Architecture for Humanity

Architecture for Humanity

Giving a damn” is an important philosophy for designing in a world with environmental and social turmoil. • “Design like You Give a Damn,” a book edited by Architecture for Humanity (AFH), a (501)(c)(3) charitable organization, features architectural responses to humanitarian crises. • This work is on point with the philosophy of socially conscious design, and it presents more than 80 contemporary solutions to such urgent needs as basic shelter, healthcare, education and access to clean water, energy and sanitation. • Architecture for Humanity was started in 1999 when co-founder Cameron Sinclair had the idea of challenging architects to discover better solutions for refugees returning to their destroyed Kosovo homes after the war.

The “AFH Challenge” encouraged as many design solutions as possible, especially from architects close to the Kosovo region, to secure the best option for solving their housing problems. The Open Architecture Challenge has since become a way of collecting more solutions, usually by at least 100 fold, than problems while giving architects around the world an opportunity to respond to great need. The nonprofit believes that “the physical design of our homes, neighborhoods and communities shapes every aspect of our lives.”

The Problem of Poverty

One billion people live in abject poverty; four billion live in fragile but growing economies; and one in seven people live in slum settlements or refugee camps. Architecture for Humanity is established on the concept that “where resources and expertise are scarce, innovative, sustainable and collaborative design can make a difference.” This pioneering organization accepts only projects that demonstrate a commitment to environmentally sensitive design. Local labor and materials are used whenever feasible, and some projects also include green elements such as solar and rainwater collection. Proposals are evaluated based upon their potential impact to the number of building beneficiaries ultimately served; and preference is given to buildings adhering to LEED standards (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

Sustainability extends not only to the way buildings are designed and engineered but also how they are constructed by AFH. In Biloxi, Miss., where Hurricane Katrina ripped apart houses with walls of water, some people displaced from their homes are still living in tiny, one-room, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers. The non-profit has helped people there by sponsoring construction of a number of fully funded demonstration homes built on stilts above flood waters while simultaneously incorporating a number of design features that withstand hurricane-force winds.



To begin the Mississippi program, AFH invited architectural firms to create home proposals that meet disaster-mitigation challenges.

All AFH projects must demonstrate a strong partnership with local community groups such as affordable housing advocates, women’s groups or food banks; and partiality is given to projects that can demonstrate involvement by a broad array of community members, to include engaging locally based design teams. Project partners must demonstrate their ability to secure building sites, which includes obtaining proof of land titles. Proposals must show need, must be able to access design services and must include a strong community design component that engages future occupants in all stages of the design process. Preference is also given to proposals that include community member training in design and construction best practices.

The 2008 AFH Challenge

For 2008 the Challenge was located in three communities on three different continents: Nepal, Kenya and Ecuador. Nepal’s telemedical center project, in one of the country’s least developed areas, the Accham District, is particularly important because only one in 200 births occurs in a hospital. In addition, the AIDS epidemic is spreading because of extreme poverty and unavailable medical treatment. One doctor serves one-quarter of a million people in this and in the Doti District. There the challenge was to enable families in a remote rural area to access healthcare from the world’s top physicians and from other medical professionals by building a clinic with Internet access.

The future facility will utilize sustainable and/or local building materials, as well as local labor, while taking into account the site’s remote nature and the costs associated with transporting materials. Earthquakes, epidemics, fires, landslides and debris flow; floods, hailstorms, thunderbolts and windstorms are challenges specific to this area. Forty percent of the clinic’s space will be open to the public as a community computer lab and training facility. The remaining 60 percent will provide medical services such as obstetric and nursing training, telemedicine exchanges and X-ray interpretation via overseas medical professionals, patient consultation and offices to manage medical files, as well as a pharmaceutical supplies ordering area. The site covers two acres; the total facilities footprint is 175 square meters; and total occupancy will be 40 people.

