A Shelter for the Soul

El Centro Episcopal is located in Sampson County, a sparsely populated region of southeast North Carolina where farming is still the dominant industry. This small community organization, run by Episcopal Farmworker Ministry (EFM), serves the “invisible” laborers who earn the lowest annual income of all U.S. workers—workers who hand-harvest 85 percent of the produce we eat. Accessible only by a rural road, the facility provides services to more than 6,000 migrant and year-round farm workers each year. Seventeen acres of cotton, bell pepper, soybean, and strawberry fields surround a health clinic, a Head Start day-care facility, a community services building, and a church, La Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia.

It’s not a place you’d expect to find innovative design, but two unique building projects are underway: a community garden and a flea market. With the help of Design Corps, a Raleigh-based architecture organization whose stated mission is “creating positive change in communities through design,” EFM has developed a 20-year plan to respond to the immediate and future needs of the people it serves. The garden will offer workers extra food while the flea market will help bring in extra income. Using research from Wake Forest University about how to address “food insecurity” within the migrant farm worker population, Design Corps’ partnership with EFM provides a design solution to an economic and social justice issue.

Architecture and design experts have traditionally served the needs and interests of those able to foot expensive bills. Bryan Bell, executive director of Design Corps, recalls trying to talk with other architecture professionals about individual design for low-income families during the era of multi-family complexes in urban centers. “They thought I was serving lobster and caviar at a food bank. They just didn’t understand what designers could do to help.”

To be sure, there have always been architects who have devoted their careers to serving the public good. And there is a long tradition of churches, social service organizations, and groups—such as Habitat for Humanity—that are carrying out housing projects around the world because of a belief that access to safe, permanent shelter is a universal right.

But the idea that design itself might be part of a solution has become more prevalent in the last 15 years. What was once considered a boutique industry, the domain of the rich or elite, has evolved into a profession whose practitioners are asking deeper questions: Is design relevant in the developing world? Does architecture have any part to play in developing solutions to the systemic problems faced by the poor?

“EVERYONE, RICH OR poor, deserves a shelter for the soul,” wrote the late Samuel Mockbee, architect and founder of Auburn University’s Rural Studio. A patron saint in the humanitarian design movement, Mockbee co-founded the yearlong studio for AU’s undergraduates in 1993. Located in Hale County, Alabama, the second poorest county in the state, Rural Studio gives students hands-on designing and building experience and challenges them to confront the philosophical, ethical, and practical questions that face architects, especially when designing with limited resources for people whose backgrounds may be very different from their own.

While in Hale County, students build not just the structures, but also relationships with the families and community members. These connections are key to Mockbee’s vision of training “citizen architects”—designers with a better, broader understanding of the client’s needs who can create structures with greater aesthetic, practical, communal, and ethical meaning.

Assessing community needs and devising solutions specific to those needs has become a rallying cry in humanitarian architecture. “We believe that design can be a powerful tool to change not just the built environment, but communities,” says Kate Stohr, cofounder—with Cameron Sinclair—of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit organization based in Sausalito, California, that provides design services for communities in need.

The idea for the group came to Stohr and Sinclair in the late 1990s, when they watched news footage of Kosovar refugees returning to their communities. Their homes were in rubble, and winter was fast approaching. It was a call to action for the pair: They established a design competition and put out a call for projects that would address the housing crisis in Kosovo. The response was tremendous. Now the group works with partners to build projects all over the world, including Nepal, Tanzania, and Biloxi, Mississippi.

One of those projects, Global Village Shelters, was highlighted in a recent exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. Called “Design for the Other 90 Percent,” the exhibit showcased innovative design projects with real-world application. The Shelters, used in Afghanistan, southern Asia, the United States, and elsewhere, are prefabricated emergency shelters that can be shipped wherever needed and put together without tools. Other examples in the exhibit included the doughnut-shaped Q Drum, used in several African countries to hold clean and potable water. Not only can the round drums be pulled, which is less taxing than carrying water jugs, they can also hold much more water—75 liters worth. And some in Kenya and Uganda are now using Big Boda Carrying Bicycles, whose specially built back seat helps transport extra people or heavy loads to and from markets.

STUDENTS WERE INVOLVED in many of the exhibit’s projects, and they are a large part of what’s fueling this humanitarian design movement. Michael Murphy is a case in point. A second-year student in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Murphy spent last summer in Rwanda as an intern with Partners in Health (PIH), a Boston-based nonprofit organization founded by Dr. Paul Farmer that provides health care for those living in impoverished conditions.

Murphy knew PIH had completed a variety of building projects at different sites, yet when he approached Farmer at a speaking engagement and asked who was designing the buildings, Farmer replied, “Designing this stuff? I drew it on a napkin and my secretary learned AutoCAD.” So Murphy went to Rwanda to explore how architecture and design might be a part of “comprehensive total infrastructure development,” the PIH strategy to address health care needs in the developing world by also addressing the other realities that contribute to a person’s health.

Whether that’s improving access to clean water, constructing educational facilities, or providing food to ensure adequate nutrition, Murphy believes that design can be an integral part of providing solutions. The ultimate goal, Murphy explains, “is not just to build a building but to build a building that is simultaneously building a community.”

Bell remembers that when there was still no plumbing or electricity in most of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, architecture students from the University of Kansas went to work, using tools powered by solar panels they installed, to begin the first new construction in the Ninth Ward. And it was architecture students from Kansas State University who began the first new construction in the Seventh Ward, a small, fabricated community structure that had been designed in-house and brought down to Louisiana. For that community, at that time, “to see anything new going up was a huge sign of hope,” remembers Bell.

Those signs of hope are multiplying around the world as architects and designers, both students and professionals, view the tools of their trade in broader, more humanitarian terms. Can a better-designed mosquito net prevent more children from malaria infections—and possible death? Is there a way to prepare for the housing shortage the next hurricane may bring? How can solar panels be used to provide poor communities with electricity in the evenings, so that children can study? These practitioners are—literally—designing a better world.

Joanna B. Campbell is a writer living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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