Cameron Sinclair

Cameron Sinclair

In late May, Cameron Sinclair, best known as the co-founder of the non-profit disaster relief organization Architecture for Humanity (AFH) announced his latest venture, the Department of Small Works, a decidedly for-profit social impact practice.

Before Sinclair stepped down as executive director of AFH in 2014 (the organization filed for bankruptcy under new leadership in early 2015), he was on the ground in Haiti, Pakistan, and Kosovo. A leader in the field of social impact design and a recipient of numerous awards, including the TED Prize, he’s already at work on schools for Syrian refugees and rethinking water utility systems in slums. Mimi Zeiger spoke to him by phone from his Sausalito, California office.

Mimi Zeiger: In describing the Department of Small Works, the website mentions that it is “for-purpose” as well as for-profit. Is this move to the more conventional for-profit sector a suggestion that the non-profit model doesn’t work?

Cameron Sinclair: When we began Architecture for Humanity there was no such word as social entrepreneurship. There was no conversation around collaborative design studios that were truly globally collaborative—we didn’t have the technology. We started the same month as Google started. So, in a way, we only understood the non-profit model that if you’re an architect and you want to help people you have to volunteer.

Socially responsible design is not seen as something that makes a livelihood. So, I always wondered why we couldn’t have a social impact, for-profit company. One idea behind the Department of Small Works is that architects should have a career in this type of work.

Part of the reasons that AFH got into such difficulties towards the end is that we paid our people pretty well. There wasn’t much difference between a small design firm and a large non-profit.

The philanthropic world is a $16 billion industry— a lot of people who are working for international NGOs have high five- and low six-figure salaries. Why is it that people who are developing, leading, and implementing projects are expected to work for nothing?

How would you describe a small work?

Everyone is looking for that one silver bullet that will help everyone. We need millions of silver bullets. Our methodology is to develop highly adaptable, scalable projects that are much more likely to be adopted for communities. The idea of “small works” is figuring out the mechanism of ownership so that community becomes the owners of the solution rather than the purchasers.

Who funds these projects?

It’s a consortium of large NGOs and private donors who are looking for projects that can start a business. Every project that we are working on is geared toward job creation, equity, and ownership so that after the pilot it can be spun out into a business for the community. So rather than making a donation, people are making an investment.

Activism is listed among the Department of Small Works’ interests. Given some high profile architects’ dismissals of architecture as a political act, why is it important for them to take an activist stance?

I believe there’s a difference between architecture as a political act and political architecture. It comes down to ethics. I believe that people working on job sites shouldn’t have their passports taken away or reside in inhumane living conditions.

I’m not at war with the idea of big architecture. We will always have it. Our clientele is different. When we design safe spaces for women who are victims of sexual assault, for instance, we are looking for design solutions that are far removed from the global aesthetics of architecture.