At the behest of his parents “to go to college and do something,” Daniel Wiens enrolled in California Polytechnic State University’s (Cal Poly’s) construction management program after working for a residential contractor during high school, in Bend, Ore. For his undergraduate thesis at Cal Poly, he designed and built a dental clinic in Independence, Belize, through Global Outreach Mission. This “phenomenal” experience, he says, both fulfilled his degree requirements and gave a charitable organization free design labor—his own.
And so the model for Journeyman International (JI) was born. In the following interview, Wiens, who founded JI in 2009 and serves as president, talks with ARCHITECT about what makes his nonprofit organization such a distinctive humanitarian design entity.
ARCHITECT: What makes JI’s model unique?
Wiens: Our niche was to tap into the academic world and university students studying architecture, engineering, construction management, or landscape architecture and doing thesis projects. Some of those students are now in industry and licensed, forming an alumni network that has become an army of humanitarians for us. Our student program is almost more of a training program to inspire young people. If their thesis project gets designed and built, it’s the cherry on top. The real objective is get them comfortable and excited with doing humanitarian work so that they’ll become alumni.
Who ensures the quality of the designs?
We have several layers of quality control before projects are built. If you have a student designer, there’s the professor that they’re working with and the Journeyman team, which also reviews projects. We also pair every designer—whether they’re a student or not—with a mentor, typically a licensed professional near them who they can meet with weekly or so. Then we partner with an organization in the project’s country. For example, we’re doing a project in the Dominican Republic and we’ll connect with the Habitat for Humanity office there because they know the materials and what’s culturally appropriate. On top of that, we run all of our drawings and designs by a local architect and engineer.
How does a student become involved in a JI project?
For the thesis program, it depends on the university. I typically get students reaching out to me years in advance. We don’t accept all students; they have to apply, and submit résumés and portfolios. Our criteria for selecting designers is twofold: One, we want highly talented people; and two, they [must have] a genuine heartfelt passion for humanitarian work.
If a student contacts us and submits their résumé and portfolio, I ask them to talk to their professor and their department head. Basically, a JI project has to fit into an existing curriculum. If it doesn’t match and it’s not a good fit, then we just don’t do it. We also collaborate with AIA Students to run a design competition we call the “Humanitarian Design-A-Thon.”
Even though the student component has been our bread and butter, it’s not the only opportunity to get involved. If firms want to get their staff involved in directly doing projects, we welcome that, and are doing several like that. We also worked with AIA San Francisco and NCARB to create the JI Emerging Professionals program, which lets designers earn IDP [now AXP] credit for volunteering with JI projects.
How is JI, a 501(c)(3), funded?
The primary funding source is through corporate sponsors. We go to AEC companies, show them what we do, and request that they sponsor the design development of a specific project. Then their name is on a project and oftentimes that company becomes the mentor for that project. What’s neat about that relationship is that our donors are actively involved in the work, instead of just writing a check.
I’m the only JI employee, so I collect a salary and the funds come from our corporate sponsors. A company will typically sponsor a specific design project; for example, they’ll give $5,000 to help JI design and coordinate a specific project. That will help support my time in putting together project logistics, provide money for travel, and things like site surveying or soil testing for a project. The money also goes toward general business expenses and helping students travel. We have low overhead and low expenses.
Do firms have to be located near the student’s university to be a mentor?
Oftentimes, they’re not nearby. We’re able to do so much with Skype and email. I do encourage the students to give presentations at least a few times during design.
With a student and/or architecture firm donating their design services, does an engineer donate their services as well?
As far as our architecture and engineering mentors go, they’re all free. They volunteer. It’s pro bono. Our “client,” and I say client in quotes because they’re typically not paying anything, are responsible for covering the hard costs: the bricks, the mortar, the labor, and the operation.
We often provide a substantial amount of soft costs. Typically, we cover high-level project management, meaning it’s me and maybe some support for viewing contracts, maybe traveling and helping picking out a suitable contractor, and helping with the permitting process. Each project is a case-by-case situation, but we have the ability to support them in a variety of ways. I may have a project that requests a full-time superintendent on the ground. Then sometimes I’ll go out and I’ll find one. A lot of times, we pick locals in that country and I can travel over and help them select that construction team.
How do you ensure transparency in running the organization?
We have a board of directors that reviews everything. The board members are: Landon Friend, the business development manager at Bennett Environmental, in Lemoore, Calif; Samuel DeLay, a real estate broker with Hasson Realtors, in Bend, Ore.; and me.
We have very little overhead because we are basically coordinating volunteer efforts for everything. In the developing world, our clients are not able to get loans for these projects or mortgages, so you have to build with cash in hand. What happens then is that these projects typically take a long time to finish.
Does JI provide fundraising support, too?
Our team creates elaborate and amazing design and construction proposals that have been used by our clients to raise a lot of money. Sometimes our students will go out after they finish their [thesis design] and provide support with fundraising, but as a company, JI doesn’t fundraise for these projects.
What are your goals for growth?
Steady growth while maintaining quality control. Last year we designed 25 projects; this year maybe 30 projects. We’re not trying to explode. It’s a complicated endeavor.
What does JI need most in terms of support?
We’re actively seeking new projects, as well as people who want to volunteer their work, time, and energy, and then also sponsors. You don’t have to be a student.
JI as a company is a humanitarian platform that can plug into an office’s corporate culture. Many firms love doing humanitarian work, but coordinating the logistics can be time-consuming. My company makes that easy for them. We have the platform. We have a step-by-step humanitarian design handbook [available upon request]. We coordinate the logistics, so that the firms can just get to work.
The pitfall for me is finding enough projects. If I didn’t have to spend any time fundraising, I could coordinate a lot more projects. There’s a lot of people willing to volunteer, which is a nice problem to have.