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When Design is a Life-or-Death Matter

Monday, June 24, 2013

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DENVER—Hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and tornadoes claim lives, but poorly designed and constructed buildings are also responsible for the bloodshed, according to architect and humanitarian Cameron Sinclair.

Thus, Sinclair’s message Friday (June 21) at the American Institute of Architects National Convention and Exposition was simple and direct: "Design like you give a damn."

Hurricane Sandy aftermath
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen / Wikimedia Commons

Architects at AIA 2013 were urged to respond to the need for stronger, more resilient buildings.

He challenged thousands in his profession to recognize the value in what they do and to offer assistance to those who need it most, adding that 71 percent of the people in the world are in need of "decent design."

He urged the architects and designers to understand the need for stronger, more resilient buildings, and called on them to act.

‘The Last Responder’

Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, presented his organization’s expansive portfolio of global work—from projects in post-earthquake Haiti to those in post-tsunami Japan.

“It’s not about being the first responder; it’s about being the last responder,” Sinclair said at the Denver conference, which closed Saturday (June 22).

The network of 50,000 professionals involved in Architecture for Humanity stay in communities long after the news cameras leave, helping the residents build for their future.

Designing for Disaster

A key aspect to “designing like you give a damn” is creating resilient spaces and places, he said.

Cameron Sinclair
Architecture for Humanity

Activist and architect Cameron Sinclair urged architects and designers to understand—and respond to—the need for stronger, more resilient buildings worldwide.

Resilience is the “ability of systems, infrastructures, government, business, communities, and individuals to resist, tolerate, absorb, recover from, prepare for, or adapt to an adverse occurrence that causes harm, destruction, or loss,” according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Designing and constructing buildings that can protect their inhabitants is an important part of the resiliency endeavor, Sinclair said.

In Haiti, for example, Sinclair said the flimsy housing stock undeniably contributed to the loss of life during the 2010 earthquake.

“There are no building codes in Haiti,” Sinclair said.

When Architecture for Humanity responded in Haiti, the team partnered with local residents to find out what they needed most and trained local workers to construct safer housing, school buildings, and numerous other civic structures.

Earthquake Haiti
Marco Dormino / Wikimedia Commons

After a 7.0 magnitude earthquake killed 220,000 people in Haiti on Jan.12, 2010, Architecture for Humanity initiated a long-term effort with the community to design and build stronger structures.

As in other areas struggling with natural disasters and other pressing issues, Architecture for Humanity’s work in Haiti is ongoing and includes a longterm plan for reconstruction, he said.  

Love and Sustainability

During his showcase of projects, Sinclair paused to mention the goal of sustainability in post-disaster design.

“The most sustainable building in the world is the one that’s loved,” he said to cheers from the audience.

By incorporating local materials and skill into stronger, more resilient buildings, residents will “maintain the building” and it will last.

U.S. Need Grows

Architecture for Humanity’s work spans the globe, but Sinclair said he found that more and more effort was needed on U.S. soil, including the Hurricane Sandy-battered East Coast and the devastated communities in Moore, OK.

Haiti rebuilding

Architecture for Humanity's work in Haiti and other needy countries includes training the local workforce to construct safe buildings.

If America is to be considered the “strongest, safest country in the world,” then “we should prove it [now]” rather than wait for the next town to get destroyed, Sinclair said.

He said architects, designers and builders must be proactive and mitigate the loss of life and property by lessening the impact of the natural disasters.

Rebuild by Design

Others in the building industry have voiced the same concern. AIA New York recently released a report, "Post Sandy Initiative," that includes design and development objectives to build a "better" and "smarter" future.

And on Thursday (June 20) the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force launched “Rebuild by Design,” a multi-stage regional design competition for the Sandy-stricken area.

Moore OK damage
U.S. Department of Defense Maj. Geoff Legler / Wikimedia Commons

A deadly tornado ravaged entire communities May 21 in and around Moore, OK. Sinclair says preemptive efforts in design and construction are needed now.

The goal of the competition is to attract “world-class talent, promote innovation and develop projects that will actually be built,” according to the announcement.

Now, and more than ever, designers need to recognize their value in the world’s transformation into a more resilient and sustainable community, Sinclair said.


Tagged categories: American Institute of Architects (AIA); Architecture; Architecture for Humanity; Associations; Design; Disasters; Good Technical Practice; Sustainability

Comment from Stephen Szoke, (6/25/2013, 12:45 PM)

The basic premise for enhanced resiliency in buildings for sustainable communities as expressed by many as the 2013 National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) policy setting conference should no longer be aobut getting people out of buldings prior to and after disasters, but getting them back in "tomorrow." Craig fugate recommended at the NCSE conference that we need better building codes. There are many stratergies, such as the recommendations by the San francisoco Planning and Urban Research Associaton (SPUR),, but a prescriptive approach developed with the insurance industry can be found at:

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