5 Reasons Why Architects Should Volunteer to Build Abroad

  • 17 Jul 2014
  • by
  • Articles Editor's Choice
Rose Lee House / Auburn University Rural Studio. Image © Timothy Hursley

Patrick McLoughlin is one of the two founders of Build Abroad, a volunteer organization that offers architectural and construction services to developing nations. In this article, originally published on Archi-Ninja, McLoughlin shares five reasons why architects should get involved with organizations like his own. 

Many architecture firms collaborate with non-government organisations to help in developing nations. A.gor.a Architects for example, are currently designing and building a new health clinic to provide free healthcare to Burmese refugees and migrants. Auburn University Rural Studio works with architects and students to build homes in rural communities while instigating community-action, collaboration, and sustainability.

A number of organisations also facilitate construction Architecture for Humanity provides architecture, planning and project management services for disaster reconstruction. Architects without Borders is a global operation to provide ecologically sensitive and culturally appropriate design assistance to communities in need.

Over the past decade, volunteering abroad has become an increasingly popular and important part of the architecture and construction industry. Volunteering abroad offers short to long term opportunities to experience a new culture while giving back to the community. Construction volunteering offers the potential for a lasting impact on the affected community. Patrick McLoughlin, co-counder of Build Abroad describes the following benefits and how you can help to make a difference:

Courtesy of A.gor.a Architects and Auburn University Rural Studio

1. Construction provides a lasting physical impact:

Building a home or school for a community in need a tangible representation of development. Unlike some other forms of volunteering, you can see and experience the physical difference long after your volunteering trip is over.

2. Construction encourages community involvement:

Construction projects often encourage active community participation. When volunteering, the role of the architect is to facilitate growth from within the community, breaking down the notion of the ‘visionary architect.’ One of my favourite organisations, Hug It Forward has constructed schools in Guatemala from recycled plastic bottles. Members of the community, including children, work to clean up the streets collecting thousands of bottles. The bottles are then used as a construction material.

Courtesy of Architecture for Humanity and Architects Without Borders

3. Construction projects will serve the community for years:

In 2008 I built a school in Ghana with Miami University. It was a 6 week design and build architecture program. The rewarding experience inspired me to establish . While,I have not been back to Ghana since the construction project, I know the work I did is still serving the community. Since the school was built, 6 years of elementary students have cycled through the classroom.

Courtesy of Hug It Forward

4. Construction can make an environmental impact:

One of the largest architecture humanitarian design organisations is Architecture for Humanity, who develop socially and environmentally responsible design. The incorporation of local material is one of the most sustainable things that can be done when building abroad. Building Trust International is also a nonprofit organisation that establishes competitions to explore how architecture and construction can serve communities in need.

Courtesy of Building Trust International

5. Construction can directly help other service opportunities:

Every construction project serves a purpose; a new school serves as a classroom for students to learn. A new home gives shelter to a worker in the community. A new medical building gives a place for people to be cared for.

Thank you to Patrick McLoughlin for sharing his advice. Build Abroad was conceived in 2010 by two friends (Patrick McLoughlin and Chad Johnson) who met in architecture school, wanting to find a way to serve in developing nations by offering their construction and architecture services. Today, Build Abroad has developed into a volunteer organisation, working with local communities to provide socially conscious construction services. Build Abroad is an organisation that offers construction volunteering trips to Peru, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. Checkout their website to sign up. The volunteer trips are affordable and will make a lasting difference in a developing country! I am planning to volunteer myself in 2015 and I would absolutely love to see you there!

Cite: Linda Bennett. "5 Reasons Why Architects Should Volunteer to Build Abroad" 17 Jul 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 19 Sep 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=527444>

13 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down +25

    This is really motivational, but it would be great if ArchDaily provided resources on how to get involved with such projects.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down +5

    I might be happy to offer my architectural and construction experiences for free to deserving projects in developing countries. However Build Abroad charges in the region of $1000 (not including flights) to participate in such activities for 2 weeks… Similar, more valuable, professional experiences could easily be gained by volunteering with a local builder, without the price tag that comes with the exoticism of travelling abroad.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +2

      Nepal is one of the poorest nation on earth. There was 14 years civil war killed almost 14000 Nepali citizens. We need help to design People’s war memorial park in Nepal where people of Nepal who lost their friends and families can come to mourn and place their condolence every year. We have not raise any fund to build the memorial park. We believe if we have design we can raise funds to build the park in Nepal. If any architect could volunteer to design the park, that would be huge support for Nepali people.

