A Conversation with the Portland Chapter: Part two

A Conversation with the Portland Chapter: Part two

  • by Architecture for Humanity
  • Jun 10, 2013
  • comments

Nick Robertson, one of the directors of Architecture for Humanity Portland Chapter, has been involved with Architecture for Humanity for about ten years – and has worked with AFH_pdx (as they're known on Twitter) almost as long as it’s been around. During that time, he’s seen his chapter grow and evolve from a grassroots operation into a fully-fledged chapter. AFH Portland tackles a number of projects relevant to their community, often pairing up with other local residents and organizations to do so. But beyond just managing a wide range of projects, Robertson and his co-directors are working to create a stable future for their chapter.

Nick Robertson recently took the time to speak with us for a two-part look into the Portland Chapter. You can find the first part here, or keep reading part two:


Headquarters: So do you guys engage with any other AFH chapters?

Nick Robertson: Yeah, especially since we started thinking about the whole chapter sustainability thing, we’ve been doing a little research and reaching out to other chapters to see how they do things and lessons they’ve learned to see if there are better ways to do things. That’s definitely an ongoing process. We actually just started a disaster resilience studio, and Seattle has done (comparatively) a lot with disaster resilience, so we’ve been picking their brains a little bit. There was actually supposed to be a SAP training event recently with them. The training is for people to get certified so that in the event of a disaster they’re able to go in and judge if structures are safe or not. For some reason it ended up getting canceled, but we’ve been in contact with Seattle about that.


HQ: Could you tell us more about that Disaster Resilience Studio?

NR: We sent Rachel down in November (to Design Like You Give a Damn Live) and there were some presentations or projects having to do with disaster resilience. We just decided that it would be a really positive ongoing project to do in Portland.

We also had at the same time (randomly) been discussing how to do that on our own. A woman had shown up at one of our chapter meetings, and she was involved in elementary schools in her neighborhood, and they had realized that Portland schools are woefully unprepared in the event of a disaster.

With a committee she held "mini disasters” in their neighborhood where they actually play disaster for a couple hours and then eat food and talk about what would actually happen. So she had all these pointers about how to handle certain things and about how things were going along in different neighborhoods, so that was a nice jumping off point for our thought process.

We simply announced that we were coming up with this project, and that it was open ended. The first task was to figure out where AFH Portland needed to fit in the city. We researched who’s already done work - we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel – to see what gaps we could fill. The project’s only a month or two old, but I think the couple people we have involved are really excited about it. We still don’t know exactly how things will go, but we want to focus on doing one event per year that focuses on the work that they’re doing. The idea is that that one event per year can raise…maybe just awareness, but it’ll still market our efforts.


HQ: So that’s still very much an evolving project – and very community driven. You also have a project at a local school. How did you guys get involved there, and what is the project about?

NR: Bridger Elementary School has an interesting history. It is a Title 1 designated school, even after switching to the language immersion program, and about 80% of their students were qualifying for free or reduced price lunches. It was in really bad shape, so the Portland Public Schools changed it to a Spanish Immersion magnet school, and that’s been drawing kids from the better off neighborhoods and creating a more diverse student body.

Since the influx of those new students there have been some really active parents getting involved in the PTA. [The parent in question] had been researching options for their school – they have a huge asphalt parking lot; it’s the size of the football field behind their school, and none of it is covered.

Because they have so many students and so little space they have to use the cafeteria for both lunch and recess. You know, it rains a lot here, so when it’s raining they have to do this weird shuffle where they take the students and send them somewhere else…. it’s really not ideal for their lunchtime situation.

They really needed somewhere where they could be free from getting drenched. [The parent] was looking online, and noticed some AFH projects in Africa, actually, and followed the breadcrumbs back to the Portland Chapter. She contacted us, and we met her at the school.

It was nice to work with her, because we didn’t have to prod her along, she was ready to go, so we came up with some covering concepts and some pricing schemes. They came to us and said ‘we don’t even know what we can afford, we just need something that’s really feasible,’ so we developed a couple schemes and said ‘okay, this is the basic scheme that costs x dollars, this is the Cadillac, and this is the in-between.’

We presented that at the PTA meeting last year, and I think it went really well. They’re still in the fundraising process…it’s interesting, they were so proud that they had raised $15,000, which is great, but she was like ‘when you’re comparing that to these rich schools around Portland where they’re raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for their own projects, it’s not much.’

We’re looking at saving up for some major projects, and this covered pavilion is one that we’re going to try to throw our money at. We’re (AFH Portland) holding back a bit for now, and if the school decides they want to pursue it then I think we’ll move forward.


So what are you hoping to see in the future for the chapter? Are there interesting projects on the horizon, or goals that you want to see through?

NR: Yeah – the thing I think I’ve been beating the dead horse about is chapter sustainability. We want to make sure that when any or all of us leaves it’ll be able to move forward and grow and thrive.

We had a director meeting recently, and one of the things we think will help is being more proactive about getting projects for the chapter. That means continuing to grow our connections in town, and maybe coming up with a strategy for keeping an eye on what needs to be done to try and start projects. In the past our projects have been coming to us like, ‘here’s an idea, now help us do it.’ I think it would be good to get to a place where for at least some of our work we say ‘we’ve got an idea, who can we work with to get it done?’



The seating and shelter areas (respectively) in the Rosewood project, an AFH Portland and CCC project currently in fundraising.

(laughs) One of our selfish goals is that we want to make a project that is actually physically built. We’ve done fundraising designs for people and we’ve done designs for projects mad possible by fundraising, but aren’t ready to be built yet. We’re hoping that we can move forward and actually get some of these things built in the real world. I think we’re close at least on the McDonald center project, and Rosewood (with CCC) I think will get built after fundraising. Pushing a project through to the very end is a very big goal of ours.

Another interesting twist is that a student from Reed College (a small nearby liberal arts school) applied for and got a grant, and will be working with us as a sort of a glorified intern. We’ll have her for twelve weeks I think, and it’s going to be pretty invaluable for her to help us come up with this chapter manual with all these things about running the chapter and keeping it going.

Wow, that sounds really great! As a final question, do you have any thoughts or advice for any other chapters?

NR: That’s a good question…I’m always looking for other people's advice. I think one of the toughest things is trying to keep the energy of the chapter going. Sometimes we’re full of projects, sometimes we’re scrambling, and so creating an environment where there could be viable opportunities for people at a constant rate is a big challenge.

For a while, we would be seeing people come to the chapter meetings, and then never see them again, so one of the things we did was to be more active in finding out why people found us and what they wanted to get out of working with AFH. Now, every time someone works with us we send them this Google Survey we made, trying to figure out what their interests are and why they came. This way we can be aware of A) the skillsets now available to us and B) how best to utilize the volunteers we’re getting.

I think it instantly helps people feel connected to the organization in a way I think before was a little more transient. I guess that isn’t a comprehensive piece of advice, but its something that we found helpful.

There’s a point where you have to grow up a little as an organization. The “wingin’-it” thing worked for a while, but we’ve decided now that we really need to start keeping track of how we do things and how we want to do things to keep the chapter growing.


Nick and the other AFH_PDX board members, Rachel Bailey, Rebecca Grace, and Deana Mabry, are excited to move the chapter forward.

Consider donating directly to the Portland Chapter to support their work.