Jeff Singer

Architecture for Humanity channels its design prowess and volunteer manpower into making the world a better (and more sustainable) place.<.h4>

Cameron Sinclair’s travel schedule is so frenetic even Magellan would sweat. The founder of Architecture for Humanity (AFH) logs 200,000 air miles a year visiting construction projects in developing countries, as well as the world’s worst-hit disaster areas: Sri Lanka, Haiti, Japan and, most recently, the New Jersey shore following Hurricane Sandy.

Yet Cameron, 39, remains an inspired CEO — Chief Eternal Optimist, that is. (It’s even on his business card.) The British architect, along with journalist Kate Stohr, created the nonprofit in 1999 to provide long-term architectural solutions to humanitarian crises and pro bono construction services to communities in need. Fourteen years later, AFH’s projects — from schools to sports fields and from homes to hospitals — have benefited more than 2 million people in 48 countries. Its 53 chapters and 6,400 volunteer design professionals share ideas across the industry and their time and talent across the globe.

American Way: Tell us about AFH’s slogan: “Design Like You Give a Damn.”
Cameron Sinclair: It began out of frustration. We really wanted the industry to take humanitarian design seriously and not just as a weekend project or side hobby. At the end of one of my first public talks, I said, “I don’t care if you commit to working overseas or in your own neighborhoods. If you support our efforts or do something on your own, I just want you to design like you give a damn.” A week later, I noticed students making bags and T-shirts with the expression on them and knew it had resonated.

AW: AFH serves disaster areas as well as locations that face systemic issues of poverty. How does your approach differ between the two?
CS: In an emergency, you need professionals who can act quickly — assess needs and local resources­ in an ever-changing environment. Working in Haiti has evolved month to month. Things that were impossible in the first year after the quake [in 2010] are now easier, and resources that were available have now disappeared. You have to constantly adapt. In our sustainable-development work, this is a slower and more community-led process. We could be working in a village that has waited for decades to get access to education or health care. They want to make sure we provide them with the most appropriate structure for the community.

AW: After winning the TED Prize in 2006, you created the Open Architecture Network. What was your vision?
CS: To democratize design. If your goal is social change and not financial gain, then how can you distribute innovative ideas as widely as possible? How do you share your solutions? We have thousands of professionals working around the world. They need to share that info and collaborate so it’s cost-effective and makes sense. It’s also important in the work I do for the government; they can see the transparency and accountability of aid money. If it took $20,000 to build a school, then here are the documents to prove its cost and the visual proof the building was done.

AW: Can you think of an AFH project whose innovation truly astonished you?
CS: One project I really love helped a poor Bangladeshi man who wanted to expand his business. He had a mobile tea cart in Dhaka. He installed solar panels on the roof of his tea cart and connected them to cellphone chargers. While people have tea, they can charge their cellphones. He can charge more for tea because he offers a secondary service. It was really innovative. It cost less than $300. It gave someone a route out of poverty.

AW: You discovered your passion early and acted on it right out of university. What would you advise young professionals about pursuing their own passions?
CS: Don’t wait. There is enough opportunity to make a difference in communities in need out there. More importantly, you don’t have to travel halfway around the world to help. Many issues remain hidden in our own towns and cities.

To learn more about Architecture for Humanity, visit