  3. Thumb up Thumb down +29

    Though I strongly agree and encourage Architects having a role in the development of third-world countries, let me play devil’s advocate here for a minute. Having worked and lived in developing countries for most of my life, here are a few lessons learned on the way as a counter position to this post:

    Reasons not to volunteer to build abroad:

    1) Architects should be paid for their services. If you travel to a developing country and get involved in the development community, you will quickly realize that there is no scarcity of funds, grants and organizations with deep pockets. Professionals in almost every other field work abroad and are compensated for their work. However, as architects, are starving artist/humanitarian side seems to always kick in and we give away our services for free. This means that there are very few architects that have real experience living and working in these contexts because organizations prefer free temporary work even though these professionals have no or little experience and can end up costing more money in the long run.

    2) Unless you are an experience builder, don’t build abroad. Just because you have two hands doesn’t mean you can build with them. When you travel abroad to build homes/schools/etc. you are likely taking work away from skilled local masons who would otherwise be involved in the project. This means a loss of income for the local community. Many times, these buildings are also poorly built since the volunteers are doing it for the first time. I have personally witnessed builders take down walls during the night and rebuild them before the next morning because it wasn’t done properly the first time by volunteers. If you want to really help, just send money.

    3) Architects like to use poor people as lab rats. We see pretty pictures of bamboo huts in Thailand and want to teach the local people how to build bamboo huts in Egypt. We won’t get away with building a house out of soda bottles in North America, so we go test it out in South America. Sometimes this leads to innovations, many other times, it is just a waste of money, time and resources because it is untested technology and we have no concept of what works in a local environment.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      I like your thoughts. I also grew up in a developing country, in West Africa, for most of my life.
      How do you think architects and the construction of projects can be developed best within the community itself? Do you think western influences should be stopped altogether or redirected to other areas?

  4. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    Its an excellent way for the transfer of technology. If anyone is interested in working in East African Countries, you are most welcome and I am looking forward for facilitating any such initiatives

  5. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    I agree with the basic sentiment of this article; however there are some important nuances missing, which can make the difference between success and failure:
    1. Construction provides a lasting physical impact: Whether this is a positive impact depends on the social infrastructure that is in place to inhabit buildings. Often a building is the last thing that is needed in a development context. For example: there is no point in building a community enterprise centre if there are no credible and functioning community enterprises. Providing a building does not necessarily mean that people will flock to use it as hoped. Beware the white elephant or be prepared for the long haul to build social infrastructure as well as a building.
    2. Construction encourages community involvement: Community members may have different motivations for being involved in construction activities. Any development that seeks to encourage community members will not succeed unless these motivations are understood and explicitly catered to.
    3. Construction projects will serve the community for years: I’m not sure how this differs to point no.1
    4. Construction can make an environmental impact: should read: Construction WILL make an environmental impact and the point at which you make that decision to build is when you commit to making that impact. The first question for responsible architects should be: do we really need another building?
    5. Construction can directly help other service opportunities: I don’t understand this point.

  6. Thumb up Thumb down -2

    I agree with the basic sentiment of this article; however there are some important nuances missing, which can make the difference between success and failure:
    1. Construction provides a lasting physical impact: Whether this is a positive impact depends on the social infrastructure that is in place to inhabit buildings. Often a building is the last thing that is needed in a development context. For example: there is no point in building a community enterprise centre if there are no credible and functioning community enterprises. Providing a building does not necessarily mean that people will flock to use it as hoped. Beware the white elephant or be prepared for the long haul to build social infrastructure as well as a building.
    2. Construction encourages community involvement: Community members may have different motivations for being involved in construction activities. Any development that seeks to engage community members will not succeed unless these motivations are understood and explicitly catered to.
    3. Construction projects will serve the community for years: I’m not sure how this differs to point no.1
    4. Construction can make an environmental impact: should read: Construction WILL make an environmental impact and the point at which you make that decision to build is when you commit to making that impact. The first question for responsible architects should be: do we really need another building?
    5. Construction can directly help other service opportunities: I don’t understand this point.

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