Architecture for Humanity (AFH), the San Francisco–based non-profit organization behind a federation of chapters focusing on humanitarian and disaster relief architecture, is filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. The news, which broke Jan. 16 in the San Francisco Chronicle, came as a surprise to many in the architecture field, including many of the organization's card-carrying members.
No official statement has been released by the organization—its website, Twitter, and Facebook accounts have been inactive since mid-December. But according to an interview with Architecture for Humanity board president Matthew Charney in The New York Times, the organization "ultimately lacked the funding to continue."
Clark Manus, FAIA, a board member since mid-2012, confirmed in an interview with ARCHITECT on Monday that the board would be filing for bankruptcy soon.
"The economics of AFH just weren’t sustainable. And the board didn’t really have any option," he says. "It tried for more than three years to figure out what those options were and worked on a variety of things"—reducing costs, selling assets, re-gearing fundraising efforts—"but it just wasn't going to be."
Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr founded AFH in 1999. Both left the organization in 2013. In an interview Friday, Sinclair said the news of its closure came as a surprise.
"We didn’t know until [Thursday] evening when I was called by a reporter from The New York Times asking me if I knew about the state of the organization. When I left in the end of Oct. 2013, that was the last I heard from them," Sinclair says. "We're incredibly sad for all the people who put not months but years of their lives into this."
Sinclair says that the organization had long faced funding issues. While most project-based fundraising by the organization was typically successful, securing the unrestricted funding that could maintain office staff and operations was always a challenge. It wasn't uncommon, he says, for the organization to raise upwards of 70 percent of its annual unrestricted funding in the last few days of the year. And, particularly in post-disaster reconstruction, it was sometimes hard to maintain interest among funders in longer-term projects.
"People don’t give to Haiti after two years," he says. "We ran our office in Haiti for five years. So I think a lot of that extra burden of supporting staff was not picked up."
Though Sinclair is upset about the organization's impending bankruptcy and closure, he argues that its work will continue through its 59 chapters spread across nearly 20 countries.
"In the last 20 minutes I've had at least a dozen emails from chapters saying 'we're going to go on, we’re going to keep going.' You can't stop the network, because we're mobilized, we're working on projects," he said Friday, shortly after the San Francisco Chronicle article was published. "The idea is not going to die just because the organization may."
Chapters from around the U.S. and beyond quickly responded to the announcement with pledges to stay active.
AFH New York, the organization's largest chapter, posted a note to its website Friday evening, vowing to continue in its mission. "We may not have the same name, or the same branding, but we will continue the work," the post read.
In Los Angeles, where the local chapter had just celebrated its post-holiday party the night before the news broke, managing director Hilda Boyadjian expressed frustration with "the current heads of the organization who've made the questionable decision of leaving chapter leaders in the dark about the organization's financial trouble." But she says the members of her chapter are planning to continue their work, and potentially rebuild a new federation of local chapters. "We've already initiated conversations with surrounding chapters for a West Coast Region chapter reconstruction," she says.
And within minutes of the news breaking, the AFH London chapter posted its condolences over the closure of the organization's offices while also noting that "we are glad to be able to reassure our volunteers, partners, clients and friends that as an independent, established, financially stable, U.K.-registered charity, AFH London is operationally unaffected by this news."
Sinclair points out the fact that the London chapter actually trademarked the name Architecture for Humanity before the official Architecture for Humanity organization, and "may have a claim to the brand."
Brand or not, humanitarian architecture work is likely to progress. Both Sinclair and Manus point to the work of groups like MASS Design Group and Public Architecture for their emphasis on humanitarian and pro bono design work as being part of a broader movement within the profession. It's one they both hope will continue.
"I don’t think the idea of architects doing humanitarian work is a failure because AFH ended," Sinclair says. "I think it will be a failure if architects realize they don’t care."