A few years ago, I sat down with Cameron Sinclair to talk about his recently-launched Open Architecture Network. He describes it as a “gift to the design community” with a simple mission: “to generate design opportunities that will improve living standards for all “by providing an open-source platform through which anyone can view, post, share, and adapt sustainable, humanitarian-based, scalable solutions. The idea that designs and all associated documents can and should be shared within the decidedly proprietary architectural industry is truly innovative, and could very well aid in the reshaping of the entire architectural profession into a more socially-focused and responsible vocation. Read on for a full transcription of the interview.

Continue reading below
Our Featured Videos

Cameron Sinclair, Interview with Cameron Sinclair, Cameron Sinclair Interview, Open Architecture Network, Architecture for Humanity, TED prize, TED 2007, Open-source design

Emily: You won the TED prize, and the Open Architecture Network was your “wish.” How did the idea come about? Down the line how do you think it’s going to change the existing system?

Cameron: The whole idea of the Network came from our frustration. It was really the frustration of working on projects in different locations with different architects and not being able to share ideas and knowledge. For instance, we’d have an architect in Sri Lanka, and she’d have to drive for a day to get to a place where she could upload information, and it would take her 4 hours to upload something. And then we would get it, we’d print it out, and it meant that a decision would take two weeks. Whereas if we can have a system where all that information’s up online and people can comment on it- all these great tools, then you can make on-the-ground decisions a lot quicker.

Cameron Sinclair, Kate Stohr, Architecture for Humanity, Architecture for Humanity San Francisco, San Francisco, Architecture for Humanity headquarters, humanitarian design, disaster relief, disaster relief design

We can also have the clients and the funders involved in the process, which is very important to us, because two of the schools we did in Sri Lanka, were funded by high schools in Atlanta, Georgia. And the kids got to see the whole process happen. And I went and did a school assembly there. I flew down to Atlanta and I showed them the school. And it was like being a rock star, and I was like “this is your school, you built it.” And if we could allow them to be more engaged in that process, it will make them feel like they’re really making a difference. They may not have brought the design in, but they brought the funding in. So it’s really about sharing information and sharing best practices.

And this hit home to me in Sri Lanka- I met a bunch of non-profits and we started talking about the work we were doing. And everyone had the same problem and was making the same mistakes. Because we’re living in a donor-based culture, none of the non-profits are willing to admit that they make any mistakes. So millions of dollars to go to waste because no one’s willing to share best practices and worst practices. So let’s create a forum where you can do that, where people are not wasting money. Because my end goal is not to say look, so-and-so did a bad job. Instead, let’s learn from our mistakes, so we can build more housing and more schools and be more cost effective.

How much money went missing down on the Gulf Coast? A billion dollars? Do you know how much housing we could build with that? And there’s the problem. And we’re just talking about natural disasters. What about post-conflict resolution? 12 billion went missing in Iraq. So if you had a way where you could come up with localized solutions and could hire people locally to do the building, then you wouldn’t have such a problem with insurgencies. I’m not saying we can end civil war, but these things can make a difference.

Cameron Sinclair 2, Open Architecture Network, Architecture for Humanity, TED prize, TED 2007, Open-source design, balloon housing, humanitarian architecture

Emily: And the site itself could support a lot of these ideas and opportunities… And it is completely open source, so anyone can look at it, it’s not specific to architects?

Cameron: It’s open to anybody, anybody can contribute, and then anyone has the right to decide what the copyright control on their design is. If you only want people to look at your design, that’s fine. We’re not going to stop you. You want to say no derivatives? That’s fine too. There are 8 different types of Creative Commons licenses, and that’s what we’ve got right now. What Architecture For Humanity does is that we have a developing nations license, so that anyone from the developing world can take our ideas, basically download and copy them, and replicate those buildings.

Emily: This open-source model has really never been implemented within the creative community, which can be fairly proprietary, right?

Cameron: Yes, but the Network I think can change that. When the main focus is not financial gain but social gain, what’s the benefit in keeping all the information to yourself? We want to be able to distribute that information and allow there to be new innovation.