Building a healthy home
In an exclusive interview with Architect Peter Williams, he has designed creative projects in U.S., United Arab Emirates and Asia. In 2006, he founded Architecture for Health in Vulnerable Environments, an international charity with the mission to use one basic need—housing—to deliver one basic right—health. Since then, ARCHIVE has worked toward that mission in Haiti, the U.K., Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nepal and elsewhere.
How and why did you start looking at the connection between housing and health?
Pretty much from the age of eight I was determined to be an architect. I grew up in Jamaica where I would always see people making basic changes to their houses, like adding rooms or renovating. I saw a guy mixing concrete on the road once and I remember saying to my dad, “I would like to do that.” He said, “No, son, you want to be an architect. You don’t want to be a construction laborer.”
In terms of the health addition, my dad ultimately developed a disease, which was attributable to poor housing conditions. He became paralyzed and bedridden. I saw the way in which something simple like a donation of a wheelchair from the local church was rendered inoperable because we simply could not move the chair between rooms—the doorways weren’t wide enough. It wasn’t until years later, when I was a design student that I was able to put those things together. On one hand, I saw that housing was directly responsible for my dad’s illness and on the other, housing was also incapable of meeting his cure needs.
Upon completing graduate school I received a fellowship to examine the link between AIDS and architecture in South Africa, the epicenter for the pandemic at that time. I saw firsthand that the context in which people lived presented itself as a risk factor associated with disease transmission. That really allowed me, over time, to reflect on the nexus between health and housing.
What does ARCHIVE do?
Our interest is 360-degree medium- and long-term development. We make a clear distinction between humanitarian work—meaning emergency-type work that we often see in post-disaster context, which is absolutely critical—and the kind of medium- and long-term development work to which we’re particularly committed. We split our time between the pragmatics (delivering projects on the ground, improving lives directly), helping to change and direct policy (where possible at the government level) and working to generate and communicate new knowledge through research.
We were invited to help draft a 360-degree-framework policy, developed by the European Center for Disease Control on tuberculosis in urban areas across the continent. People are sometimes surprised to learn that TB, a centuries old disease, is on the increase.
We also spend our time doing a fair bit of advocacy and outreach. It’s important that we communicate the urgency of these issues to the communities who are affected most.
In Haiti we will be building an additional 20 homes [and creating] a community development program that also involves providing access to clean water to about 3,000 individuals in the community. Beyond that, we have repaired a road in Haiti. People look at this very simplistically and say, “Well, it’s road repair.” But what that road repair is tied to is saving lives. The road now facilitates about 7,000 people with improved access to the markets and health facilities.
We have worked with essentially the leading health care designer in the world, Perkins and Will, to design a health care facility for the community [in Haiti]. We’re also doing a vocational school to provide training for locals. Then there is an agricultural project that we’re working on with an organization called Partners in Health headed by Paul Farmer. They have a subsidiary group called Zanmi Agrikol, which is Creole for Partners in Agriculture.
We’re doing a project in Cameroon, which we launched like our Haiti Project Competition initially to ask design and health professionals to explore the link between housing design and malaria—things like screening housing, something so basic, which is really at the heart of our organization. We’re interested in low-cost, low-tech integrated strategies, which have often been sidelined in global health and housing efforts.
Which components of housing have you found have the biggest impact on health?
For us it’s about understanding how the components are interrelated. We saw that far too often the model—not only of international development but a lot of successful business practices—is to focus on one specific area and do it really well. Around the world … diarrhea kills about 2 million people every year, needlessly. There is a direct correlation between the lack of suitable sanitation and contracting diarrhea-related illnesses. Yet, it’s not just about having toilets—it’s really about whether toilets are present and whether there’s access to clean water. We are in fact talking about the relationship between two infrastructure components.
In Nepal, work that we are about to get started is based on findings that paving floors can improve the cognitive development of a child by as much as 96 percent, reduce the risk of anemia by as much as 80 percent and reduce that risk of parasitic and diarrhea-related illnesses by as much as 50 percent. This is the exciting way that housing can be a major vehicle for curbing the risk of contracting diseases and therefore the mortality for some of the poorest people on our planet. But the extent to which we can render this effective is the extent to which we can, I would argue, move away from this notion of looking at the issues in silos.