Master Builder

11.25.12

After Sandy, Architecture for Humanity Gets Down to Work

Cameron Sinclair blitzes through post-Sandy New York, and our Malcolm Jones is there.

Cameron Sinclair has wanted to change the world since he was 6 years old.

“I grew up in a really shitty neighborhood of south London,” he says. “It was extremely violent, it was like concrete wasteland, and that’s why I wanted to be an architect. I had a lot of Lego, and I used to go home and redesign my neighborhood. My parents thought I was nuts. I would come down to the dinner table with new urban-planning strategies. And luckily I grew up in England, so we didn’t have Ritalin, so they just brought me more Lego.”

Three decades later, Sinclair, 37, is the executive director of Architecture for Humanity (AFH), a nimble nonprofit humanitarian and design organization that since 1999 has split its time and money evenly on post-disaster rebuilding projects and assisting communities that might simply need a school or a clinic. Currently, though, “with our work in Haiti, Japan, and the Gulf Coast, it’s more like 60/40,” he says, with the emphasis on disaster relief.

That explains why, on a recent November day, Sinclair finds himself in post-Sandy New York City for a 24-hour blitz of fundraising and on-the-ground inspection of the disaster.

His schedule includes a trip to the Clinton Foundation, an MTV fundraiser for Seaside Heights, N.J., a late-night chat with a musician who may donate, and then, after maybe four hours of sleep, more meetings with Nike, DJ Spooky (that meeting falls through), a global construction firm, and then a trip to the Rockaways for a firsthand look at Sandy’s damage before flying to Las Vegas for a conference on rehabilitating that gambling mecca’s old and sagging downtown.

Asked if this is a typical day, Sinclair laughs and says, “It’s atypical that I’m in just one city.”

He explains his sense of urgency with a rundown of his “Rule of Four”: “You have four days to announce your intentions. Then you have four weeks to raise funds. Four months to create a plan that engages both community members and business leaders—this is community-led reconstruction. Then there are four years for reconstruction.”

“Right now I have four weeks to hustle. If I don’t, all the money raised will get spent on first-responder stuff and not on long-term projects.”

Long-term is what AFH is all about. They don’t build temporary shelters or makeshift anything. Working with communities hit by earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, or some wretched combination—“In Sri Lanka, you had a tsunami on top of a civil war”—they target key locations or buildings that embody the heart and soul of a place, what Sinclair calls “urban acupuncture points.”

In the case of Seaside Heights, the barrier-island resort area where MTV has invited AFH in to direct rehabilitation, ‘”it could be the boardwalk,” he says. “It could be just a block of the boardwalk.” Either way, the idea is to rebuild something better than what was destroyed, to create something that won’t come down in the next big storm. But the key element, he stresses, is the commitment of those four years and seeing the project through.

“The hardest part of what we do has been learning when to say no”— AFH only goes into a community by invitation, and it turns down about 50 percent of the requests it receives—“because the only thing worse than not doing something is something half completed.”

“Right now I have four weeks to hustle. If I don’t, all the money raised will get spent on first-responder stuff and not on long-term projects.”

“When I was in Sri Lanka in 2004 after the tsunami, the week Katrina hit you saw NGOs packing up right and left and flying out. Because this is a business, right?”

If you go online, you’ll quickly find a slew of NGOs with missions similar to AFH’s, including Builders Without Borders, Architects Without Borders, even Burners Without Borders—the construction and rescue arm of Burning Man. “We’ve partnered with them lately,” Sinclair says, adding that, yes, Macy’s does talk to Gimbles, and that there’s a fair amount of coordination among the groups working the same turf.

When it comes to money, though, “it is a competition, and some NGOs have entire departments dedicated to it,” he says. “You look at the Red Cross’s cash reserves—$1.6 billion or whatever it is—and so when a disaster strikes, they can greenlight $200,000 in ad spending, which will pull in $2 million in donations. Whereas a small nonprofit, they would just love to have the $200,000.

“But a large nonprofit can go into advocacy mode straightaway. And as you know, the first nonprofit to get mentioned above the fold on the front page of The New York Times is going to get a huge part of any donations.”

Sinclair acknowledges that a lot of what he sees in his business “makes it easy to be cynical.” But don’t confuse cynicism with pessimism, not with a man whose business card reads: “chief eternal optimist.”

“For every dark picture, there’s a bright one,” he says.

With assets of around $3 million, according to its 2010 annual report, AFH is on the small end of things in the NGO world, but it has a footprint that belies its size. It is, for example, the only humanitarian architectural nonprofit featured on the disaster-relief page of the American Institute of Architecture’s website.

Most of the organization’s reputation rests on its rebuilding work in disaster areas including Japan and Haiti, where it has built 10 schools and more than 500 houses with Habitat for Humanity. But about half of its efforts occur in less-headline-grabbing locations. In Komarock, Kenya, AFH coordinated the design of a soccer complex that doubles as an AIDS testing and prevention center. In Coscomatepec, Mexico, the group replaced a four-room school next to a chicken farm with a 10-room facility complete with a computer lab, two sets of toilets, new administration facilities, and even a climbing wall (the school is near the mountains).

In 13 years, the organization has grown from two volunteers in four square feet of office space to a staff of more than 100 overseeing 64 local chapters in 27 countries. According to its latest annual report, there are 53 projects afoot with 107 structures under construction or in development. AFH estimates that its projects have directly benefited 2 million people in 48 countries.

