Safe as houses

June 29, 2007, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

Architect Cameron Sinclair is on a mission to save the world, one design at a time

Cameron Sinclair is a man who values his sleep. As he maneuvers between a new baby, a travel schedule so frenetic he has a ‘Where is Cameron’ web page and a battle against shoddy housing worldwide, he’s seen it go from an enjoyable day-capper to quite the luxury.

“In the next two generations we’re going to double the number of buildings on earth now,” the 33 year-old tells me from his Sausalito home, while struggling to sedate a grumpy infant. “One in three people at that time will be living in slum settlements – UN statistics. The places booming are China, Brazil, India, but this growth is in their bottom 40% so it’s really time to respond to those needs.”

Many have heard of Habitat for Humanity, Jimmy Carter’s global NGO, which flutters similar statistics at its fingertips. Yet other than a healthy mutual respect the affiliation between them ends there. HFH arms average Joes with hammers and packs them off to build houses in poor communities the world over, home by home. Smaller and younger, Architecture for Humanity has taken a wider perspective and then zeroed straight in for a potential cure-all: design. Sinclair, as co-founder, takes its helm.

“I got interested in humanitarian design because of a total misunderstanding,” he begins, his slightly awkward British tones collapsing occasionally into a US brogue. “I assumed that to be an architect you’d need to build structures that improved the lives of a community as a whole. I don’t know who told me this! Then I went to architecture school and was stunned to find out that this wasn’t the case. Everyone wanted to do airports and use cool computer graphics.”

A move to New York and some notable design credentials later, and Sinclair was still bothered. While war raged in Kosovo and military ‘end games’ were being debated on TV ad nauseum, he would be watching the refugees and mentally designing them better tents. In 1999 he and journalist (and now wife) Kate Stohr took the plunge and founded the group.

In the public realm design and architecture often get labeled luxury commodities; the kind afforded by holiday homeowners, not families camped among rubble, living off soup. At a recent presentation on humanitarian design in San Francisco, Sinclair and Stohr offered a few examples of design thoughtlessness. Most, like many in this article were from a new book project they’ve co-authored called ‘Design like you give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises.’

In one shot, helmet-like Oxfam house-making kits sit amid the baking rubble of a 1976 earthquake in Turkey. It seems the kits had been cheap and easy to assemble, but they were also hot, dark, and hard to repair. Aid workers dubbed them Darth Vader houses. The newly homeless chose to sleep outside.

You could blame this particular bungle on the rip roaring seventies and its many mind-altering diversions, but even now things aren’t too different. During the tsunami Sinclair says, AFH went in on the ground and partnered with some pretty major organizations in the Sri Lankan rebuilt effort. “Most development groups still think, let’s just give them the basics,” he explained. “They’d have one engineer and a bunch of accountants, and needless to say the result would not be sustainable. It’s incredible what actually gets built. Someone who owns a concrete block factory offers them for cheap, so that’s the building!” Communities, he elaborated, need homes that at least slightly suit their lifestyle; that can flex with them as they slowly pick themselves back up. The average refugee camp tenure after a disaster is nine years. Darth Vader dwellings just don’t cut it.

As part of its efforts to change this, AFH has come across and implemented some incredible innovations, from inflatable hemp houses designed in Japan to neighbourhoods built out of food palettes. Yet helpful design need not be so wacky, or so intricate. One of Sinclair’s favourite examples was a partition flap just recently integrated into UNHCR aid tents. In refugee camps, where sexual abuse is extremely common, something this simple goes a very long way.

When I spoke to Sinclair earlier this year he was just back from Japan, and working on his keynote speech for Africa’s biggest design conference, Design Indaba in Cape Town. While Stohr coordinates much of their work in the States, particularly down on the Gulf Coast (“she’s definitely the domestic girl,” he grins, “sleeping in trailers and car parks and eating waffle house food for months!”), Sinclair selects and runs projects from Senegal to Pakistan. Both spend much of their time fundraising and organizing the placement of volunteer designers in communities worldwide, and it’s here, rather than in the emergency sector, that much of their hope for global change lies.

Onstage back in San Francisco, the pair put their mission into pictures. “One billion people live in abject poverty, but four billion live on the $2-6 dollar a day cusp,” Sinclair said, perched on a table near a large projector screen. “The latter work on improving their housing, but are at constant risk of sliding back. It is for them that innovation can really make a difference.” Cue one shot of a futuristic-looking series of concrete apartments in Iquique, a desert city in Chile. A hundred families once occupied the site illegally and needed to be re-housed on a limited budget with limited space. Elemental, a local design group created the award winning Elemental Collective House by designing a ‘housing skeleton’, which can be filled in and expanded on by delighted residents.

Over in Somkhele, South Africa this March another design was being greeted with glee – this time by young footie fans. Singapore-born architect Swee Hong Ng was the winner of an AFH competition to design a football pitch and health outreach centre in an area where youths have a high risk of infecting HIV. His design uses the shape of the landscape to create amphitheatre-like terraces that can double as performance spaces. In the past few years such projects have taken AFH designers from Tamil Nadu to Tanzania, designing everything from medical centres to tsunami-safe(r) houses.

Yet the biggest link between all these projects lies in their differences; a school designed for the Himalayas could hardly be implemented in Mozambique, and vice versa. This is the crux of the AFH challenge. “The reality is that we live in a global society that has environmental and cultural differences, even from village to village,” Sinclair explained. “So we just can’t come up with one solution. We need a system that can create 100 million solutions.”

About 18 months ago AFH came out on top with a rather generous grant from the prestigious TED Prize, and these one hundred million solutions suddenly became very possible. The resulting project, the Open Architecture Network (, is an impressive online forum that enables architects to post projects and collaborate on all things social and humanitarian. It also benefits from the Creative Commons Developing Nations License, another AFH-related project that allows architects to freely use each others’ patented designs for the good of the third world.

What had once been a two people op, and then a 2000-strong organisation, has in a year become a global force to contend with. All AFH really needs now are more hands, oh, and some money. After Africa, Sinclair will be traveling throughout North America to raise funds. Then it’s on to Italy in June. “Something like the Indaba Cape Town trip for me is the perfect vacation,” he says, convincingly. “I’m going to go out there for the conference, but in my free time I’ll meet with community groups to look at potential projects. They’ll take me around and show me what it’s all about.”

It seems that for now, sleep might have to wait.

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