Launch Slideshow

Cameron Sinclair

Can Architecture Save Humanity?

Can Architecture Save Humanity?

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Rebuilding Jobs in Haiti

At Architecture for Humanity headquarters, the office gathers for a weekly ideas lunch and presentation. On the Friday I visited in August, 20 or so staffers listen in on Architecture for Humanity program manager Sandhya Naidu Janardhan’s update on the progress in Haiti.

After receiving her master’s degree at Columbia University, Janardhan worked for India’s InFORM Architects before joining Architecture for Humanity’s design fellowship program in 2008. Stationed in Hyderabad, India, in 2009, she worked to build some 10 low-cost primary healthcare clinics in six months. As the point on Haiti since June 2010, on any given day Janardhan will coordinate between representatives of, say, Ben Stiller’s family foundation, the Haitian government, and Architecture for Humanity’s staff in the field.

“I am someone who is the bridge between Haiti and here,” she says after her presentation. Sinclair describes her role more admiringly: “She is the single biggest threat to my job.”

Janardhan’s presentation focuses on the Haiti Rebuilding Center, the locus of Architecture for Humanity’s job-building and job-training effort. There, Architecture for Humanity’s growing staff—17 full-time staffers aided by some 20 volunteers—runs the organization’s school construction initiative, commercial-corridor revitalization program, and technical assistance efforts. In eight years’ time, she explains, the center will be wholly locally run.

The center’s impact isn’t always quantifiable. There’s masonry training for contractors once a week. Staff there recently offered a workshop on collaborative design for girls. They were ready for as many as 40 girls by the 10 a.m. start and expected about 10 to show up. By 10:30, the center had a queue of 200 girls. A sign of enthusiasm for the center’s work, many of the girls made a long trek from outlying refugee camps to get there.

Architecture for Humanity’s Haiti school initiative is one of the first projects to show the sort of tangible results that people might expect to see. One school is now complete; five more (of a total of 10) are under construction. Janardhan prefers to measure results by people, not buildings: She says the schools will serve 3,000 students and employ 100 teachers and 40 staff.

In terms of buildings, the biggest results will come in the form of a collaborative enterprise with Habitat for Humanity: the Santo Community Development Plan, a $15 million permanent shelter community just outside Léogâne, the wrecked epicenter of the January 2010 earthquake. The greenfield development will consist of 500 homes, designed to house 1,000 displaced families—who are still camped out in the region, awaiting relief.

This is not just a Habitat project, but the Habitat project, says Mark Andrews, vice president of Habitat for Humanity’s Haiti Recovery program. While the organization is conducting 12 other reconstruction projects in Haiti, Santo is by far the most visible and capital intensive.

“One of the many unique things about this project is that not only will we be building 500 houses in this community, the first 150 will be built within two weeks, in November,” Andrews says. The Léogâne site will serve as the 2011 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, with the former president and first lady visiting in November, marking it as Habitat for Humanity’s biggest single event globally this year.

But Architecture for Humanity’s biggest impact in Haiti won’t be measured by buildings, or even in this decade, says Eric Cesal, Architecture for Humanity’s regional program manager in Haiti. In Port-au-Prince, he is working to identify businesses to anchor each of the six commercial corridors the organization is developing—a 25-year project. “Some of these places employed 100 people,” he says. “Now they don’t employ anyone.”

Architecture for Humanity has retained the services of a third-party monitoring and evaluation firm to track this stimulus effort. It may take longer still to measure the success of the broad, general effort to confirm what architecture can actually do for Haiti.

“One of the reasons that disaster disproportionately affects the poor is because their buildings aren’t built as well,” Cesal says. “In an environment of poverty, people don’t have access to professional design services. Where that happens over decades, the role of architecture and engineering is psychologically divorced from buildings. You just get your cousin to do it or the guy down the street.”

Not if Architecture for Humanity can help it. One of the snottier services the organization provides in Haiti is that of pro-bono regional tattletale. As staff perform site surveys, Stohr says, they’re on the look out for shoddy construction. When they see it, they leave behind a kit of materials, and try where they’re able to notify the project’s funder. Then they price the fixes.

“Reconstruction is only really starting,” Cesal says, “and Haitian architects are going to be busy for years to come.” They knew from the onset of the crisis what their role would be, he explains; many of them set to work studying seismic code in the aftermath of the earthquake. “It’s not like California, where it’s built into the collective psyche. Hurricanes, absolutely. Haitian engineers know that and how to get around it.”

The Roadmap

On any given Friday that they’re both in the Bay Area, Sinclair and Stohr, who are married, meet at a Sausalito, Calif., bar with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Over hard cider and ginger beer, the three of us talk about the familiar nonprofit routine: hustling for money.

In December 2010, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund awarded Architecture for Humanity $816,472, a substantial grant toward the Haiti Rebuilding Center. That is the closest that Architecture for Humanity has come to support from the U.S. government for its work in Haiti.

“I have sat in countless meetings with AID officials, World Bank officials,” Stohr says. “You think the alphabet soup of architecture is bad,” Sinclair picks up. “At the U.N., you can go through a 20-minute meeting without a real word being spoken.” Stohr continues. “When it comes down to it, fundamentally, they do not invest in place. It’s very difficult for us to get the kind of flexible funding we need to do this work from those kinds of agencies.”

Architecture for Humanity has performed baseline market measures for hundreds of businesses in Haiti, demonstrating “the value of strengthening Haiti’s capacity rather than just rebuilding,” says the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund’s Selzler. Both Selzler and Sinclair recognize that some solutions would result in more obvious returns. “You don’t see us flying in shipping containers anywhere, or pre-fab solutions,” Sinclair says. “It’s not that they might not work—it’s that they don’t hire locally.”

To develop the loan program, Stohr needs $2 million—by October. That’s approximately the amount that Architecture for Humanity reported in total revenues for 2009. She says that she has $1 million committed; for the rest, Architecture for Humanity will tap private donors and foundations, its traditional supporters. Though U.S. AID is sympathetic to the mission, she says, the agency is committed to funding housing exclusively.

But housing without market stability—both in terms of income for residents and reasonable risk for investors—may lead to widespread default and slums. “Once you put in that capital, it’s all private market. You’re just opening door to private market investment,” Stohr says. “And local investment! I’m not talking about foreign direct investment, I’m just talking about creating the stability that the banks need to lend locally.”

The organization has made one significant acquisition that it hopes will help to expand its network: Architecture for Humanity has acquired Worldchanging—a sustainable design site that Wired described as “the most important website on the planet.” Architecture for Humanity will merge Worldchanging with its open-source Open Architecture Network in a relaunch to promote transparency in design.

Perhaps to a surprising degree, Architecture for Humanity’s rapid growth has not changed the way the organization works at an atomic level. It is dependent in large part on individual and family foundations and the design industry for its support; fundraising still happens over discussions of individual project goals and designs. At the core of every donation and every design fellowship is a commitment to the idea that architecture can improve people’s lives. For the designers who commit their time, it’s not a side project.

“You can’t just come in for a weekend charrette and say that you helped Katrina,” Sinclair says. “You gotta be there. You have to be hand in hand with whoever you’re partnering with to get it done.”

Note: Architecture for Humanity has not received federal support specifically for its operations in Haiti. The text has been updated to reflect this clarification.