In an age when more individuals are looking for architecturally designed homes and cutting-edge offices and cultural institutions are being built, it’s easy to forget that the fundamental purpose of architecture is to provide shelter. For a significant sector of the world’s population, this is a struggle in itself, with natural disasters, poverty and war resulting in many losing this basic right. While some architects are drawn to the challenges of creating striking designs in big cities that will be marveled by many, others are passionate about finding solutions to basic community needs in humanitarian architecture.
What is Humanitarian Architecture?
“Humanitarian” means having a concern for the welfare and happiness of individuals and communities. When combined with architecture, it means striving for this through built designs that offer safety, shelter and a sustainable solution to housing. It may mean designing innovative disaster relief shelters that can easily be transported or assembled in the wake of natural disasters or it many mean finding long term solutions for disadvantaged communities who don’t have access to adequate shelter or the financial means to buy or build their own home.
Humanitarian architecture is about problem solving at both the minute and the grand scale. It may mean installing a system to harness rainwater for a single village or it may mean rebuilding an entire city flattened by an earthquake. But its fundamental role is to look after the welfare and needs of local communities over the aesthetics of grand designs.
Humanitarian architecture can play an important role in providing community support in the wake of natural disasters, with structures that are designed to integrate families and be flexible in their use of space, rather than just a tent over their heads. Low-income and disaster relief housing should offer dignity to its occupants, with some inspiring them to build for the future with designs that can be added to over time. They may utilize locally-sourced materials and provide much-needed employment for communities during their construction or they may draw on sustainable and green building techniques in fragile environments and ecosystems.
There is no single mold for humanitarian architecture, but it does usually involve careful collaboration with local communities. It’s important to understand their needs, cultural and social requirements, as well as the environmental conditions at the site and how these can be harnessed to the architect’s advantage. In disaster-prone regions, buildings should also be carefully designed to withstand future disasters and prevent the same situation from arising again and again.
Many humanitarian architects work closely with aid agencies to come up with alternative solutions to the temporary tents that are often rapidly assembled in the wake of disasters. In these situations when housing needs soar, innovative solutions are required that provide more than just a shelter, but a home that allows affected communities to recover and rebuild.
As a humanitarian architect, you may be required to unlearn some skills or take a back-seat role at times, with the needs of local communities and those charged with achieving them being the dominant voice. For architects used to being in charge and with high levels of expertise, this can be difficult. Your main purpose is to find solutions to the needs and requests of communities by listening and discussing with local authorities and NGOs. That doesn’t mean that your experience is invaluable, but rather that it needs to be harnessed in a different and sometimes more submissive way.
Why Get Involved with Humanitarian Architecture?
If you’re feeling disenchanted working for corporate entities that have little consideration for real-world issues, then humanitarian architecture may offer the change you are seeking. It involves community engagement and collaboration at a local level, dealing with pressing issues that affect the human rights, safety and dignity of individuals. You will be at the front line of creating infrastructure that can help transform their daily lives, while taking into consideration their cultural and social needs and allowing them to have pride and ownership in their homes.
Humanitarian architecture offers endless opportunities to innovate, with complex site considerations and limited budgets forcing you to think outside the box. Experimentation and creativity lie at the core of humanitarian architecture design, making it ideal for those who want a career challenge. You’ll also develop skills beyond design, including working with not-for-profit and developmental organizations and dealing with the fragile complexities of post-disaster situations. You may be working in conditions that are a far cry from your office at home and without the technology you are accustomed to having at your disposal. But each and every challenge is a learning curve that will help to enhance your problem solving skills and abilities as an architect.
If you’re craving the opportunity to travel abroad, humanitarian architecture is the perfect industry to become a part of as it usually involves working away from home. You’ll have the opportunity to learn about traditional architecture in your destination and the environmental, cultural and social factors that lead to its development and even incorporate it into your designs. Local solutions are sometimes the best solutions and it’s only when you get out of your comfort zone and expose yourself to them that you can realize their full potential.
Being involved in humanitarian architecture is a great opportunity to renew your sense of purpose and get back to the grassroots of the architecture industry. Creating designs that can benefit societies around the globe and improve the lives of individuals, their education and business prospects is highly rewarding and will help to reaffirm why you got into this industry in the first place.
Humanitarian Architecture Resources & Architects
From the latest news and project, to leading figures and where to find collaborative projects, competitions and events, here are our pick of the top 21 online resources for humanitarian architecture.
Architects without Frontiers is a not-for-profit organization that works on post-disaster reconstruction around the world. It focuses on projects with a social purpose and finding solutions as to how people can best be housed during a crisis and how long-term housing can be built to withstand future disasters. It brings together architects with a social conscience and has members in countries around the world, including India, Benin and the Congo.
Impact Design Hub serves as a place for architects and designers to come together on projects relating to humanitarian, social impact and community design, used to create positive social, environmental and economic change in the world. They showcase individuals and businesses who are playing an influential role in the field, and tackle key issues and thought-provoking developments.
