Architecture for Humanity is what architecture is all about. This organization is exactly why I wanted to get involved in architecture in the first place. Architecture for Humanity is just what is sounds like: Habitat for Humanity with an architectural twist. The nonprofit organization provides professional design, build, and development services to communities in need all over the world. Based in San Francisco, AFH boasts over 50,000 professional connections worldwide, as well as 58 chapters in 16 countries with more than 13,000 professional volunteers. (They’ll have one more volunteer this summer too, when I join their chapter in Boston.) More than 2 million people have lived, worked, healed, or learned in the structures that AFH has helped build in the past 12 years.
The most important part of the work that AFH does is its focus. The organization is very aware of the social context of their work, and respond to it with a spatial and architectural context to match it. In other words, AFH builds what the people need.
In many places, what people need is affordable, low-maintenance housing in the wake of natural disaster or political turmoil. One such place is the Tak Province of Thailand, where Taren tribal people seek refuge from international conflict. Mass displacement has caused many children to become homeless orphans. Instead of building a typical dormitory block unit as an orphanage, Swedish firm TYIN Tegnestue built six smaller individual units that could house up to six children each. Made from locally harvested bamboo, each unit acts as not just a shelter but as a playground.
The firm found it important to provide these traumatized orphans with space to play and express themselves in order to help alleviate the hardships they have dealt with. TYIN recognized the social needs of the end users of the project, and built a space that exactly fit what the users needed. It is this type of work that is doing exactly what architecture should do: directly solving social problems.
In addition to disaster relief, AFH also works to build community centers centered around an active lifestyle. One such project was built in the Central Province of Kenya as a response to the four-year drought the area was suffering. The rural village was struggling to grow crops and to provide fresh drinking water for its residents. So AFH partnered with Dick Clark Architects to build the Mahiga Hope High School Rainwater Court. A large spanning overhang provided the community with a cool, shady place to play basketball while collecting the rainwater into two 15,000 gallon cisterns to be purified and distributed.
The beauty of this simple structure is that it led to unexpected benefits for the community. It served as a catalyst for the area as a whole. In less than a year and a half following its completion, student test scores jumped from lowest to highest in the 600-school district, enrollment in the high school tripled, the school gained electricity for the first time, the school built a computer lab and a library in their new two story high school. The rural village of Mahiga went from a struggling rural village to a vibrant educational center.
This is why architecture matters. This is why collaboration is important. This is why simple sustainable solutions can lead to larger scale positive social change. And this is only a little fraction of the beautiful work that AFH is responsible for. I encourage you to look into their work on their website,
or to check out the 2 books they’ve published that catalog their work
Design Like You Give a Damn
Design Like You Give a Damn 2
So get involved! I am very excited to get started with this organization. I want to get my hands dirty and do some work. As AFH says, “unless you build it, it doesn’t matter.”