Call him the Robin Hood of the design world. Cameron Sinclair, a former project architect at Gensler, founded the nonprofit Architecture for Humanity to galvanize architects and designers interested in working on international relief projects. Originally funded by the personal savings of Sinclair and his wife, Kate Stohr, the organization started by holding a 1999 transitional-housing competition for returning Kosovo refugees. Some 300 entries from 30 countries poured in. The second competition, in 2002, asked architects and designers to produce renderings of a mobile HIV/ AIDS clinic for South Africa. Frank Gehry served on the advisory board, and more than 530 teams from 51 countries responded.
The 29-year-old Sinclair now runs Architecture for Humanity full-time out of his studio in New York. Although he confesses to barely squeaking by, the work is invigorating, and awareness is increasing locally and internationally.
What made you feel you could make a difference?
CS: The goal of architecture is to improve our environment, to make life better—whether for an elaborate residence or a refugee camp.
Where does funding come from?
CS: From individual donors. And not just architects. Many of the attendees from our community-project meetings across the country donate. And any money from my speaking engagements goes directly to the organization.
How willing are designers to forgo immediate profits?
CS: The work is so fulfilling—we're not cutting-and-pasting another conference room for another law firm. We're assisting and advising communities in need. And the results of community and humanitarian work will last a lifetime. (A possible bonus is that the community remembers you, so you could actually get more projects—paying ones—later.)
Also, since 9/11, our Web site has experienced a surge in hits. The tragedy really provoked an interest in humanitarian design.
What sparked your personal interest in humanitarian issues?
CS: A man came to our church, when I was about 10, to discuss his country, international issues, and the plight of different people. I didn't know who he was at the time, but he really opened my eyes. A couple of weeks later, I saw his picture in the paper and read something like "Desmond Tutu Wins Nobel Peace Prize." That experience made me curious about other places.
What's happening with the winning HIV/AIDS-clinic designs?
CS: The four teams are meeting for a development workshop in South Africa this January. Engineers, cost consultants, government officials, community leaders, and doctors will also be attending. By the end of the week, we should have a more refined version of the designs. We're hoping to get funds to build one prototype and test it in the field for three to six months.
What will that cost?
CS: We could probably do a very basic structure for $20,000. To build it out fully, though, it'd be more like $200,000. Which is pretty reasonable when you consider the California mobile pet clinic that cost $1.65 million. Since the clinic handles 15,000 patients, our basic prototype doesn't cost much more than $1 per person.
How do you decide which crises to take on?
CS: They're ones I feel passionate about or are in the public spotlight but not seriously funded. The U.S. is spending billions of dollars to rebuild the infrastructure in Iraq right now, but nobody's talking about housing for refugees.
Didn't the United Nations contact you about Afghanistan?
CS: Yes. I helped the U.N. pinpoint local architects through our newsletter mailing list, in hopes that they could help the nongovernmental organizations working in the field to set up camps. That's another thing we do: facilitate and connect people.
So what's next?
CS: Besides launching another competition next summer, we're working to bring a prototype for long-term refugee shelters to the garden at the Cooper-Hewitt in New York. We're forming an advisory board for it right now. I truly believe that proper housing should be a basic human right.