When you design like you give a damn, buildings can make a difference.

At least that is what the non-profit organization Architecture for Humanity believes. Established 13 years ago, this organization has worked with local communities around the world to design and construct over 70 sustainable structures that are tailored to the specific needs of each community.

The organization started in 1999 with the efforts of two architects, Kate Stohr and Cameron Sinclair. While watching the devastating results of the Kosovo war, they saw thousands of refugees whose homes had been destroyed and communities torn apart. It was then when they decided that this was an opportunity for them to use their abilities to help.

“We just said to ourselves I bet there is more than just us who care about these communities and want to use our creativity, want to use our skill set to make a difference,” said Cameron Sinclair, Co-Founder of Architecture for Humanity.

In an effort to provide a timely solution for these refugees, Stohr and Sinclair held a global design competition for a housing community that would benefit the refugees. The outcome was outstanding. Hundreds of design ideas were received from all over the world. Since then, this competition has grown into a one of a kind organization that combines the creativity of architectural designers around the world with the knowledge and understanding of local communities stricken by poverty and/or disaster.

In the past 13 years, Architecture for Humanity has created a network of over 50,000 design professionals who contribute their talents and abilities to reach over 25,000 beneficiaries a year. Many projects are conducted in some of the world’s poorest countries like Ethiopia, Uganda and Haiti. According to Kate Stohr, co-founder of the organization, they believe that it is important that even people living in systemic poverty understand that they deserve resources to trained professionals with creative abilities.

At Architecture for Humanity, sustainable living structures are not a luxury but a right. “Humans have a right to a community,” said Karl Johnson, Communications Associate for Architecture for Humanity. “Architecture is the capacity to facilitate, provide and enhance all kinds of human rights. It provides an area, a space for those human rights to be achieved.”

From community centers to medical clinics, Architecture for Humanity has joined with local communities to design spaces that facilitate community development. Although the organization had began with a focus on housing developments they have found that often communities are in need of more.

“A lot of NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] are already focusing on housing. We compliment those efforts with community buildings; projects that might otherwise not get as much attention,” said Johnson.

How It Works

Architecture for Humanity strongly believes that the local community knows what it needs more than anyone else. A characteristic of the group that makes it very unique.

“It is not our place to determine that this or that community needs something and then go in there and build,” said Johnson.

With this in mind, the organization only goes where its talents and assistance are specifically requested. Once a local area reaches out to the organization a design fellow is sent to the site for 6-12 month. Before any bricks are laid, the designer holds a series of charrettes, or workshops, to discuss the most beneficial designs with members of the area. Although these meeting can be lengthy and tiring, at Architecture for Humanity they believe that even the poorest communities have the right to be critical. The organization’s goal is not to create structures that they want but structures that address the needs of people in the local area.

“It is important to listen because if you don’t it becomes more of your design than theirs,” said Purima McCutcheon, a design fellow with Architecture for Humanity.

Once the designing is complete, the local people are also a major part of the structures construction. Instead of bringing in their own construction team, Architecture for Humanity believes that using local construction professionals and community members, not only insources the labor, but gives the locals a since of ownership once the project is complete. In this way Architecture for Humanity uses their design and construction projects to encourage community development and growth. “These are all important part of what it means to build back a better, more sustainable community,” said Johnson.

There is no doubt the efforts of this non-profit have proven successful. With over 70 completed projects, 13 design competitions and 48 projects underway, they have used architecture as a means of community growth, both structurally and developmentally. Amongst their many successful projects, 20 of them are taking place on the continent of Africa with their initiative “Football for Hope”. A movement that promotes growth in health, peace building, children’s rights and education, and anti-discrimination and social integration. This all springing from the decision to build a community center.

As the company continues to expand, it has began to focus efforts on more than architecture but urban planning and economic development. “We are finding that it is a more holistic effort for communities to rebuild,” Johnson stated.

With their organization, Architecture for Humanity is showing the world that rebuilding is more than putting together mud and bricks. When you design and construct like you give a damn you create so much more than a concrete structure; you facilitate community.

What YOU Can Do

You don’t have to be an architect to help Architecture for Humanity, although they are much appreciated! If you do have design experience consider joining one of the 52 local chapters to get connected to the global network of professionals. If you are located in the Northern California area, the Architecture for Humanity Headquarters in San Francisco can always use volunteers. And if neither of these apply to you, consider conducting a fundraiser with your school, church or workplace to raise money for donations or to sponsor a design fellow.

For more information on what you can do to help rebuild more sustainable communities, visit http://architectureforhumanity.org/get_involved.