Architecture for the Rest of the World

General / Places / October 5, 2010

Like Doctors without Borders, Architecture for Humanity seeks to use its volunteer members’ professional skills to find solutions for global, social and humanitarian crises.

“The number of people who can afford an architect makes up about two percent of the world’s population,” said Frederika Zipp, senior project manager for the San Francisco-based non-profit organization.  “Why should such a large segment of the population be deprived of design services just because they can’t afford them – especially with all the natural disasters taking place?”

The group, made up of 72 chapters around the world, was quick to arrive in Haiti following the catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake in January.  Many of the lives lost there were the result of shoddy design and construction techniques for homes and public buildings. 

“It wasn’t the earthquake that endangered people’s lives, but the poor methods, and the lack of building codes and regulations,” she said. 

A team of about 15-20 Architecture for Humanity volunteers are currently in Haiti, focused solely on rebuilding ten to 12 schools.  They’ve broken ground on two in Port Au Prince, each with six to eight classrooms for 250-300 students.

“The idea is to restore normalcy to the city after such a traumatic experience,” Frederika said.  “The kids need to be back in a safe space and a learning environment, and the parents need to know that they are.”

Volunteers from the group rotate in and out of Haiti, from chapters in Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, Sioux Falls, New York and San Juan.  They’re dedicated to introducing a design process that includes the community itself.

“They’re the designers,” she said.  “They know more about what they need than we do.”

The group, founded by architect Cameron Sinclair, also advocates an open source design, so that everything its members do is shared at  “Why not use and re-use a good design?” Frederika asked.  “It’s helpful – and it saves time and money.”

The group can point to post-Katrina Biloxi, Miss. as a primary success story.  There, volunteers built eight homes, working one-on-one with families to design with new and sustainable technology.  “We set up a design center to address local needs, then hired and trained local workers,” she said.  “We provided design services and financial assistance to locate grants for the construction of new homes for families that had been wiped out.”

If one out of seven people worldwide now live in a slum or refugee camp, the demand for services from Architecture for Humanity will only grow in the future.

“The predictions are for one in three in 20 years,” Frederika said.

 To volunteer for Architecture for Humanity, go to

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Michael Welton

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