Architects Without Borders provides volunteer opportunities to build communities, schools, jobs and hope.
Each day as the sun breaks over the horizon in Bata Atha, a small coastal village in the South of Sri Lanka, men row their boats toward the dry sandy beaches and wade through the clear azure waters carrying woven baskets full of fish, crab and prawns. The loss of one man’s life could mean financial disaster for a family. The day after Christmas in 2004 the deadliest tsunami in recorded history rocked Southeast Asia. The fallout from the tectonic destruction was powerful enough to make a change in the earth’s rotation, causing the day to be shortened by almost three seconds. Hundreds of thousands of lives were taken, one-third being children, and entire cities were lost under the seismic waves. The Indian Ocean tsunami threatened and uprooted centuries of culture by the sheer number of people lost. The Bata Atha grade school was taken away in a tidal wave. Sri Lanka has a deep love for education and a long history with the written word. With a 98.1 percent literacy rate, a school is at the heart of the community. As the rest of the world kept up with the events of the tsunami, volunteer opportunities arose for experts across the globe. People began mobilizing and donations poured in, and an email went out to a group of architects in Portland, Oregon. A few days later they met at the Center for Architecture downtown and got to work on plans to help rebuild Sri Lanka.
Eleven years later and with over 300 volunteers, Architects Without Borders Oregon is the most active branch in the nation. Working with community leaders and local craftsmen, Architects Without Borders Oregon designed a new grade school in Bata Atha, moving it uphill to a safer location for the children and expanding the classrooms. Using local materials, they also reinforced the walls with cement. In the case of another tsunami, the educational center of the community will stand.
“By working alongside people, using local resources and traditional crafts, the collaboration can empower communities to build symbols of hope.”
Architects Without Borders Oregon has expanded its volunteer opportunities across the globe, helping communities in need by connecting them with the talents of architects, engineers and designers to realize their dreams and make a visual plan. By putting design within reach, communities on the edge with little resources can transform their future by way of a public space. Financially fragile economies cannot often afford to hire firms to draw up plans, connect electricity and plumbing to new structures, make land ready for new buildings and construct spaces which can withstand the test of hurricanes, tsunamis and war. Architects Without Borders Oregon believes that by working alongside people, using local resources and traditional crafts, the collaboration can empower communities to build symbols of hope.
The architects and teams have been changed, too. In times of recession, Architects Without Borders gives volunteer opportunities to their expert members to remain engaged in their field and help realize projects that will have a positive impact on individuals for years to come. Architects and engineers love problem-solving, and many of the challenges they face while working with communities in need are unique puzzles that demand all of their knowledge to create unique solutions.
Not far from Portland, Oregon, is a sleepy seaside town called Cathlamet. It shares much in common with Bata Atha in Sri Lanka. It has one of the smallest populations in Washington state and its main industry is fishing. The small American town comes straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting with a main street, one restaurant and an annual Eagle Day Parade. Cathlamet city leaders got in touch with Architects Without Borders Oregon to help them renovate an old firehouse into a library and community center. After working together to design a master plan, Architects Without Borders Oregon helped Cathlamet submit their proposal and through grants was able to raise $450,000. Dozens of local volunteers and businesses helped revitalize the firehouse and today it helps circulate books and DVDs and connects not only the town but neighboring Puget Island, Skamokawa and the Elochoman Valley to lifelong learning, reading and the digital world.
Many of the volunteer opportunities of Architects Without Borders Oregon revolve around joining forces to illustrate projects for grants. Without a clear image and outline of what the community needs, it’s impossible to apply for aid. As with Bata Atha in Sri Lanka and in Cathlamet, jobs are created for local artisans, workers and the blueprints are drawn up by nearby architects. This surge into the local economies gives further substance when visions become a concrete reality.
Architects Without Borders Oregon with BuildOn Haiti certified masons
Six years after the tsunami in Sri Lanka, the island of Haiti was almost destroyed by an earthquake. Having learned by their work in Bata Atha and in Louisiana after Katrina, Architects Without Borders Oregon partnered with BuildOn Haiti to support local masons and design safer schools. They came up with a mason’s handbook on new strategies to make buildings hurricane proof, and the handbook was put to use within hours of its publication. They set up training programs with certification, which gave the Haitian builders the knowledge to put the new technique to use with current and new structures and to gain more employment. After 50 new schools were built in Haiti, the design model they came up with was so successful that it’s been used in other countries facing similar natural disasters. True to their humanitarian mission, the plan is not copyrighted and allows for space to be built that puts education in the hands of the next generations.
Architects Without Borders Oregon is also doing vital work in Mogadishu, an important African port for centuries and caught in the middle of the Somali Civil War. For close to 25 years the warring factions have used children in battle, with 20 percent of them being girl soldiers. The girls have not only been exposed to death and destruction, but many have been the victims of rape. Elman Ali Ahmed was a Somali businessman who started a rehabilitation center for the child soldiers, creating a trade school and giving support to heal their emotional wounds through work and a safe community. He lived by the motto “Put down the gun, pick up the pen.” Elman was murdered in 1996. His wife and daughter lived in exile in Canada for decades and returned home to Mogadishu to begin planning the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center. Their goal was to expand Elman’s vision and within its walls make a new future beyond war. Elman’s family and Architects Without Borders Oregon are developing a master plan that will have individual buildings to give the former child soldiers counseling, housing and vocational training. For many of the youths, the peace center has become the new family to help them to heal from losing their own families and to regain their dignity by forming bonds and learning a trade that does not involve a gun.
Mitchell Funk/Getty Image
Close to home, Architects Without Borders Oregon is looking at how they can bring all of the knowledge and skills they’ve learned in more than a decade and create volunteer opportunities to make a constructive impact on their neighbors to the north and south. Seattle and cities in Southern California have recognized the need for homeless people to have a place to store their belongings. Not only is carrying everything you own everywhere you go physically difficult, but it is a barrier to receiving medical care, staying in a shelter and being able to look for work. Leaving blankets, shoes and food outside while seeing a doctor or applying for jobs, a person could lose all of their possessions. Architects Without Borders Oregon has come up with a plan for storage units so that homeless people can safely store their belongings. Looking at the success of similar resources in other cities, Architects Without Borders Oregon is working with local homeless advocates and cities to provide this option.
“A building is simply a way for a great idea to be put into action and grow with the community.”
Elman Peace and Human Rights Center
Architects Without Borders Oregon remains active because of the dedication of their volunteers, and they have one belief that they’ve carried across the world to do their work: a building is simply a way for a great idea to be put into action and grow with the community.