The definition of ??humanitarian design?? design is still in flux, even if its practice proliferates.

The definition of ??humanitarian design?? design is still in flux, even if its practice proliferates.

Credit: Illustration: MATTHEW RICHARDSON

Some design critics, like Bruce Nussbaum, have framed humanitarian design—a cross between high-style architecture, low-tech interventions, and altruistic goals—as the “new imperialism.” Nussbaum, Professor of Innovation at Parsons The New School for Design and former assistant managing editor for BusinessWeek, blogs, tweets, and writes on innovation and creativity. His argument is that idealists often impose universal or, perhaps, elitist solutions on a community in the interests of design, rather than in the interests of those who might benefit from design.

Others, such as Emily Pilloton, founder of the nonprofit humanitarian firm Project H Design, argue that this accusation is shortsighted. “Most critics who call humanitarian design the new imperialism haven’t done the work and realized how messy, political, and complex it can be,” she says. “Frankly, we don’t have the best practices or answers yet. But in my experience, if you have been invited by a community to help them achieve their goals, it’s not imperialistic but one of the most honest ways to do design.”

Pilloton insists that humanitarian design can succeed when the process is democratic and honest, the project centers on a social mission, and everyone involved has a clear investment in the final result. In turn, architects then identify themselves as part of that community, which creates a shared investment in the success of the house, school, or clinic. Some observers of this trend, including Maria Popova, a strategic planner at TBWA Worldwide and founder and editor of the blog Brain Pickings, believe the term “humanitarian design” is itself problematic: Such an all-encompassing catchphrase does not account for the difference in cultures and context between rural and urban areas, or between rich and poor nations.

Filling in the Blanks

While it is one of Texas’s more prosperous cities, Dallas has several poor, inadequately serviced neighborhoods that languish next to wealthier districts. The neighborhood around Congo Street is a stretch of 17 homes built before 1910 on what was once named Carroll Drive. The City of Dallas renamed it “Congo Street” during the 1930s as a discreet warning to white visitors attending the nearby state fair about the mostly black residents. Congo Street became one of several Dallas neighborhoods of mostly poor minority residents that civic leaders ignored as Dallas transformed from cow town to energy boom town. The lack of infrastructural improvements over the years led to Congo Street’s decline. Still, most of its families, many of whom lived there for generations, refused to move.

Last September, Congo Street residents celebrated their neighborhood’s renewal with its sixth home refurbished by local architectural firm Building Community Workshop. Led by Brent Brown, AIA, designers at bcWORKSHOP (as it’s known) not only consulted with homeowners on individual design needs, but even built a temporary home for residents while they waited. The old homes were systematically deconstructed, with all pieces—from sinks to slabs of wood siding—marked for reuse, recycling, or trash. The salvaging of the materials not only reduced costs, but led to these homes’ certifications as LEED Platinum. New energy-efficient features, such as solar panel arrays, will reduce owners’ utility bills.

Congo Street is an example of the thought behind humanitarian design, which integrates architectural solutions with a social mission. Architects who advocate humanitarian design solutions see this movement as a holistic approach to solving social problems, including poverty, poor infrastructure, and inadequate housing after natural and manmade disasters. They view their vocation as more than drawing a house or a school plan. Humanitarian design practitioners find themselves embedded within the communities in which they work, and wear all hats, including those of community liaison, general contractor, project financier, and, after completion, community services provider.

A question of Scale

Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath along the Gulf Coast defined, in part, design’s capacity to be a regenerative guide rather an afterthought or flourish. David Perkes, AIA, an associate professor at Mississippi State University’s College of Architecture+Design, found himself in the midst of his state’s reconstruction efforts. Under Perkes’s guidance, MSU launched the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio in Biloxi to serve local residents.

Today, the studio crosses architecture’s practice–academy line to provide architectural services and train students to integrate design and community service in other U.S. cities and abroad. Leveraging the resources that local governments and nonprofits can (or cannot) provide, Perkes defines humanitarian design as a platform for architects to work closely with clients, with a budget drawn from sources outside of those clients—clearing a path around money issues and focusing on client needs. “Upon moving to Biloxi after Katrina, we deliberately minimized the university’s presence,” Perkes explained. “When people walked into our studios, we wanted them to see local people doing this work to make it clear this was not just a group of outsiders running the show.”

Catastrophes tend to reorient the thinking of a lot of architects and sometimes reorient their practice. Sergio Palleroni, a senior fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Solutions and Architecture at Portland State University in Oregon, traveled to Mexico and Nicaragua after their respective earthquakes in the 1980s. Mexican and Nicaraguan communities hit hardest were poor and lacked access to design services, as is often the case.

Palleroni quickly emerged as not only the designer of various projects—including apartment buildings, schools, and health clinics—but as their fundraiser and community advocate. He and a crew of architects, engineers, and aid workers realized early on that, for rebuilding to succeed, they had to collaborate with community leaders. Palleroni’s work in Latin America 25 years ago yet continues with his co-founding of the BaSic Initiative (basicinitiative.com), an academic service-learning program, which now draws students from some 50 universities worldwide, and that has built houses, schools, and clinics for low-income communities from Montana to central Mexico to Asia.

Design with a humanitarian focus demands more than a one-off transactional relationship between demand and supply: It becomes an integrated discipline that responds to local needs more directly than conventional practice. “We architects become distanced from the real things that motivate us,” Palleroni says. “We are often idealists, but we cannot fulfill those desires that inspired many of us to become architects in the first place when we simply work from one project to the next and—meanwhile—have little or no involvement [after] our vision is finally completed.”

Visit aia.org to learn more about guidelines or contracts for pro bono work and visit aia150.org to learn more about the AIA’s Blueprint for America.

Design with a humanitarian focus

demands more than a one-off

transactional relationship between

demand and supply.