Build Abroad was recently invited to speak at the Dwell on Design Conference in Los Angeles. One of our Co-Founders, Chad Johnson, went on behalf of Build Abroad and our Non-Profit arm, Shelter Global, to discuss how architects and designers can work with locals to build a more sustainable future. He spoke alongside Mat-ter Co-Founder Hugo Martinez, who we actually mentioned in a previous blog post on relief architecture here. You can view all of the slides from the talk at the bottom of this post, and here are a few quotes from Chad about what we can do to empower communities abroad:

On Collaborating with Locals

“This is the only way to build in developing communities. It’s impossible to know what people need without spending a good amount of time on-site, with the people who live there and with the people who will be building. The more time you spend there, the more you will learn and the deeper your understanding will be – not just of the physical landscape, but of the social and economic landscape as well.”

On Finding Funding for Projects

“You can’t expect funds to appear out of thin air. This is one of the biggest challenges facing non-profit builders and architects today. You have to go out and make it happen. For instance, Build Abroad is volunteer funded. Aside from trip costs going towards meals and accommodations, a portion of our volunteers’ fees go directly to building and material costs. There are other ways to find money too. Talk to governments, foundations, or look to crowdfunding sources. Again, don’t expect any funding route to be easy. You have to raise serious awareness for your cause and be as transparent as you can as to where the money is going, how that money will be used and how you will communicate the process to the donors or benefactors.”

On Sustainable Materials

“When researching the site or project, talk to local builders about available materials. Make sure you have more than enough, and ask where the materials are sourced. Look directly on site too. Is the project site set on clay? Can it be used to make any materials that you would normally buy? Bricks? Foundation? If you go this route, make sure you have someone within the project who knows the process or technique in using these local materials. Make sure this process is proven and will last.”

Questions and Answers

Q: How can architects get more involved with humanitarian projects?
A: Look for any opportunity you can, and it doesn’t have to be some huge international project. Look for local projects and reach out to local government or NGOs to see what they might be working on. There are countless ways to get involved. If you are interested in a project abroad, you can work with us or you can look for government agencies like Peace Corps, but that’s a much longer commitment.

Q: Is there ever a case where a project can be designed outside of the community, for the community, with no input from the community or local builders?
A: No, I don’t believe so. That would be the wrong way to build anything abroad. I’m sure it would be built with the best intentions, but there is such a small chance that it would integrate seamlessly within the community. If you don’t have the time and resources to research, travel to the site, speak with locals and gather all of that data then you shouldn’t be working on the project in the first place. Reassess why you’re doing it.

Q: What is the hardest part of building abroad?
A: That’s a tough question. Each project is different so different parts might be harder for some projects than others. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with was getting materials to a site in Nepal. It was way up in the Himalayas and there were no accessible roads for vehicles so a lot of it had to be carried by hand. We ended up reusing a lot of material that had been demoed and also sourcing local materials.

Presentation and Photos

Chad speaking on the panel, titled “Building Abroad.”