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A professional response to disaster

A professional response to disaster

Aug 6, 2014

By Kathy Gibson at #UIA2014Durban

Design, planning and architecture should be abut serving communities more than about creating beautiful objects – and nowhere is this more relevant than in post-disaster situations.

Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, says the organisation was created to give architects a platform to use their professional services to make a difference in the world.

“As architects we have to build buildings, but our real role it to improve communities through innovating design,” he tells the UIA 2014 World Congress of Architecture taking place this week in Durban.

The profession has largely moved away from this ideal, he adds, with the architect being a service provider in the pay of the developer and not the creator of a long term vision.

Architecture of Humanity works with communities, often in disaster-hit areas, to rebuild people’s lives in a way that makes sense for their futures.

“When you work with communities, there is a lot of listening involved,” says Sinclair. “It turns out that architects and builders don’t always have it right – but if you put them together in teams with someone who understands the community, it can work.”

The organisation doesn’t ask architects to volunteer or offer pro bono work, but employs them at professional rates. “We want to ensure we are providing professional design services that architects will treat as proudly as they would any other project,” Sinclair explains.

Design for its own sake is also not condoned. “Communities love innovative designs – but unless you build it, it doesn’t matter. The real impact is when you build it,” he says.

Designing for the future is also important. While disaster relief projects tend to focus on the immediate results, Sinclair believes and rebuilding must be relevant for the next 30 to 40 years and to take challenges like climate change and an austere environment into account. To make sure this happens, designer live in the affected communities in order to understand the real, ongoing needs.

Skills transfer is important, and Architecture for Humanity ensures that it doesn’t displace local professionals, but embraces them as part of a professional team. The same goes for local labour, skills upliftment and job creation.

Sinclair presented a case study on the organisation’s response to the earthquake in Haiti.

“What we realised in Haiti is that earthquakes don’t kill people: bad buildings kill people,” he says.

In disaster response, Sinclair explains that Architects for Humanity follows what he calls the rule of four, which has four steps.

“You have four days from the disaster to announce a plan; then you have four weeks to raise the money – after than no-one cares; then you have four months to mobilise; and you have to commit to spending four years in completing the project.”

In Haiti, there was clear communication with the communities so they knew exactly where the project was at all times. The organisation also trained thousands of local people as construction workers.

One of the interesting sidebar projects was the creating of a rebuilding manual written to help these workers and which was soon available online in several languages and has proved to be a guide for numerous post-disaster projects.

Training was also offered to local companies on Autodesk software as well as on following international processes. Professional development for small companies was also provided.

At least 50% of the funding for a new school in the area came from 10 000 children around the world who raised $1-million. The school was built using locally-sourced material such as river rocks, reeds and bamboo. Importantly, it was constructed without using the breeze blocks that previously made up the ceiling, but with lightweight materials that will be safer in the event of another earthquake.

Community input helped the organisation come up with an innovative solution to storm water run-off when it was realised that what people really wanted was basketball courts. Now, new courts cover stormwater run-off, thus meeting both social and physical needs.

Not only that, but the areas around the basketball courts have been uplifted as well, simply because they are there.

When Architects for Humanity leaves an area, it transfer ownership of the local office to professionals within the community. It has completed this in Haiti and is no longer an NGO, but a fully-fledged and self-sustaining professional practice.

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