Innovation & Design

How Architects Help in Haiti


Cameron Sinclair and his organization, Architecture for Humanity, are working to help communities rebuild

(Bloomberg) — Three days after the devastating earthquake hit Haiti, Architecture for Humanity co-founder Cameron Sinclair learned that colleagues from another aid group had been crushed to death in a collapsed building.

"We lost designers, artists, the sort of people you would tap for the reconstruction process," Sinclair said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in San Francisco. "Haiti has not just lost people, but skill and expertise that will be hard to bring back."

Architecture for Humanity works with groups around the world to rebuild communities struck by natural and man-made disasters. Such is the continuing chaos in Haiti that even now, weeks after my conversation with Sinclair, the exact death toll is unknown.

His organization is helping to reconstruct the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. The first task is to build disaster recovery centers that will serve other relief groups.

"We have to be very careful in the way we work," said Sinclair, who was trained as an architect in London. "If you don't have community engagement you don't succeed."

Architecture for Humanity is planning to build schools in Haiti in partnership with charitable groups founded by investor Warren Buffett, actor Ben Stiller, singer Shakira and Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos.

Yele Haiti

Along with Yele Haiti, a charity founded by musician Wyclef Jean, it also was going to build a youth basketball facility that could double as a disaster center before the earthquake struck.

"It's the greatest irony, so depressing—this was intended to be pre-emptive," said Sinclair, who in January attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he spoke about the need for 10 million more classrooms worldwide.

Sinclair and his wife, Kate Stohr, both 36, started Architecture for Humanity in New York City in 1999. It now has 14 full-time staffers and 4,650 volunteers spanning 53 chapters in 13 countries. Funds for the $3.5 million annual budget come from private donors, foundations and project partners.

The organization has been involved in seven major disasters, including the aftermath of the South Asian tsunami in 2004. After Hurricane Katrina, it coordinated volunteers from dozens of charities to help Biloxi, Mississippi, victims clean up and rebuild. (New affordable homes were designed to withstand major storms.) Architecture for Humanity also has built AIDS clinics in Africa.

"We've become a go-to organization," Sinclair said.

Even the Vatican has called, asking for advice on rebuilding its demolished churches in Haiti.

Earthquake Manual

Sinclair said Architecture for Humanity plays a key role in disaster recovery because most charitable organizations don't know anything about construction.

"We give away our plans to anyone who wants to replicate what we've done," Sinclair said.

Architecture for Humanity has written an earthquake manual, but Haiti's poverty makes it difficult to construct earthquake-proof buildings. Sinclair has already rejected offers to use shipping containers for housing because he fears they would become mosquito-infested ovens.

"You can't do a shoddy job," Sinclair said. "You're helping people build equity."

Facebook Donors

Sinclair said he won't travel to Haiti until emergency needs are met there.

"A clinic we deal with says they have 30 doctors to see 1,000 patients a day," he said. "Yet every politician has to fly in, each one taking a precious airline seat from a doctor. Why the hell was John Edwards in Haiti?"

Fundraising is crucial right now. With its limited advertising budget, Sinclair said, Architecture for Humanity has gotten most of its money since the earthquake via Facebook and Twitter.

"You've got 21 days after a disaster to raise all the money to build for five years," Sinclair said.

To donate money to Architecture for Humanity's rebuilding efforts in Haiti, go to http://architectureforhumanity.org or call +1-415-963-3511.

James S. Russell is Bloomberg's architecture critic. The opinions expressed are his own.

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