Case Studies/Architecture for Humanity

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architecture, development, sustainability, design


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Architecture for Humanity is a non-profit design services organization that aims to build a sustainable future through professional design, seeking architectural solutions to humanitarian crises.

Architecture for Humanity and Design for Change are inspiring examples. Collaborative design over the internet is tremendously powerful, and likely the best way forward. Omar Yaqub, Vestergaard Frandsen Nigeria, Lagos, Nigeria


Describing the global housing crisis, Architecture for Humanity (AFH) provides the following context:

‘One billion people live in abject poverty.
Four billion live in fragile but growing economies.
One in seven live in slum settlements.
By 2030 it will be one in three.
What is needed is not one solution but millions of solutions.’

Architecture for Humanity operates under the motto ‘Design like you give a damn.’ Founded from a single laptop computer in 1999 by Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr, AFH is a charitable organization which promotes social design, seeking architectural solutions to humanitarian crises. Based in California, and with chapters in Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy and Australia, AFH responds to global events: present and past projects encompass the establishment of transitional housing for returning refugees in Kosovo, mobile health clinics in Sub-Saharan Africa, an HIV/AIDS outreach centre in South Africa, and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina in the Biloxi Model Home Program and the Haiti earthquake.

Co-founder Cameron Sinclair explained his philosophy for sustainable housing in his acceptance speech for the 2006 TED prize, stating his wish to ‘create a global open-source network that will let architects and communities share and build designs to house the world.’ A result of this ‘one wish to change the world’ was the establishment of the Open Architecture Network (OAN) in 2007, developed in conjunction with Creative Commons and Sun Microsystems. OAN aims to respond to the UN Millennium Development Goal of achieving ‘improvement in the lives of 100 million slum dwellers for the year 2015.’ The network involves not only professional architects; it incorporates community leaders, educators, healthcare workers, non-profit organizations and technologists, amongst others with relevant expertise. Reaching their audience through competitions, workshops, educational forums and exhibitions, OAN fosters public appreciation for the diverse ways that architecture and design can improve lives.

The contribution made by AFH has been further recognised in the granting of the 2005 Index Award to Improve Life (community) and in 2006, the Innovation of the Year from the Observer’s Ethical Awards and Wired Magazine’s Rave Award for Architecture.

License Usage

AFH’s projects were initially licensed under the Creative Commons Developing Nations license. As profiled by Ethan Zuckerman in his blog discussing international development, this is ‘a simple solution to a complex problem’ surrounding commercial operations in ‘high-income’ nations versus non-commercial projects in developing nations. The license allowed the retention of full copyright in the developed world, whilst permitting individuals and organizations of the developing world to work within an attribution-only framework. This approach was considered to benefit local designers, as they could develop a targeted solution for their region, and then go on to market to a broader audience across developed nations in the West.

In June 2006, Kathryn Frankel from Creative Commons interviewed Cameron Sinclair to discover more about his experience with using CC licenses.

Creative Commons: How does AFH use Creative Commons licenses?
Cameron Sinclair: We use the Developing Nations license for the designs of our buildings. Once the first prototype building is completed, we can essentially give away the designs to other communities in other developing nations. Licenses are granted in the designers’ names. This actually came out of a project we did, the architect felt by doing the project, he would lose the design. So half of it is a reassurance, the other half is to give architects the confidence to actually do pro bono work and not feel that their creativity will be given away.

The Creative Commons Developing Nations license has subsequently been retired, given that it did not permit worldwide non-commercial verbatim sharing, and that there was an inadequate demand.

AFH's Open Architecture Network enables CC licenses for designers who wish to license their designs under one of the CC licenses or dedicate their design to the public domain. Work produced in the community resource and recovery centers for both Hurricane Katrina and Haiti earthquake are licensed in the network under various CC licenses. In a recent article on The Huffington Post, Cameron Sinclair wrote,

"Through the Open Architecture Network, more than 3,000 projects have been uploaded to the system and range from low-income housing, health and education facilities, public-gathering points and transit nodes. Every project is held under a Creative Commons license allowing others to adapt and share innovative ideas. In less than a month, the system will launch a geo-based mobile app that will allow anyone to find local solutions or discover ones from afar."


When asked about the extent to which CC licenses could benefit the architectural and humanitarian design community, Cameron Sinclair responded:

‘By engaging more people in getting involved in these issues, CC licenses could act as a platform, like a legal standard, that designers could work from. At the moment, the industry is in a very gray area and nobody knows what belongs to who, who’s really the designer, who’s liable. CC licensing could clear that up.’

The AFH vision expresses the ideal for infrastructure to be designed and built locally:

‘We believe that this can be achieved not by replicating a design that was successful in one situation in another, but by encouraging locally-inspired designs and by enabling these solutions to be shared and freely adapted by all.’


See also: