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The Story Behind Architecture For Humanity's Surprising Rebirth

Architecture For Humanity closed last year—but a new, locally driven design nonprofit is rising from its ashes.

The Story Behind Architecture For Humanity's Surprising Rebirth

It’s been a year since the celebrated design nonprofit Architecture For Humanity declared bankruptcy and closed, after 15 years of bringing architecture to underfunded, underserved communities around the world. In a post-mortem of the crumbling organization published last year, Co.Design reported that the future of the work being done by AFH’s many local chapters was still up in the air.

Now, it's clear that many of those chapters will live on—albeit under a new organization and with a new mission. Over the past year, 32 local chapters of the shuttered nonprofit have banded together, choosing not only to continue to work together, but to create a new organization with a new structure and new leadership. Today the group named a new Executive Director, Garrett Jacobs, a former AFH volunteer and employee who has guided the exhaustive process of reorganization.

The first order of official business? A new name—they’re laying "Architecture For Humanity" to rest with its previous incarnation—to be announced next month. But the changes Jacobs has planned go far deeper than the group’s branding.

Local Designers For Local Communities

Jacobs, who spoke to Co.Design last week, laid out his vision for an organization that will be in stark contrast with the old nonprofit. While he declined to talk about what went wrong with the old AFH, we know some basic details about its closure: Before it shuttered, AFH was organized around a central headquarters that grew incredibly quickly over the years, with a long list of major projects around the world. The rate of growth caught up with the nonprofit; "we ultimately lacked the funding to continue," AFH's board chairman told The New York Times last year.

But that was only half the story. Alongside the main headquarters, there were 60 local chapters both abroad and in the U.S., headed up by volunteers and operating independently from AFH headquarters. Dozens of these chapters, with their own projects with their own funds, weren't ready to give up just yet. "The chapters didn’t stop doing the work," Jacobs explains. "Through all of this turmoil they continued to meet, continued to deliver design services to their community."

And over the past year, they've united behind the new, to-be-named nonprofit headed up by Jacobs—whose marching orders couldn’t be more different from the old, sprawling AFH. "Our organization will not do projects," he says. "We only exist to support the people and the local organizations doing projects."

These chapters will form the connective tissue of the new group, with a small, nimble steering committee designed to help chapters with issues like raising money and professional development. "The only work that will be done is locally, by local designers for their local communities," Jacobs adds.

A Common Problem Among Young Architects

Part of what made AFH’s closure such a blow to the architecture community was its role as a bastion of community-based architecture on a national level. Jacobs is well aware of the challenges of young architects who want to work locally and do good locally. As a project codirector at AFH’s headquarters, he watched as inquiries from young architects poured in daily.

"It’s not a profession that engenders entrepreneurialism," he says. "If you actually want to experiment with how you’re impacting people's’ lives, there aren’t many opportunities." He later moved on to Code For America—an experience that informed the new mission of the AFH chapter network. "I got so much more perspective in terms of product design in the tech world," Jacobs says.

Yet as the reorganization process intensified, Jacobs knew he needed to devote his full time to the project. He quit his job at Code For America not knowing whether this new nonprofit would even have a budget. Four days later, the CurryStone Design Prize awarded the group a grant that will fund it for its first six months.

Design Is The Tool, The Architect Is A Liaison

Jacobs and his collaborators imagine a collective of architects who enable local stakeholders to use design as a tool to improve their own communities.

One good example is AFH's Chicago chapter. Three years ago, the Chicago Housing Association announced it would demolish and redevelop more than 600 family units of public housing in the Altgeld Gardens Homes on the city’s far south side. The community successfully stopped the demolition, and asked the AFH chapter to get involved by leading an alternative redevelopment plan—one that would represent the community’s wishes and needs.

"We recorded histories, we had listening sessions with kids, parents, family members, all residents, as well as the homeless," explained AFH Chicago's Tom Veed in a presentation on the project given at SXSW Eco last year. From there, the chapter led design charrettes in which the community was driving the design process and the architects were simply synthesizing those ideas into a final proposal and advocating for the plan. In the end, almost all of the units were saved.

That shift—toward local issues and away from a top-down design process—is the key to the new organization. "The big difference is we’re moving from projects to people," Jacobs says. "I see this network as developing into an incubator for anyone who wants to experiment with what design can deliver in a community."

The chapter network will be announcing its new name and branding in late February.

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