response, which was a direct result of our chapters. We have office in San Francisco and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Cape Town, and they focus on the headquarter projects. But we started Chapters to give pro bono design service in our local community, and there are about 6,500 architects actively working in this network in 73 cities around the world. So what happened in Pakistan is the Karachi chapter kind of woke up, stopped all their work, flew into the Swat Valley and started responding. They’d already helped clear 1,500 homes before our office new about it.

“Architecture and politics are very intertwined”

We’re professionals: everyone goes through full Building Code compliance. In Nairobi we’re working on a community facility which is the only legal building in the slum of thousands. A lot of people who do humanitarian design – they don’t do that. But part of our role is to improve standards and if we don’t adhere, why are we even there? And there is a relationship with both the legal and political structure. If you turn up and start building, and don’t keep to the political and legal process, you’re undermining the locals. This is a real worry in Haiti. If you keep skirting around the government, you’re going to weaken it.

One of the projects we’ve been looking at is building southern Sudan, as a new country. But the challenge is, how do we build the school and health care system without undermining local initiatives or the government? Architecture and politics are very intertwined so you must figure out the mechanism to either work with, or enforce. In Haiti and Kenya we’ve been pushing for stronger codes. In many cases water doesn’t kill people, buildings do.

Corruption is a tricky one. A lot of it isn’t illegal, but you’ll get a relief organisation that’s never done a particular type of work before, they’ll get a massive grant, take their 30 % and then they outsource. Then those people outsource it, so by the time it gets to the country you’re down 50% or so, which means that the quality of the procedures is much less. Yet their people are driving around in SUVs with Ray Bans on. So the local NGOs say, why not me too? For me it’s really hard to listen to certain NGO leaders sitting drinking G&Ts and talking about local corruption. Wait, you make a hundred thousand dollars a year or more. This woman will skim off the top if it puts her kids in school.  You’ve got to look at corruption holistically. Last year we did an IPAD ap which was shown in MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art, New York), visualising humanitarian work around the world…  basically you open up the globe and pull in data live. I started thinking about crowd accountability, and US aid projects. You know, put ‘em up online and require whoever’s in charge, to take a picture of the project. We’re looking at corruption within the reconstruction world. People try to compare Architecture for Humanity to Frank Gehry. But actually you should be comparing us to Haliburton, or US aid, or Oxfam, to understand where we fit in.

We never go into a country unless we’re invited. The only rule is, don’t work in places that are in the process of being destroyed. For a long time we didn’t build in Afghanistan. We just did last year. Would we build in Iraq? Probably not right now, but as things begin to settle…

“Earthquakes don’t discriminate”

We have a strong chapter in Auckland who were able to take out post disaster recovery template and adapt it to the Christchurch situation. It’s unique in the sense that you’ve got a first world country. Frankly in the US no one cares about New Zealand. I got email s from people saying this isn’t a real earthquake. People can’t get their head around it. Earthquakes don’t discriminate! You could be the richest person on the island and lose everything completely. They really need architects and engineers because one in three buildings in the CBD had to be taken down. For 10,000 homes the land itself has liquefied, to the extent something like a tenth of the residential neighbourhood have to be moved. Imagine doing that for London! Our team has been on ground carrying out building assessments to find who is falling through the cracks. We hope to do pro bono design and engineering services, and they’re trying to assess what buildings can be occupied and repaired. We’ve talked to schools, community groups, particularly indigenous community groups that may not be on the radar.

“What huge balls that guy had…”

[The World Economic Forum at Davos is] always good for me because I always misbehave. I’m part of group  of Young Global Leaders, and our original mandate was to basically cause havoc; go to panels and ask very pointed questions. I would say about 20 percent do that and the rest at Davos are doing business. So you get to have fun. And it leads to the most bizarre responses. There was a whole thing on Russia: Medvedev came out to do this whole, ‘not bowing to terrorism thing’, and there was a panel discussion on investing in Russia, with everyone falling head over heels to talk about how amazing Russia was. One guy stood up from an investment group and tells this story about how his company was stolen by the Russians and he lost 4 billion dollars, and his lawyers were murdered… The Russians were like, that was the past. What huge balls that guy had! Then they got to me, and I had a simple question – Russia has a dying population. Lots of people are leaving Russia and going to Western Europe. So I ask this question to the deputy prime minister: how is Russia supposed to grow when losing its people? He goes into bizarre ramble about the impregnation of Russian women. So if you ask pointed questions at Davos you put them in a corner, and you inevitably get something shocking.