10th Year Anniversary: Letter from Samir Shah

In celebration of our tenth anniversary, Architecture for Humanity is embarking on a fundraising campaign to support our chapters, grow the Open Architecture Network and bring critical design services to more communities in need. With your support, we can harness the power of the last ten years to make an even greater impact in the next ten years. Join us.

Donate $10 a month and help us bring good design to communities in need for another 10 years.

We’ve gathered a growing collection of letters from some of the many individuals and organizations who have helped give a voice to designing a more sustainable future. We will be featuring a new letter each month throughout the year.

Dear Fellow Advocate,

In late December 2004, days after the South Asian tsunami, I sat at a conference table in the offices of one of my Sri Lankan colleagues, discussing how, as a group of architects, we could best offer our help. Some of us had already made individual trips in lorries and personal vehicles to deliver relief supplies, but our thoughts had quickly turned to the reconstruction effort. Later that night, I sent an email to Architecture for Humanity (AFH), asking if they had a relief effort underway, and offering my help.

The eight months that followed were tempestuous and personally trying at times, as my colleagues and I tried to work within the framework of the Government of Sri Lanka’s reconstruction goals. We were often at odds with planning regulations and the changing political climate as we tried to craft a master plan and reconstruction proposal for Kirinda village and its surroundings that was supported by the villagers we were representing as well as acceptable to the authorities. The one thing we never had to worry about was AFH’s commitment to our design and to the community-driven process we employed. The organization raised about $500,000 for this project from various sources including small donations from school children across America. This helped us in two ways. First, it gave our group a sense that people around the world cared about what we were doing. Secondly, it gave a group of independent architects the power to negotiate in the best interests of those we represented.

I think this is one of AFH’s great strengths and why they have such an important role to play in reconstruction and development work. There are many competing interests that affect the final outcome of development efforts, and as I observed in Sri Lanka, they so often are dictated by political concerns or the social mission statements and fundraising goals of NGO’s and aid organizations. What is missing is often a real understanding of the importance of the built environment. AFH empowers designers and architects to engage the full physical and social consequences of development and supports their efforts to directly represent a community’s best interests by being such strong advocates of good design and community participation.

I first became aware of AFH as a recent graduate in 2002. I was looking for an outlet where my design work could have some meaning beyond aesthetic concerns. Their mobile HIV/AIDS clinic competition was the only game around at the time. Since that time, I have been impressed by their continued commitment to humanitarian design. The Open Architecture Network and the Open Architecture Challenge have been very important tools in getting their message out. But what is perhaps more impressive, is how many schools of architecture have begun to add design/build studios or whole degree programs centered around this idea of design committed to humanitarian and social agendas. Following in the footsteps of Samuel Mockbee, AFH was a voice nearly alone when they started. They anticipated a great need back then, and have helped push architecture and architectural training back towards an ethos of engaging the real problems of the world around us.As AFH celebrates its tenth anniversary, I look forward to seeing what new and pressing issues Cameron & Kate will address through the organization’s affiliates, sponsors, and volunteers. AFH is really an open source entity, and this philosophy is its great strength. With continued support, I see the bridge they have created between need and expertise being used more fully, empowering local communities around the world to find the tools to improve their environments. In the process, they may change the nature of collaborative design work all together for the better.


Samir S. Shah, AIA
AFH Design Fellow – Sri Lanka 2005.