By Kevin McCann
Why it matters:
Because Architecture for Humanity understands that sustainable design is not about impressing your neighbors; it's about building communities and working to bring an end to poverty.
We've all heard about conspicuous consumerism. I mean, the easiest way to let people know how rich I am is to blind them with the diamonds on my wristwatch, right? But is there such a thing as conspicuous sustainability? When you crunch the numbers, riding your bike or taking public transportation puts Leo's Prius to shame. And plastering your house with solar panels isn't doing a lick of good if you keep the heater blasting at a balmy 80 degrees all winter. And though it pains me to admit it, wearing your Dad's old wool sweater until it disintegrates from your body is a more sustainable clothing choice than buying a new Patagucci fleece every time the new colors debut.
Sustainability is not a fashion statement. For all the fancy technology and ingenuity, ultimately it's about conservation; using resources intelligently and sparingly. So it follows that, for many in the third world and developing nations, sustainability is simply a matter of survival.
Architecture for Humanity (AFH) was founded in 1999 with this understanding when thousands of refugees returned to Kosovo to find the territory decimated, and themselves homeless. Enter Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr. The duo quickly sprang into action, challenging respected architects around the world to design cheap, durable, and sustainable transitional housing for the refugees. Of the top 40 designs, five prototypes were built, and together with War Child USA the group raised an additional $100,000 for the campaign.
Those early designs became the seeds that would grow the Open Architecture Network, AFH's database of hundreds of proven, adaptable, best-practice designs for homes, medical stations, community centers… Even soccer stadiums! The buildings are designed to be constructed using cheap, sustainable, and locally sourced materials.
With successful projects in India, Africa, the South Pacific, and even North America, and numerous accolades including a 2006 TED prize, Architecture for Humanity is fast on their way to lifting millions out of poverty and hardship, by design.
What does a soccer stadium have to do with poverty? Afghanis were recently asked what will put the nation on the quickest road to recovery. The responses came back consistently: rebuild bazaars and medical clinics. Translation: Restore a sense of community and provide citizens with healthcare. This is especially critical in post-conflict areas. Unfortunately, the areas that are in most need of community centers and schools tend to be those with the fewest resources (both financial and natural). Not only has AFH been facilitating the Afghan people in these ways, they also infuse fun into their projects, like with Skateistan, Afghanistan's only skate park. Now that gives a new twist to the phrase "Radical Islam" now doesn't it?
This is why Architecture for Humanity's emphasis on sustainability is so critical. Using reclaimed building materials, passive heating and cooling design principles, etc., the group is able to breath life into crippled communities for a few thousand, and in some cases just a few hundred dollars.
In fact, if there are any money-grubbing housing developers out there reading this (and gnashing their teeth), might I suggest taking a look at the Open Architecture Network? There's a lot the American housing sector could learn from Architecture for Humanity and their designs. For instance, the sun rises in the East and sets in the West… Everyday! And for us in the Northern hemisphere it travels across the southern part of the sky. AND in the winter it dips a little lower toward the horizon. I'm not kidding… Every winter! So why the hell are you building AC-hungry, two-story houses with fully-exposed, south-facing walls littered with windows?
Of course, one of our favorite facts about AFH is that their Open Architecture Network is powered by the crowd, much like Creative Citizen. When the world pools its resources, intellectual and otherwise, we can achieve anything.