Open Architecture Collaborative

The nonprofit originally known as Architecture for Humanity (AFH) and more recently as Architecture for Humanity Chapter Networks (AFHCN) has been renamed the Open Architecture Collaborative (OAC). The rebranding formalizes the start of a new era for the organization, which provides planning, design, and building services to underserved communities by coalescing and training local designers and volunteers, many of whom are recent architecture graduates.

Founded in 1999 by Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr, AFH made headlines in January 2015 when it abruptly closed its headquarters and filed for bankruptcy protection, surprising the thousands of members who were still actively engaged in projects worldwide. Garrett Jacobs, who was named the first executive director for AFHCN in January 2016, told ARCHITECT that complete transparency in operations was just one way the new organization would differ from its predecessor. He also led efforts to recruit a new board of directors and identify 11 regional leaders to oversee the 30 local chapters of designers and volunteers worldwide.

The rebranding effort itself exemplified the OAC’s commitment to inclusion and participatory design. Jacobs says the process began by inviting members to share their thoughts on the organization’s mission through interviews and surveys. The responses were culled by what became an ad-hoc branding committee, which then enlisted branding researchers and professionals, including Eric Pieper, co-founder of Asheville, N.C.–based design studio Homestead, to come up with name recommendations.

Both suggestions (which Jacobs declined to name on the record) were soundly rejected by the organization’s members.

So Jacobs, who partly attributes the rebuff to the smaller committee's perceived exclusivity, returned to his promise to open channels of communication within the organization. Each local chapter was invited to propose a name, from which three favorites were collectively identified and then ranked-choice voted. Open Architecture Collaborative received more than a majority of the votes. Each local chapter will substitute its location for “Collaborative,” becoming, for example, Open Architecture Chicago or Open Architecture Tokyo, while the umbrella organization will be designated as OAC.

Despite the unexpected resistance to the initially proposed names, Jacobs was buoyed by the level of engagement from the chapters. “For me, as the leader, the most profound moment is learning to love what is chosen by the group,” he says. “It was the moment that I knew that OAC was going to be the name. I sat down and [thought] I have to love this name. I really do. The creative process was learning how to love it. And then I [realized] 'open architecture' is a verb. We are opening architecture. That is it. I love it.”

Next came the logo design, which Jacobs half-jokingly says brought out the graphic designer in everyone. Based on input from the members, Pieper developed three options, which were again ranked-choice voted. The winner features a half-circle hovering beside a forward slash, which can be interpreted as representing the organization’s progressive, forward-thinking nature, or as a roof pitch with a rising sun. Jacobs himself sees an arc or a circle that is opening, symbolizing the nonprofit’s open community, or an allusion to the shorthand for “with" or “w/”.

OAC’s taglines “Design together” and “Design makes it possible for everyone to dream and build” take a softer, less accusatory tone than the well-known mantra of AFH and Sinclair, “Design like you give a damn.”

“It’s a very clear call to action,” Jacobs says, and represents “what we believe design can do.”

Coincidentally, OAC also harks back to the Open Architecture Network, a now-defunct initiative set up by Sinclair following his win of the 2006 TED Prize to aggregate and share designs and efforts by architects and community participants online.

With the new name and branding in place, Jacobs says, OAC will focus on encouraging community members and leaders alike to participate in design. “We have to start defining design in the 21st century as something accessible and attainable,” he says. “If we want to create truly sustainable spaces, people have to take ownership of them.”