Design within reach


At 26-years-old, Cameron Sinclair was a self-acknowledged CAD monkey, grinding out blueprints for a New York architect. Ten years on, he’s now the design world’s big kid on the block. His thumbprint can seen in more than 104 countries, from Biloxi, Mississippi to far-flung Ugandan villages.

Sinclair co-founded Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit that provides design services for communities suffering calamity — whether war, natural disaster or global pandemics. By creating and harnessing an online network of 40,000 architects and design professionals, Sinclair can organize relief projects instantly and ubiquitously, even while his organization manages the funding and blueprints from its headquarters in San Francisco.

In 2007, AFH broke all architectural precedents by open-sourcing its blueprints. Since then, the organization and its affiliates in 47 countries have uploaded some 4,000 designs, to be freely replicated by anyone around the world (openarchitecturenetwork.org).

This year, Sinclair has turned AFH’s sights to schools. According to the World Bank, basic education may be the best answer to a cluster of global crises. It’s been shown to improve family nutrition, immunization rates, and HIV prevention, among others. But education faces a serious logistical challenge, according to the bank: 10 million new classrooms are needed to accommodate the world’s exploding child population.

Sinclair is doing his best to assure that even in the poorest countries, those classrooms will be vibrant, well-designed learning environments, not just boxes for warehousing children. In the summer of 2009, AFH, completed a competition to conceptualize these classrooms of the future. From Ecuador to Iran, over 500 teams of schools and architects submitted designs that were inexpensive, sustainable and customized for each environment.

GlobalPost Passport talked with Sinclair about his vision and his life’s surprising arc.

Passport: How did Architecture for Humanity start?

Cameron Sinclair: In 1999 I was watching the Kosovo refugees on CNN, and I had this horrible feeling that I wasn’t doing anything real. I was designing big-ticket items for a high-end architecture firm, but it was soul destroying. So one day I called the United Nations’ general number, and said, “I’d like to talk to the guy in charge of refugees.”

A moment later someone picked up and said, “I’m the head of the UNHCR in New York. How can I help you?” I launched into this verbal diarrhea about the designing temporary housing for the refugees. There was a pause, and he said, “It’s a pretty good idea. Can your firm come to the U.N. and present to us?”


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