Sinclair attributes a lot of the organization’s visibility to the TED prize AFH won in 2006. “That was a game changer,” he says, and not just for AFH.

“When we first started this, humanitarian design was seen as the ugly, redheaded stepchild of design. It wasn’t even considered part of what architects do. A pretty famous architect recently said that designers who don’t know how to design well end up doing this kind of work. So there’s been that level of ridicule. But when I won the TED prize, the industry suddenly had to say, wait a minute, an architect is winning a TED prize for this? But my point was always, it’s not about another kind of architecture, it’s about expanding the role of architecture. And I think we’ve done that.”

Sinclair created AFH with Kate Stohr, a former journalist and producer who is the organization’s managing director. “She’s internal, I’m external,” Sinclair says in describing how they split responsibility. “She’s really good at doing the financial, kind of oversight management. Also, there are certain funders who prefer her style to mine. So, for example, the Clinton Global Initiative, they think she’s the bee’s knees. I don’t think I’m either the bees or the knees for them. But Nike and Shakira and Ben Stiller, they really like working with me. I’m a talker. I should’ve been a Southerner.”

His persistent name-dropping can be a bit annoying, but Sean Penn, Oprah, and others of their ilk—today’s Medicis—are, after all, his principal donors. Who else would he hang with?

A day—even an hour—spent in Sinclair’s company makes clear why he’s known in architectural circles as a man who could sell ice to the Inuit. Of average height and build, he has the uncanny ability to attract almost everyone in any room before he’s said a word. He’s also charmingly candid (just no questions about his private life, please) and always quotable (“The Red Cross is like the worst team in baseball. I mean, they’re still playing but—”). He’s so glib, in fact, that he has to watch what he says, especially around his own staff. “I’ll say something offhand, and the next thing I know, it’s a mission statement on the website.”

He’s also really funny: “I used to have a much stronger English accent, and people always thought I was being ironic and witty. Now I sound more American, and people think I mean everything I say.”

But it’s when you watch (in) him action with potential supporters that you understand just how skillfully he does his job. When he sits down at noon with the top brass of Turner & Townsend Ferzan Robbins, an international construction firm, he’s two hours late for the appointment, and he was supposed to be in the Rockaways an hour previously (not even a world-changer like Sinclair has found a way to beat New York City traffic). But at no point in the 30-minute meeting does he betray the slightest hint that he’s in a hurry. He takes his time, asks questions of his own, and in general acts as though he’s come to New York specifically for this meeting. When he’s done, no one has committed anything, but the good feeling in the room is palpable.

On the way out, he says, “I could probably get $10,000 out of them, but I can raise $10,000 at a bake sale. What I need is their expertise at overseeing these construction projects.”

By the time he reaches the Rockaways—“this isn’t so bad,” he says on the way there. “I may be warped, but it ain’t Katrina.”—he’s got about an hour and a half to make his flight to Las Vegas, and the number of first-responder groups he’s been hoping to meet with has shrunk from three to one. But again, once he sits down with the representatives of Third Wave, a group coordinating emergency care out of a church, he pockets the smartphone that’s otherwise practically welded to his hand and gives them his undivided attention, firing away with questions about funding, the target date for phasing down first response, and the qualifications of other groups on the ground.

Back in the car, Sinclair says, “That was kind of the mating dance. Where do we overlap?” In the world of what he calls the “new, new nonprofits” specializing is the key. “We’re really good at building,” he says. “It’s all we do. People ask us, can you also do this or do that? Nope. We build.”

That said, partnerships are necessary, whether with donors or other NGOs on the ground. The trick, he says, is to be picky, even when it means saying no to a lot of money.

“Partnerships are like dating. You usually know midway through the evening or the meal whether it’s going to work out. In the NGO world, you can meet someone and they can be a complete asshole, but you’re thinking, ‘But it’s funding!’ The thing is, NGOs who do that, it never gets better. We said no to $7 million for Haiti because they were people who just weren’t aligned with our principles and ethics. People thought we were crazy, but the groups who said yes to that money are still trying to get stuff done, because the client is a nightmare.”

Constraints from donor and bureaucracies can hobble NGOs, argues Sinclair, who says he’ll take a disaster in the Third World over one in the developed world any day.

He gets angry just thinking about the insurance adjusters on the Gulf Coast who told people recycling materials from their ravaged houses that unless they threw the material away, they wouldn’t qualify for reimbursement.

In Haiti, on the other hand, the first question he recalled the government asking AFH was, “What is Haiti’s building code?

“We said, ‘You’re asking us?’ Turned out they didn’t have one. So we forced a plan on them. In a disaster, chaos reigns, and if you’re smart, you can change the rules.”

Approaching the airport, there’s time for one more question: what does he do for fun in his spare time? He laughs.

“Those are foreign concepts,” he says somewhat sheepishly. “But it is ridiculous. This year I realized that I hadn’t had more than three days off in one stretch for my whole life.” So he took a two-month sabbatical. But instead of zoning out on some beach, he went on Facebook, where he said he wanted to learn 60 things in 60 days and asked for suggestions.

“I learned to surf, I wrote a screenplay, I wrote a book in Italian ...” Just then his phone rings, and it’s a call he has to take. Finding out about the 57 other things he learned will have to wait.