Architects Without Borders-Seattle was founded in 2005 by a group of Seattle architects and designers in response to the devastating Asian tsunami, killing over 230,000 across 14 countries and displacing hundreds of thousands more.
Recognizing the role the architecture, engineering, planning and design community could play in supporting the recovering and rebuilding efforts, this group was called to volunteer their expertise and sought community support for some of its members to visit the area and apply their skills as needed. For those that did not have the ability travel, however, it became clear that there was critical need closer to home as well.
In 2006, Architects Without Borders became a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit, and has continued to expand its services to serve communities who would otherwise lack access to design services internationally as well as here in the Puget Sound area.
As our name implies, Architects without Borders-Seattle is part of an international coalition of designers committed to providing pro bono design services to communities in need. AWB-Seattle is the largest chapter in the United States and has helped to seed a number of other chapters around the country, notably Architects Without Borders-Oregon and Architects Without Borders-Austin. Other loosely affiliated chapters exist throughout western Europe.
Architects Without Borders – Seattle has provided life-changing design services to more than 40 unique communities all over the globe, directly impacting groups from 50 people to 2,000 and indirectly entire communities on a much broader scale.
This has all been done with a nearly negligible budget and with the dedication and commitment of 500+ volunteers. The impact of the built environment cannot be overstated: projects not only provide shelter for critical community resources, but they create opportunities for educational opportunities, income generation, improve public health, revitalize damaged ecosystems, and build pride in the community. Additionally, they build an organized, articulate community group that can now advocate for their building and infrastructure needs.
As we complete serial projects in the same communities we gain intimate knowledge of the cultures and ecologies in which we build and the impact our projects are having. In Lomas de Zapallal, Peru, where we have been active since 2010, our partnership with the University of Washington helps us to monitor the impact of the projects. For example, accounts of the green space impacts on the school are reported to provide multiple psychological and social benefits to students and teachers. The projects also provided immediate economic benefits in a community with chronic unemployment: a single, unemployed mother gained stone laying skills through the design/build portion of the project and is now a sought-after tradesperson around the area; the majority of the materials were purchased locally and supported local businesses; local contractor and skilled craftspeople were hired. In Lomas de Zapallal alone, we estimate that 2,000 students benefit directly from the projects that also has indirect positive effects on 25,000 people in the community. This type of impact is found throughout our portfolio of projects.
AWB measures its accomplishments in multiple ways. Our awards include the 2013 Public Interest Design-Global Award and the Design Corps SEED Competition for our Escuela Ecologica project in Lomas de Zapallal, a slum community outside of Lima, Peru. The Design Corps competition recognizes the best examples of Social, Environmental, and Economic Design around the world. You can see a video here. This project is an excellent example of the long-term relationships AWB-Seattle builds in communities that dramatically improve communities’ sustainable social and economic health.
Like most AWB projects, this project engaged participatory design, empowering community members to define and co-design the project. We employed appropriate technology best practices that respond to climate, available materials, and cultural significance.
For example, we adopted an indigenous design of clay pots to build a grey-water irrigation system that serves the only green space in a completely desert environment. The project also specifically prioritized the leadership of women and girls in the design and building of the project, acknowledging that they are the leading stewards and managers of the space in the community.
Here in the Puget Sound, we have have received El Centro de la Raza’s Team of the Year Award for assistance on two projects: the design of a renovation of the exterior stairways and the remodel of a conference room.