The house that social networking built

The Open Architecture Network's Cameron Sinclair talks about harnessing next-generation Web technologies to proliferate affordable housing around the globe. Open-source housing for needy

Elsa Wenzel
9 min read
Forget about showy "starchitecture" from the likes of Frank Gehry. Architect Cameron Sinclair sees the future of his field in the slums, where the United Nations projects that one-third of the world's population will dwell by 2030.

Sinclair insists that nothing short of a design revolution is needed to construct innovative housing solutions from the ground up. The Open Architecture Network, a Web site he co-founded that applies the principles behind open-source software to the construction of the material world, is working toward that sweeping global goal.

The project is an offshoot of Architecture for Humanity, founded in 1999 by Sinclair and his wife, Kate Stohr. The nonprofit has worked to provide affordable housing in the tsunami-trampled Indian Ocean region and post-Hurricane Katrina U.S. Gulf Coast, as well as HIV clinics and soccer fields in sub-Saharan Africa. Its call to arms serves as the title of Architecture for Humanity's 2006 book Design Like You Give a Damn.

That cry reached influential ears in the tech world when, in 2006, Sinclair won the coveted TED Prize, from whose spoils Sinclair and others at Architecture for Humanity launched the Open Architecture Network last March. It enables designers anywhere to share blueprints under Creative Commons licenses.

The network, which has more than 9,100 members, is currently hosting the AMD Open Architecture Challenge, a design contest for technology centers in remote parts of Ecuador, Kenya, and Nepal. Behind the contest is the overarching aim of AMD's 50x15 program to expand Internet access to half of the world's population.

CNET News.com caught up with Sinclair at his San Francisco office last week before he headed to Davos, Switzerland, to speak at the World Economic Forum.

Q: How have things changed since the TED Prize?
Sinclair: What's interesting about the TED prize is, good and bad, that everyone thinks that you're now loaded. Bono got it. Clinton got it. It doesn't bring money, but what it does bring is incredible resources.

For instance, Sun Microsystems donated not just their services and technology but also a team of engineers, super geeks, who built the back end of the Open Architecture Network. And also AMD provided us with hosting.

Open Architecture Network

With this new technology, open source, and the Creative Commons, it cleared the vision of what we were doing so we could explain to people why we used technology or what the role of the architect is.

What are some highlights from recent trips you've made? How was Africa, what happened there?
Sinclair: We do a lot of work here in the Gulf Coast and also on Native American reservations. Internationally, the big thing has been the Open Architecture Challenge. We have three sites on three different continents and I've recently been to all three.

It's not just like you go in and look at land and then survey it. It's actually spending a lot of time with communities...We were in the slums of Kenya prior to the election when it was very tense. We went right to the heart of the Nakuru slum, which is fascinating because on paper it just looked like any other settlement. They'd had a huge influx of Somali refugees, a recent, strong Muslim community, and it was in the industrial area, so they were dealing with the effects of post-industrial land, problems with drinking water.

What's possible with the Open Architecture Network that would not happen without the Internet?
Sinclair: Architecture for Humanity would not have existed without the Internet. We've been very fortunate because our focus has been what the Internet is supposed to do, which is the exchange of ideas and information not for financial gain but for social gain.

On my laptop were about 2,000 projects--cool, innovative stuff that could change the world--and they just sat on my laptop. Someone said, "Why don't you just put them on a server somewhere?" Originally, the network was going to be a repository of proven ideas. But as we began building it with the engineers, we realized here was an opportunity to create a project management system so that designers could implement projects on a really cost-effective basis.

Our FedEx bills have dropped massively. We don't send anything; it's all on the network. Our overhead is less than 8 percent and the rest goes into the construction and design of the buildings.

It's not just a bunch of gray-haired white guys in academic institutions. We're talking about architects on the network representing 104 nations, so if you're looking for an Afghan architect, chances are they're on the network. It enables localized innovation with a top-down approach.

When you travel, how do you show people the site?
Sinclair: I put it on my laptop, but the big question is connectivity. Only 20 percent of the world is online. In Africa and South America it's much, much less, 6 percent in South America and like 3 percent in Africa.

There's 1.6 billion people living in areas that are going to be flooded as a result of global warming. Most of these are in unplanned settlements. That's a lot of work to be done.

I keep telling people, most of the planet that's not online doesn't want to go to Facebook. They don't want to see the streaming Britney Spears court date or Steve Jobs live. Seriously, what they want to do is look at the tools that improve their lives.

When you talk about tools people in the developing world have that we don't, "leapfrogging" technologies, what are some that look really cool?
Sinclair: There are two in South Africa that I really love. One is the Hippo (water) roller (a barrel-shaped container designed to transport water in rural areas where water has traditionally had to be carried laboriously atop the head). The real genius, and it sounds kind of silly--as well as rolling it, it also flattens the road.