Another aspect of the 2008 Challenge was the “50 by 15” initiative to bring affordable Internet access to one-half of the world’s population by 2015. All three of these challenge projects incorporate this aspect, as in Nairobi, Kenya with SIDAREC (Slums Information Development & Resource Centers). This organization is helping to alleviate poverty in one of the biggest slums in Nairobi, which contains one-quarter of a million people living in desolation. The plan also includes turning an open lot into a place where people can come for education, safety, healthcare and life skills. SIDAREC clearly recognizes that today’s youth is a vastly untapped resource whose future depends upon the ability to gain these inherent rights. The organization’s proposed media lab and library will offer a place to teach computer skills, including web and graphic design, while providing recording facilities for a youth radio station and a place to research, play games and study. And, of course, challenge participants must employ sustainable and/or local building materials and must use local labor to realize their designs.



In Ecuador a chocolate factory, an unusual project with innovative life solutions, is being planned to help save the rainforest. There within the Amazon Basin, the plant used to make chocolate, cacao, is grown organically among the hardwood forests. Giving the Kallarni Association, indigenous chocolate producers and artisans, the opportunity to make their business more lucrative could, ideally, allow them to conserve their land. As an added benefit, their business is good for the environment because the cacao plant is grown only on sites with a wide diversity of plants, thus facilitating biodiversity. Only 10-15 percent of each family’s land is used for growing crops while the rest is left preserved in its natural state. The new factory will improve and increase production, which will allow the Killarni Association to export chocolate to first-world countries, while newly acquired Internet access will assist in expanding business and in bringing profits back into the villages. This self-sustaining project is being done by local people for local people.

Land will be purchased in the capital city of Quito as six or seven hectares (about a 13-acre plot) abutting a road to another relatively large town, Tenna. The challenge is to design a main complex with a chocolate production factory, a tourist visitor center and a fair trade exchange/research center, plus a model/prototype for three satellite technology hubs to be set off the main site in remote semi-rural villages. The Killarni Association is requesting that facilities be designed and constructed per LEED Gold standards to reduce energy, water and resource use, which will minimize the cost of maintenance and production. However, because limited funds restrict AFH from participating in the actual certification process, the project will not be seeking LEED certification nor will it actually obtain a facility LEED rating.

Part of a previous year’s AFH Challenge, Tanzania’s Impuli Center of Excellence is a health facility designed to provide medical care and to create a new generation of medical professionals. Currently the Impuli villagers must travel two kilometers by ox cart and then by bicycle to reach the nearest hospital in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam. However, when the river floods during rainy season, it is impossible to cross safely. Therefore, the village mortality rate is actually compounded by simple transportation, which made the village easy to accept as an AFH candidate. As is the practice, the combination medical center, training center and secondary school is being built by local labor, using local materials, and employing renewable technologies for solar and rain water collection. Community support via land donation and income generation are manifesting to make this dream a reality. In addition, people in surrounding areas, as well as those anywhere within the developing world, can benefit from the building by means of free access to the structure’s construction documents, plans and designs.

A Growing Commitment

AFH is growing not only in the number of designers but also in the number of chapters around the world. More than 2,600 designers meet regularly to discuss and to participate in their projects. At least 40 local chapters have sprung up in places such as Auckland, New Zealand, and throughout the United States. Groups usually help their towns of origin but also take on projects elsewhere, such as the United Kingdom chapter’s work with a Brewerville, Liberia, school. Local chapters take many forms depending upon the chapter size and its location, with each one operating and engaging autonomously in its own projects and activities.

From an Afghanistan earthquake emergency shelter to a children’s merry-go-round that pumps water into a water tower (covered with public health and HIV/AIDS awareness posters and with paid advertising to maintain the pump), the list of pioneering AFH and Design Like You Give a Damn completed projects goes on and on. Humanitarian needs in the world continue to form an unwritten to-do list. Thanks to AFH’s open architecture network and to those reaching for the most sustainable answers to today’s challenges, the list of well-designed humanitarian solutions can transform the world even more quickly.