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Big design, small planet

As the world shrinks, the importance of design grows. And yet the rude truth is that design remains invisible to many. The effort put in by designers to make our cities beautiful, safe, and functional is frequently misunderstood.

Perhaps you have had this experience: You find yourself walking the High Line in New York City at sunset, or looking up in an atrium to find the perfect vantage point. In that moment you recognize the precision, consideration, and intention that elevate these spaces to a list of all-time favorites. You embrace a deep feeling of appreciation for design and look around, thinking that others must be as elated as you are. Instead, a set of confused faces stare back angrily, wondering why you’d choose to stop and space out at the most inopportune time in an area of high foot traffic.

The view of the bay from the community center in Maeami Hama, a fishing village in Ishinomaki, Japan, devastated by the 2011 tsunami. Photo: Michael Steiner.

Through our work at Architecture for Humanity, we aim to put to rest any doubt about the value of design. In the communities where we work, stretching to the corners of the globe that have never seen an architect, designers are asked to solve pressing questions: How can we capture drinking water? Where can my children play safely? How do I make my house safe in a storm? We solve these questions through design. Among the results are children who no longer hide on school days because their new classrooms are filled with light and fresh air, teenagers who work against gender inequality by playing coed soccer on their new pitch, and small-business owners building back better following a devastating storm.

TALARA SCHOOL PROJECT, PERU The Santa Elena de Piedritas School, with exterior shading structures; model-making workshop for the new building; a weaver with a bottle-cap mural. Photos: Jesús Porras.

As designers working on a global scale in communities of need, the challenges we face are growing in severity and complexity. We are asked: How will we respond to climate change? Can we provide adequate housing while rates of urbanization accelerate? How do we put an end to substandard building practices? The needs and pressures in vulnerable communities are urgent.

Increasingly, designers are answering this call to action, eager to work abroad and contribute to the safety and resilience of the world. It’s no easy feat to work in places far from our own homes; cultural divides require caution and adaptability —and a sense of humor. In the 15 years of Architecture for Humanity’s existence, we have learned to be comfortable in our own skin, in the places we work and with the people we hope to serve.


Jesús Porras spent a year with residents of the town of Talara in the Piura region of Peru. Jesús is an architect who chose to immerse himself within this community to rebuild the only school facility in Talara. The school, Santa Elena de Piedritas, sits within a remote rural desert community and serves more than 100 students. Jesús was not exempt from the town residents’ living conditions; he faced the problematic shortage of water in the arid land. He was also privy to the economic hardships of many families with whom he shared meals and met with extended family members during community workshops. He discovered the lack of reliable jobs for women and imaginative spaces for children to play. He was not apart from their experience; their home became his home, and their challenges became his challenges.

During Talara’s school reconstruction project, Jesús seized opportunities to capture multiple layers of the community’s concern and applied his creative problem solving. The dusty lot adjacent to the school was transformed into a playground, built from a decommissioned boat transported through the generosity of a neighbor’s truck. And when the school grounds were in need of decorative elements, Jesús rallied the students to collect hundreds of colorful bottle caps. With the help of Talara’s female leaders, beautiful woven bottle-cap murals were created and displayed throughout the buildings. The “bottle-cap weavers” adopted the craft and now rely on their art as a source of income for their families.


In 2011, following the great earthquake and tsunami in East Japan, we encountered the disappearance of entire communities; buildings washed kilometers away in scattered piles of debris. Ishinomaki was one such community. With the help of our Tokyo chapter, we set up shop and asked ourselves: How would we bring back dignity and restore hope for this generation and the next? The focus turned to the people and places that exemplified the strength and courage needed to push the recovery of Ishinomaki forward.

As a result, we chose to work on projects that could spur continued rehabilitation of the region and contribute to the healing of all its residents. The search began with town heroes — the women and men who continued to champion the spirit of the place — the fishermen, cooks, craft makers, and teachers. In the first year of recovery, we completed a sports field with the help of a generous farmer. The farmer donated an asparagus field so it could become the home of a new football pitch for young athletes, complete with team uniforms for the “Asparagi” team. We completed these unconventional projects because they were instrumental to the community’s future. We designed and built a noodle shop, home, and work studio for a women’s craft cooperative, and even a grocery market that includes an after-school children’s center.


The experience of working around the world on community-level projects is exciting work. It’s a job that provides a lens into how as designers we can serve others and set forth a positive direction for a community’s success. During the journey, while we witness and experience how design can change a tiny slice of the world, our minds should also turn to the places we call home. Let’s imagine what we could accomplish by bringing this commitment and passion for design to places that surround us every day, near or far. When we can do so, the question of how to design “over there” becomes semantic; every design is approached with compassion, vigor, and heart. ■