The other one I actually used a couple of years ago when there was a blackout in New York City. I had a Freeplay wind-up radio. There was a crowd of 50 people around me listening to the news. I had my coffee and my radio cranked up, sitting on the street corner in New York, and people were like, "Where did you get that?" And I'm like, "Africa."

In terms of housing, a lot of it is about using simple materials, bamboo and rice bale construction, an advancement of straw bale--using interesting materials such as hemp and also hybrid materials.

What designs look really fresh to you? And how much of what the network deals with might be considered sustainable design?
Sinclair: A couple are dealing with informal settlements, housing in the margins. How do you create dignified housing where there's no land?

Someone's working on a $700 house. The Now House is a World War II retrofitted home that's carbon-neutral...There's a spinach-powered house, there's a grow-your-own clinic, a clinic you eat. All of these projects have to be sustainable.

Let's talk about the geeks, the tech community. What kind of feedback do you get from them?
Sinclair: What's been really great is that we have folks at Sun and AMD, engineers who are calling us and saying, "Hey, I want to work on this." The Open Architecture Network has been in beta right now for the last year. Over the next year we're looking to add a whole bunch of resources, materials, and libraries. Tech people are saying, "Hey, I'm looking to develop a carbon calculator."

We're working with Autodesk Freewheel, the first Web application that allows you to see CAD drawings rendered live, working to integrate it within the next few months so you can run Web meetings and comment on the drawings live.

What do you think about the Web 2.0 trend?
Sinclair: It's a label. The people who make the most money will make the Web 2.0 apps that appeal to the most people--but on the fringes there are people that can actually do some amazing stuff of a collaborative nature.

We're still waiting for Web 2.0 to catch up to the way we work on a day-to-day basis...We use all that stuff, Google Apps, Google Earth. What's nice is we actually e-mail the people who make Google Apps every time we see something wrong.

So do the Google people get back to you?
Sinclair: Yeah, really rapidly. It's amazing. For the 3D modeling and 2D conception drawings, we are their key constituency. If they had to go to a for-profit it would be very costly to develop their R&D. What does SketchUp or Autodesk look like in an emerging market? Well, we're doing it.

We'd say, what is the computing power it takes to do this? We ask bizarre questions because most of the clients we have are using low-power thin clients, things like that.

What do you think about efforts such as One Laptop Per Child?
Sinclair: I want to hack it, I want to break it. I want to turn it into one laptop per innovation. If you gave me one, I'd take it to the streets of Kenya or India and I'd give them to the most innovative people working in the slums, the guy who's making flip-flops out of recycled plastic bottles. Then you just install some sort of CAD program on there and teach them how to use it so their innovations could be shared. What's the power of improving their living standards if you've got that going on?

Maybe version 2.0 should have the tagline "It's not just for kids" or "One Laptop Per Adult."

How will big environmental changes--in terms of global warming, ecological and manmade disasters, even the high price of energy--affect your work?
Sinclair: Someone was joking that I'm the luckiest architect on the planet because there's no shortage of clients. There's 1.6 billion people living in areas that are going to be flooded as a result of global warming. Most of these are in unplanned settlements. That's a lot of work to be done.

Can I make a $1,000 house? Can I make solar power affordable for someone in the slums of Angola? Is it feasible, and if it is, how can you make it aesthetically beautiful? It's convincing the heads of corporations who fund these initiatives but are saying, "Take the design out." We've kind of bucked that trend and proven you actually do have to design something that's beautiful.

What's the bad side of an open-source community?
Sinclair: The biggest challenge is that we're in the business of constructing things, so there's a health and safety aspect. If it's completely open source and someone takes a design and another design and doesn't follow the legal information included in the design, then what are the ramifications of doing that?

Can you see this model working for other fields?
Sinclair: Industrial design is an obvious one. And what if you had cancer researchers collaborating in an open-source manner and didn't have competitive studies? Instead of billions of dollars wasted, maybe you'll cure cancer...Or education, figuring out open-source curriculums so you're getting multipronged history.

Do you ever talk with people in other fields who are interested in something like the Open Architecture Network?
Sinclair: I've talked to a lot of doctors who do AIDS-related projects in Africa. It's their biggest challenge trying to share information with each other.

When you say "open source," the people who make money from it get worried, so there's a lot riding against open principles. But Linux and Drupal can do it. That's the beauty of the world we live in. You don't need one big giant to control everything.

Is the site still just in English?
Sinclair: It's a big problem. We just need to find volunteer translators. Really important are Chinese, Hindi, Swahili--right there I've just named 3 billion people, half the planet.

Do you run into resistance when you travel?
Sinclair: We've had death threats, all sorts of things because we were shaking up the apple cart, trying to make people more self-sufficient.

Death threats coming from...?
Sinclair: All over the place. We've done some gender violence projects, whether it be pimps in Calcutta or bandits or people who are controlling corrupt officials, they're going to be upset. We're an easy target seen as protecting or giving empowerment to a community that has been disenfranchised for many years.

We don't believe in making placards. It's a waste of wood. We'd rather build houses.