Design Like You Give a Damn: A tribute to AFH

Mitazono Wakaba Kindergarten, Japan / Tohoku Earthquake Tsunami rebuild
Mitazono Wakaba Kindergarten, Japan / Tohoku Earthquake Tsunami rebuild

Over the past couple of weeks, news has been emerging from San Francisco about the closure of the global HQ for the humanitarian design charity Architecture for Humanity. I was particularly saddened by this, due to the fact that I have admired and followed the work of AFH since I was at university, preparing for my career as an Interior Architect.

Many people will not be aware of the impact this organisation has had over the last 15 years. They are not a business-led charity. They have no mainstream celebrity advocates. They are a design-led team of do-ers, using their skills and knowledge to help solve humanitarian problems by consulting with local communities in order to design, manage and construct new public architecture.

AFH was founded in 1999 by architect Cameron Sinclair and journalist Kate Stohr. In response to the need for immediate long-term shelter for returning refugees in Kosovo after the region’s bloody conflict, they ran an open design competition and were inundated with entries. As Sinclair wrote in the book Design Like You Give a Damn, published in 2006:

“We realized that I wasn’t the only disillusioned CAD monkey and that architects and designers really did want to make a difference.”

It is this sentiment that rings true for so many designers, but it must have taken an unthinkable level of determination and hard work to develop this idea from a personal career frustration to what it is today. From day one, the organisation was principally a network of architects willing to share knowledge and resources in order to assist with helping communities. Online, AFH describe their fields of expertise as:

  • Disaster reconstruction
  • Active spaces
  • Community resilience
  • Education spaces

They achieve this by putting the right people on the ground, with the appropriate skills and experience, for every project they carry out. They have promoted humanitarian and social design around the world, and they do this through partnerships, advocacy and educational programmes. They have consulted with governments in countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Rwanda, and have offered pro-bono design and build services following disasters such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and Cyclone Nargis.

In his 2006 TED talk, Sinclair told of how shocked he was at the slow progress made by world humanitarian organisations in developing equipment for global crises. Charities like Unicef were still using the same, poorly designed emergency refugee tents as they had commissioned years before. He saw an opportunity, not to save money or increase value, but to improve the living conditions of innocent people caught up in conflict or natural disasters.

It’s a long process to be a qualified designer (and longer for architects). First you might go to art school, then you study design at university, and eventually you gain your technical qualifications out in industry, all before you can work professionally in your chosen field. Designers are hard-grafting, skilled creatives, and they train on the job, constantly having to adapt. From new trends, technological advances and even changes made to computer drawing software, the job is never the same. The purpose of design is principally to solve problems, and so it’s no wonder there are so many “disillusioned CAD monkeys” out there, when you think of how strongly they are constantly pushed towards using these skills to create commercial opportunities.

For years I have been so inspired by AFH because of their no-nonsence, practical approach to some of the world’s biggest human crises. When I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days with them this summer, it was encouraging to watch these people at work. They weren’t saints, they didn’t have masters degrees in global politics. They were designers, creative thinkers, problem solvers. And it is these skills, which have been allowing AFH to build a network of 50,000 professionals, working in 44 countries, building 2,000 structures, and helping 2 million people over the past 15 years .

There are plenty of sources out there about the demise of AFH and what led to their eventual, recent closure. At this stage, I think it’s more important to focus on their legacy, and how they’ve changed the world of design for the rest of us.

They were by no means the first people to work in the field of socially-conscious design, however, they opened it up to a huge new range of skills and ideas. Architects were not only made aware of ways in which they could help with global disasters, they were shown how they could help with crises much closer to home, often in their own, local communities.

While this open network of information and skills may have ultimately led to there being no need for a global HQ within the organisation, it paved the way for a huge wave of socially-driven design groups for years to come, and I am sure this wont be the last we hear of Architecture for Humanity. After all…

Everyone deserves access to the benefits of good design*

Read more in this great tribute on 

Learn more about and continue supporting AFH on their website, where you can also read the full public statement

Watch Cameron Sinclair’s speech at the 2006 TED Award presentation