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Activist Architects Design Solutions to Humanitarian Problems


One third of the world's urban population lives in slums. And their numbers could double in the next 30 years, a United Nations report warns, unless swift action is taken to reverse the trend. A movement of socially conscious architects is emerging around the globe with novel ideas for solving the slum problem.

At its hub is Architecture for Humanity, a global non-profit organization that promotes design solutions to humanitarian crises. It was founded by British-born architect Cameron Sinclair in 1999, as civil war raged in the Yugoslav republic of Kosovo.

"I began to think, how do architects create structures that will allow people to live in their own communities while they rebuild back their own homes? So this wasn't replacement, World War II-style concrete block housing. This was about building these small anchors that would allow people to rebuild their own lives."

Sustainable building, from New Orleans to Sri Lanka

Sinclair says Architecture for Humanity deploys volunteer architects, designers and engineers to work with communities hit by natural disaster, war or public health crises.

"We pick a place where there is strong community involvement, an architect or a team that is able to respond, and funding to make sure it's built."

Over the past decade, Architecture for Humanity has helped design and build mobile HIV/AIDS clinics in sub-Saharan Africa, joined in earthquake recovery efforts in Turkey and Iran, and developed an athletic field in South Africa that doubles as a medical clinic.

Sinclair says more than 1,000 residents in Sri Lanka, displaced by the 2004 tsunami, have worked with the non-profit on several redevelopment projects, including a new library and medical center and a preschool.

"They design with us. They construct the buildings. We pay them to construct the buildings. But in the process of doing this, we were able to introduce rainwater catchment systems, natural ventilation, solar, and almost 95 percent of our structures internationally are off the grid, so the community can maintain them in the long run."

The 36-year-old architect says building sustainably saves energy and money. That was evident in Architecture for Humanity's home-building efforts in the U.S. Gulf Coast region devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"Because [if] we can keep the maintenance bills low enough so that the family can afford the insurance on the home, that's equity, and if there is another disaster, they don't lose everything. They've got the funding there to help rebuild."

Training a new generation of socially conscious architects


On this day, Cameron Sinclair has brought his ideas to an environmental design class at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland, where students are putting finishing touches on year-end projects.

Sinclair urges the students to build sustainably and be mindful of their ethical responsibilities.

"What is the responsibility of an architect who designed that building knowing that the people building it are not being treated humanely? Do we have a responsibility to say, 'I am not going to build a building unless the following construction standards are adhered to'? I think we do have that responsibility," he says.

Graduating senior Bruce Coffee gets the message. He's designed so-called "off-grid" housing for post-war Liberia, in west Africa. He says new homes in the capital city, Monrovia, would generate their own electricity from wind and have slanted roofs to catch rainwater for household needs and thirsty vegetable gardens.

"I wanted to make it so that it was very, very, very feasible. I was really interested in trying to find a way of re-powering Monrovia, and then maybe, hopefully, that would be a model for the rest of the country."

An added incentive, Coffee says, is that his family is from Liberia, and he wants to give back to his homeland.

Michaela Roberts has a similar dream to make a difference. Her focus is on the urban poor in Baltimore. Her design transforms their concrete-block high-rise apartment building into a vertical community with a movie theater, restaurant, office center, gym and a roof-top garden with a swimming pool. She says the project embodies how she hopes to put her design skills to work after graduation.

"I want to be able to help people that I guess don't have an opportunity to hire an expensive designer or have the option of even hiring any one at all. So that's really my values, and, when I look for a job I am [interested] in, what kind of work they do."

Cameron Sinclair likes what he sees. He encourages students to stay connected through Architecture for Humanity's online community called the Open Architecture Network. Here, as in their face-to-face projects, designers and architects collaborate on ways to improve housing and living conditions for needy people around the world.

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