Cameron Sinclair Shares His Secrets

by Rebecka Gordan

Cameron Sinclair is the co-founder and CEO of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that seeks architectural solutions to humanitarian crises and brings professional design services to communities in need.

Sinclair founded Architecture for Humanity in 1999 with his partner, journalist Kate Stohr. Today the organization includes 73 chapters in 25 countries with more than 4,650 volunteer design professionals. Projects range from schools, health clinics, affordable housing to long-term sustainable reconstruction. Work has also included rebuilding after the 2010 earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 South Asia tsunami.

With his 2006 TED Prize, Sinclair and Stohr launched the Open Architecture Network, a site offering open source architectural plans, drawings and CAD files and the ability to collaborate, manage projects remotely and share design knowledge.

Polis met with Cameron Sinclair in Stockholm earlier this month, at a conference organized by Akademiska Hus, to discuss some of his solutions, projects and challenges.

In comparison to similar organizations, Architecture for Humanity has been very successful in implementing projects. What has been the key to achieving this?

Mahatma Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world.” I think he got that a little bit wrong. The secret is, "Be the bank." Have some developers on your board. Have some people thinking very differently about financing.

We are not just architects, and that is what developed us. When you control the financing, you can control the quality of the construction and the way in which projects get implemented. This has been vital for us. Since we started to control the finacing and be the bank for the communities, our projects have been easy.

Do you see any problems in taking the role of the "bank"?

No, I don’t. There is a reason why communities don’t have a school, and that is not that they weren’t smart enough to think of that need, but that they never had the resources to build it. If you are coming in as an architect with this great expertise, but without the resources, it doesn’t really matter for them. It is almost like a gift that the community allows you to come in and work with them. So you have an obligation to help them raise funds, whether through government financing or private financing.

Architecure for Humanity doesn’t have any government funding, so we bring in corporations and individuals. I would say that, in the last 10 years, we probably brought about $20 million just through our organization to communities in need.

Recently, Architecture for Humanity announced a
design competition that will envision a re-use of military sites as civic spaces. How come?

In the U.S., we spend billions of dollars on environmental remediation of these sites, but we have no transformations of these buildings into civic use. The people living around them essentially get a well-built abandoned building. So we say: Let’s try to engage the community into getting something that they need. We have asked people to actually work in their local communities affected by closure of a military installation.

What are you thoughts on the architect’s responsibility when working with communities: prescribe or respond?

I think we have to do a little bit of both. I would like to be a little more preventative in disaster areas. My problem is that we get asked to rush into a disaster, and we could have done a lot more development work and thoughtful work prior, thinking about flood resistance and earthquake-resistant housing. But nobody wants to fund that. There is no research — there is no NASA for this.

In America, architecture is seen as a design art. The only funding scheme from the government is the National Endowment for the Arts. Basically taking money from painters and sculptors – I don’t want to do that. So we have to find someone that is willing to fund preventative work.

What knowledge can we bring from the humanitarian field into the everyday architecture practice?

Almost all of our schools are multi-use, 24-hour buildings. It is not just a school; it is a community center and has a health component to it. I think that making sure that buildings have multiple functions and that they are used correctly and efficiently is something that can add value in the developed world.

It is funny — everyone talks about us working in the developing world like it is a bad thing. My biggest problem is that they don’t have an economic meltdown in the developing world. They’re having a constant six percent return on their growth, while the dollar and the euro are crashing so hard that I am actually losing money working in these countries.

What is on your mind today?

I had a video conference with Japan at lunch, so I was thinking about the work we are doing there. The hardest friction is between the government bureaucracy and the implementation. We have taken a very radical approach to our rebuilding strategy, which is that we essentially are a social entrepreneurship business. We are paying our architects for their work, we are paying our taxes; we are acting like a non-profit construction company. And we seem to be getting stuff done. So we may actually be scaling up and trying figure out how to do more work in the field.

It seems like you are taking steps forward right now?

Yes, we are constantly growing. And I am constantly hiring. I am looking for five more people this week: a decent director of operations and some project managers. I am reading resumes like crazy. In an economy where no architects can find work, I am busy trying to hire. That is the other thing on my mind today!

Credits: Photo of Cameron Sinclair by Rebecka Gordan.

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