Established by New York City designer Jill Fehrenbacher, Inhabitat follows the innovative technologies, practices and materials that are steering architecture and design towards a more sustainable future. It serves as a forum for discussing new ideas and trends, and investigating the products and people that are creating a more environmentally friendly approach to development.
Shelter Global aims to spread awareness about the lack of adequate shelter throughout the world and bring together architects, designers, engineers and educators to change this. They organize an annual Dencity architectural competition to tackle this issue and uncover innovative solutions in providing safe and clean living conditions for everyone.
Chilean based company Elemental is led by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Alejandro Aravena and focuses on social impact projects that include housing, public infrastructure and transportation initiatives. They played an influential role in the reconstruction of Constitución following the devastating earthquake that impacted Chile in 2010, creating a city design that tackled inherent social and political issues.
With an approach to architecture that aims to promote health and dignity, MASS Design works in over a dozen countries throughout Africa and the Americas. They work closely with communities to create functional designs using locally-sourced and environmentally sustainable building materials and construction methods.
Standing for Architecture for Health in Vulnerable Environments, ARCHIVE Global is a non-profit organization that focuses on using housing design as a strategy for combating disease around the world. It serves as a cross-disciplinary research platform for leading architects and academics in the fields of social science, medicine and planning to collaborate on projects and share ideas on practical housing solutions and innovations.
A recent recipient of the prestigious AJ Emerging Woman Architect of the Year Award, Julia King is a British/Venezuelan researcher and designer with practices in both New Delhi and London. Her work focuses on the future of urban development, and she has been responsible for building a sewer for 322 low-income houses in New Delhi and regenerating the Taj East drain which traverses slum areas near the Taj Mahal.
Chairman of KSA Design Planning Services and founding director of the Ahmedabad Study Action Group (ASAG), Kirtee Shah has played an influential role in urban planning for disadvantaged communities throughout his career. He has also served as the president of Habitat International Coalition, which deals with issues of housing rights and sustainable urban development.
Bustler is the sister site for leading architectural site Archinect and is the premier online publication for competitions and events in the architecture and design fields. They highlight events and competitions taking place across the globe, and provide a platform for users to discuss submissions and industry news.
The recipient of numerous awards in journalism and publishing, Dezeen is an influential architecture and design magazine with a dedicated section focusing on humanitarian architecture. They showcase the latest news and innovations in the industry, as well as produce articles focusing on designers and independent brands who are leading the field in humanitarian architecture.
ArchDaily is a website that showcases the latest projects and innovations in the field of architecture, with a separate humanitarian section which aims to inspire work in this area. They connect humanitarian architects across the globe and present the most exciting projects taking place that are helping to improve the lives of others.
Autodesk Foundation supports innovative design solutions to some of the world’s most critical social and environmental challenges, uncovering impact-driven organizations who are striving to make a difference. They provide not only funding, but also software, training and ongoing support to ensure these organizations achieve what they set out to.
Pritzker-winning architect Shigeru Ban is the founder of the Voluntary Architects Network and renowned for his innovative use of recyclable materials to create high-quality and low-cost shelters for disaster victims across the globe. His compassionate approach to design has impacted the lives of people from Rwanda to Haiti, India and Japan, inspiring a dedicated following.
Founded in 1976, Habitat for Humanity aims to create safe and affordable housing for all, recognizing that poor housing conditions contribute to the ongoing poverty cycle. They have worked in almost 1,400 communities across the US and 70 countries around the world, with a volunteer network that helps Habitat homeowners build their own dwellings with an affordable mortgage.
Building Trust International is a non-profit organization that tackles the issues of rapid urbanization and unsustainable construction, and how this leads to high levels of homelessness. They believe in the role of architecture and design in creating effective solutions that can have a positive impact on people, wildlife and the planet.
Design Corps works with traditionally underserved communities to create positive change through design, advocacy and education. They aim to equip people with the knowledge and skills to shape their own lives and empower their community, addressing social, economic and environmental issues through their SEED Network and Public Interest Design Institute.
Project H works with young people to educate them in the fields of applied arts and sciences, vocational building skills and design, giving them the creative, technical and leadership tools to make positive changes in their own communities. They conduct hands-on, in-school programs, as well as after-school and summer Girls Garage workshops to inspire the next generation of architects and designers.
Catapult is a design firm that works with socially-driven organizations to create products and services that give low income communities the tools needed to improve their quality of life. They bring together a highly-skilled team of designers, engineers and business strategists with the on-ground experience to turn ideas and concepts into viable solutions.
Hug It Forward is a grassroots organization that empowers communities to build their own “bottle schools”. Plastic bottles are stuffed with inorganic trash to create “eco bricks”, addressing issues dealing with waste disposal, consumption and environmental degradation, together with providing an education solution in communities without the funds to build a conventional school.
Journeyman International is an online platform which connects volunteer architects, designers, engineers and project managers with humanitarian projects around the globe. They carefully pair projects and people, giving young professionals the opportunity to work on inspiring projects that will shape them and their careers.