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The Power to be Valued

By Cameron Sinclair

"We challenge the design profession to respond to the 98 percent of the world that does not benefit from our services and to foster public appreciation for the many ways that architecture and design can improve lives."
—Cameron Sinclair

Profit and productivity will forever be goals in design. But it’s the opportunity to help people at the most primal levels that elevates design to its highest power. Here, Perspective talks with a leader in this important humanitarian movement, Cameron Sinclair, about the path to human dignity through shelter. Sinclair, co-founder and Executive Director of Architecture for Humanity, which encourages architecture and design solutions to aid people in humanitarian crises, knows firsthand the power design to make all human beings, regardless of status, feel valued.

How do interior designers affect people’s sense of value and importance?
Being a designer is about trying to improve the well-being of people by providing hope and a sense of place. But that mission can compete with profitability. Most interior designers I know try to find a balance in their work. They work for clients who can help them pay the bills, and then they also try to do some pro bono projects.

That’s our focus at Architecture for Humanity — to get interior designers, architects and engineers involved in humanitarian work in a way that best utilizes their expertise. We challenge the design profession to respond to the 98 percent of the world that does not benefit from our services and to foster public appreciation for the many ways that architecture and design can improve lives.

The Ambedgar Nagar Community Center in India, designed by Architecture for Humanity and Architect Purnima McCutcheon, includes a library, women's center, daycare and technology training center. The area was devastated by the Indian Ocean Tsunami in December 2004.

Do you feel the general public has a grasp of design’s potential to improve people’s lives?
Not in the United States. And that’s a byproduct of the way design is represented in the media. To the general public, interior design is HGTV and “Extreme Home Makeover.” Then there are the design magazines. When you open a typical design magazine, you see projects by big-name designers for high-profile clients. It leads to a perception that interior designers work only for very wealthy clients doing very exclusive projects. In reality, that represents a small sector of the work being done. So much is being done in the areas of social services, schools, civic buildings and public spaces. Those are much more challenging and do not get the recognition they deserve.

There are exceptions to this rule. Dwell and ReadyMade are two magazines doing a fantastic job of showing a more holistic approach to design. And outside of the United States, design is a conversation that happens on a national level. Denmark created the INDEX Awards, a state-funded program that recognizes design that has improved people’s lives.

Your new book, Design Like You Give a Damn, is another example of an exception to that rule, correct?
True. The book was born out of conversations that kept occurring at events where both Kate Stohr and I would talk about projects and designers that we felt were doing a lot of good in the world, and no one had ever heard of them! These are great projects.

A perfect example is the Rufisque Women’s Center in rural Senegal. It is a cooperative center used by more than 50 women’s groups and designed by a young Finnish firm called Hollmen-Reuter-Sandman Architects. It’s a very striking building, and it shows that when you bring an innovative, pragmatic and beautiful building into a community with a design team attached to it, it can become a catalyst for change
in the community.

By publishing these projects, we’re giving them the same high-profile coverage that the glossy magazines are giving the non-humanitarian projects. We’re showing that there are designers who care as much about ethics as they do about aesthetics.

In addition to design professionals, another ideal purchaser of this book would be a parent buying books for a child who is going off to college to study architecture or interior design. I am hoping that the next generation of design students will come with an inherent awareness of this way of working.

How does Architecture for Humanity measure the success of its humanitarian projects?
We’re doing a lot of post-Tsunami rebuilding in India. We’re focusing on not just building a series of individual homes, but on rebuilding the entire community — things like schools and medical clinics. We’re essentially creating the life of the town, which is both holistic and sustainable.

How do you measure the success of a humanitarian design project?
There are the usual assessments, such as whether the space is working as it was intended to function and whether the community likes it, but it’s important to go beyond that. The biggest criteria for success is whether the community has taken ownership of it. We work hard during our projects to involve the community in the process. That way, when we leave, there is a natural transferring of ownership and perhaps even a call to continue the work.

We did a small school in Sri Lanka after the Tsunami, for example. When we left, the community was inspired to do one of its own. It’s truly sustainable renewal.

Not-for-Profit Work: The Client's Side

By definition, not-for-profit organizations tend to be short on time and resources, and long on tasks to accomplish. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, not-for-profit obstacles include slow decision-making, lack of operational scale and insularity. This can sometimes make volunteer design efforts more challenging and sensitive than traditional paid work, but with results that are equally — if not more — satisfying for both designer and client. Case in point: a recent renovation project between Gastinell’s Tender Loving Care, a group home for adolescent girls in San Francisco, and volunteer design organization Philanthropy by Design (PBD).

Although Gastinell’s is a 24-hour facility for wards of the court, closing down for weeks of renovation proved necessary. At her initial meeting with PBD, Executive Director Mary Gastinell presented a wish list for her facility and fortunately found the staff to be supportive and flexible.

PBD worked with Gastinell and the residents to select new color and decor options, so the home would feel like theirs. Gastinell chose a pale teal paint, which was donated by Alex Cary Interiors (Cary also served as PBD’s Manager for the project). Carpet, window dressings, computer chairs, bedding, and even posters and prints for the girls’ bedroom walls soon followed from a variety of PBD’s local industry contacts. “Sometimes items are donated for a specific need, and sometimes they’re given more generally,” explains Cris Miller, PBD’s Board Liaison for the project.

After some intense scheduling meetings, PBD’s staff worked a day at a time, over a period of months, to complete bedroom, bathroom, office and outdoor renovations and painting projects. They are still waiting for new carpet, but already Gastinell can see a difference.

“The girls are taking great pride in the house and are keeping it beautiful.”
— Jessica Royer Ocken