Architect Cameron Sinclair aims to marry design and development 

He Gives a Damn

Cameron Sinclair designs for humanity

When Being Sustainable is a Matter of Survival
By Cameron Sinclair
Sept. 22, 6 p.m.
Lulan Artisans, 469 King St.
(843) 722.0118

On the Open Architecture Network website, created by TED Prize winner Cameron Sinclair, you will find global shelters made out of straw bales, shipping containers, and beer crates. These local materials are incorporated into computer-generated models by architects who have been asked to build for sites with the most limited resources and aggressive environments. The resulting combinations of local improvisation and contemporary design aim first for practicality, but many are so inventive they can't help being playful and sleek along the way.

Since Sinclair and Kate Stohr founded Architecture for Humanity (AFH) in 1999 after working with Kosovar refugees, AFH has provided shelter solutions from Brazil to Mississippi, and they are all now posted on the Open Architecture Network for replication. Their book, Design Like You Give a Damn, details these case studies in development design.

Sinclair will speak at the Sustainable Community Lecture Series initiated by Lulan Artisans, a holistic home decor shop on King Street. Sinclair spoke with Charleston City Paper about his global projects and the coastal communities threatened by the effects of global warming.

CITY PAPER: You've done a lot of work in Biloxi, Miss. What was your approach?

CAMERON SINCLAIR: We don't treat the community as a victim but as a partner. We are designing spaces for families in a way that responds to their needs. What people did in the past was design the same house for an elderly couple as they did for a single mom with six kids. They met the lowest common denominator. This resulted in houses without wheelchair ramps or enough bedrooms. We aim for tangible solutions. We are not an organization that builds 50,000 houses. We create a few hundred homes and allow others to replicate on a global scale.

CP: Do you continue to consult with communities where you have completed work?

CS: I don't think I would use the word consultant, but friend. I have never had a client that I couldn't sit down and have a beer with. Many people have said AFH is a refreshing change from the status quo. When you spend two or three years building a school or a clinic, you become life-long friends. We understand you can't be there forever, so that's why it's about local empowerment. The communities are part of the construction process and that helps twofold. There is immense pride and ownership, and the money donated to us ends up in the hands of the families who need it most.

CP: You have pointed out that sharing failures on the Open Architecture Network is as important as sharing successes. Why?

CS: We have entered a world in which nonprofits are so reliant on good press that it's almost a taboo to talk about projects that haven't gone well. It's human nature that things don't always go 100 percent. When we've been completely honest and transparent with our donors about obstacles on a given project, most of our donors, whose gifts average around $25 or $50, will come back with another donation to help it along.

CP: What is an example of a project that didn't work?

CS: We tried some elements of design on the Gulf Coast that didn't work, so we changed the design based on lessons learned. Very early on we realized putting a structural member all the way to the roof was a design solution more equipped to handle hurricanes. We took a proven solution from the Carolinas, and we shared it with the rest of the design team. Houses all along the Gulf Coast were changed to have this feature. That simple design solution may have affected 600-700 families. Now I'm applying the same kind of structurally sound design using bamboo in Myanmar. This is what I am going to address in this talk. How innovation is at the forefront of change.

CP: For coastal areas, how do you design for the dramatic rises in sea level?

CS: There's adaptation and mitigation. As an organization, we don't have money for sea walls, so we focus on adaptation. We mainly deal with poorer communities, so we are talking about tens of millions of people living in low-lying areas. We design structurally sound homes where the water can either wash through or where the house is elevated. What we found with the tsunami (in Southeast Asia) is that many people died not because of the actual tsunami, but because their homes had been partially damaged and when the next storm came, their homes collapsed.

CP: How do you begin helping a devastated community, like Biloxi?

CS: With a mindset that I will never be a Darfur, Kosovo, or Katrina refugee. I will never understand what it's like to have my children taken from me, my loved ones raped or murdered, what it's like to be a family on the Gulf Coast who has lost not only its home, but every photograph it ever had. What I can do is listen. That's all people want. Just listen to what they've got to say, and then let's get to work together.

CP: How did you become so optimistic?

CS: I grew up in a tough neighborhood in South London and worked my ass off to get out of there. I have traveled the world, and I have seen the worst of what humanity has to offer. But as bad as it gets, I always find people who are incredibly optimistic who have nothing. So many things are meaningless when you talk to someone who only wants clean water. Or in a slum in Nairobi surrounded by open sewers where they are talking about wanting to send their kids to a university. It shakes you. These people are so positive about the future.


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