Design without borders

On Dec. 26, 2004, I sent my first email to Architects Without Borders (AWB). The tsunami had just taken the lives of more than 225,000 people in 13 countries and left over four million displaced. The coastline of Sri Lanka, home to personal friends and former co-workers, was one of the areas hardest hit. This was a turning point, not just for me, but for an entire movement for socially conscious design. Like thousands of others around the world, I applied to assist in recovery efforts. Craig Williams, director of AWB North America, had a better idea.

AWB is a non-profit organization committed to providing architectural responses to humanitarian crises. After the tsunami, AWB received hundreds of emails from design students offering to volunteer. Unfortunately, almost all of them were turned away, due to lack of preparedness to work in complex situations.

Although experienced professionals are required immediately after a disaster, the years of reconstruction to follow can benefit from the combined efforts of all members of the design community – including students. Williams asked if I would share my skills as a design educator to establish the first youth-focused chapter of AWB in Canada, here in Winnipeg. We started with a meeting at the University of Manitoba to learn if we had the support of the local design community. Students and professionals in architecture, interior design, city planning and landscape design attended with great enthusiasm.

From this initial meeting, it was clear that the group wanted to develop a chapter that would focus on connecting communities to design by collaborating across culture, disciplines and social realities. Little did we know that two years later a small group of like-minded designers would grow to more than 80 members in Winnipeg, with emerging chapters in Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal and Toronto.

The Winnipeg AWB chapter is made up of a surprising demographic: 30 per cent of its members are students and 25 per cent work in interior design. Initially, those who wanted to offer their interior design expertise were unsure if their skills would be useful to the organization. Many were surprised to find how much their contributions were needed, with AWB’s heavy focus on healthcare and residential projects, which require a great deal of interior planning. While it’s not unusual to hear of architects doing this kind of volunteer work, it’s not so typical for interior designers. By encouraging a multi-disciplinary group as well as student membership, this won’t be the case for long.

The youth membership brings an energy that inspires our partners and professional members. With the mentorship of experienced architects, interior designers and planners, these younger members have had the opportunity to work on schools, clinics and orphanages around the world. Our local efforts include the design and construction of several houses for Habitat for Humanity and a design workshop for inner-city kids. Winnipeg’s interior design community has been instrumental in some of our larger projects, such as the Unite for Sight Eye Clinic in Chennai, India, and a community clinic in Katebo, Uganda.

When I think back to the initial email exchange with Williams, I remember feeling disappointed. Like most of the volunteers that day, I was hoping for an assignment that would immediately result in overseas travel. Instead I received a lesson on working with the next generation of designers, and in retrospect I can assure you that this is something worth staying home for.

Kelley Beaverford is a professor in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba. Trained as an interior designer and architect, she has collaborated with non-profit organizations in Uganda, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Turkey and Canada. A common thread in her practice is working collaboratively to connect lower-income communities to design.