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What's the Future of Architecture for Humanity? New Director Speaks

The news that humanitarian design non-profit Architecture for Humanity shut down its central office in San Francisco in early 2015 came as a surprise to many, especially the more than 20,000 designers and volunteers working in local chapters across the globe. Just as surprising, perhaps, was the announcement early this month that 32 of the individual chapters, who operated independently from the central organization, have since banned together to form the Chapter Network and just named former volunteer and long-time network organizer Garrett Jacobs the new executive director.

Jacobs, who got involved with humanitarian design projects in New Orleans as a student at Tulane, where he did extensive work in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (he arrived in town three days before the storm hit), already has big plans in the works. A total rebranding, including a new name, is already scheduled for March, accompanied by a big shift in purpose for the central organization, which will focus solely on developing people and processes as opposed to arranging its own projects. Curbed spoke with Jacobs about the organizational reboot and his vision for the future of humanitarian architecture.

What's your vision for change?
"A big thing that sets us apart from the past organization is that all this change is coming from the ground up. The first thing we're doing to become functionally operational is assess local needs. Once we understand what the communities and chapters need, we can develop programs for those needs and address what's happening locally. You have to understand your constituency. We're focused on marginalized communities, so it's about translating the language of the built environment to those who don't have regular access to designers. I'm excited for the potential to include a lot more educational opportunities. Many people graduate and go to work as an architect and don't know how to be entrepreneurial. They don't understand how to form partnerships, grow local businesses, and act as a community organizer and translator for how things get built in this world."

How are you going to do that?
"I'm excited to create pathways of leadership in this movement. We're going through the process of electing regional leaders, experienced volunteers who can develop partnerships and help found new chapters. Hopefully, one of them will replace me in a few years. Architecture is a stifling world; it's hard to start something new. I think there's a more innovative approach we can use to figure out what design can do for others. It's also about sharing across the network, not just in theory, but with best practices and real-world work."

Who do you see as good models for the organization?
"There are so many, and that's a big difference from when the organization was founded 15 years ago. We want to look at the whole world involved in this kind of work, which has dramatically expanded. The Center for Urban Pedagogy, Active Living by Design, there are so many doing great work that's hyper-localized. What sets this network apart is that we're an accessible venue. I want to operate not by saying we're doing the best, which is probably not true, but working with and learning from others, and helping others access this kind of design."

What do you want the central office to become, and how would you define its role?
"I want it to become a place for resources, one that takes the lead in coalition building and becomes a hub that brings people together in conversations, and amplifies the voices of the community members that we're working with. I want us to pick up the pulse of the building world."

· Architecture for Humanity is Shutting Down [Curbed]
· Shelter Solutions coverage [Curbed]