On January 1, Architecture for Humanity (AFH) quietly closed its doors in a move that took the design world and AFH’s own global network of over 20,000 volunteers by surprise. Problems appeared to have been brewing for months and many of those in contact with headquarters could tell all was not well – but staff in international field offices and 59 volunteer chapters were left largely in the dark. But as the dust begins to settle, leaders of many of AFH’s volunteer chapters have come forward eager to continue the organization’s mission.
From the start, Architecture for Humanity’s mission was huge. As co-founder Cameron Sinclair put it in 2006: “Think about a prestige architect like Zaha Hadid. There are probably 20 people in Britain who can afford to commission her. I, on the other hand, have somewhere between four and five billion people on the planet who are looking for my help.” And the organization quickly grew to meet the needs of poverty and disaster-stricken communities around the globe. This didn’t just take the form of field offices and far-flung studios that were overseen by the organization’s headquarters, it also comprised a massive movement of over 20,000 willing volunteers who founded 59 global chapters.
The headquarters, located in San Francisco, had 36 full-time employees and many volunteers to oversee and incredible projects in Haiti, Japan, New Jersey and across Africa. In just five years the organizations’ annual revenue went from $2 million to $12 million. But in recent years, as funding slowed, AFH hit its first deficit. By the end of 2013, it had hit $2.1 million, according to the most recent executive director, Eric Cesal.
Design projects including “a school in the Philippines and rebuilding projects in parts of New Jersey damaged by Hurricane Sandy,” overseen by the now-defunct HQ, are still in progress, according to Chairman of the Board Matt Charney and Fast Company, and now hang in the balance. Cost overruns, Charney told the New York Times, were part of AFH’s problem.
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So what now? Although the field offices abroad had to be closed, many volunteers would like to continue their work. “From the sounds of the 100+ emails between local and international chapter leaders since Friday, it seems that most chapters are ignited in continuing our work,” Hilda Boyadjian, director of the Los Angeles chapter, told Fast Company in an email on Monday.
These volunteer chapters are run independently from the main office, with some making remarkable strides within their own communities. The New York Chapter were once named NY1’s New Yorkers of the Week, the San Francisco chapter is in the process of completing an overhaul of Burrows Pocket Park in partnership with Lincoln Motor Co., and Architectural Digest. These chapters raise their own money, establish local partnerships and select their own projects. Architecture for Humanity HQ provided branding and minimal back-end support, but not much else. And as long as a chapter held to the non-profit’s mission, they could work on what they liked. But their funds were often held by Architecture for Humanity and it’s unclear whether or not they will ever see that money again.
The Architecture for Humanity board released a statement Thursday afternoon announcing that they expect to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the next two weeks. “Architecture for Humanity has had incredible partners and funders that made our work possible over the last 15 years but, like many charity organizations, we have had serious funding challenges,” board chairman Matt Charney writes. “Our leadership worked to overcome the funding gaps to the best of their ability, but the deficit combined with budget overruns and an overall decrease in donations finally became an insurmountable situation.”
So while the end of Architecture is certainly a sorry event, the importance of their work and their vision remains, and will, all being well, continue on in the volunteer chapters, and through organizations such as AFH UK, which remain their own, legally registered, independent entity.
Photos by Architecture for Humanity