Standing Out Amid the Sprawl: A chat with AFH Atlanta
Chandra Farley is one of the organizers of the Atlanta's Architecture for Humanity chapter, and as a professional event manager, often leads the charge for chapter outreach.
AFH_Atlanta recently participated in the Modern Atlanta exhibition event, a well respected event in Atlanta among design and architecture professionals - and interested citizens!
Chandra took the time out of her packed schedule to speak with us about how the exhibition went, as well as giving us some insight into the chapter and the work they do.
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Headquarters: I‘m curious to hear about the event that you guys did last week – can you tell me a bit about what that was and how it went?
Chandra Farley: Last week we were exhibiting at a Modern Atlanta event, where a bunch of design and architecture organizations/firms show their work. Modern Atlanta is an organization that has been promoting modern design here for the past six years. They’ve been big supporters of ours.
We showed our OASIS project, which we began work on five years ago. It started with an open call design competition to design bus shelters for MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority), and we finally got enough submissions to select a winner in 2011. We spent 2012 fundraising and refining the design from ‘awesome competition design’ to something we can actually build. Last year we were able to build a prototype, which is what we exhibited at the Modern Atlanta design exhibition.
HQ: What kind of reception did it get? Were there a lot of people at this event that could see it?
CF: There are usually a couple hundred people at the event and a number of exhibitors coming in and out who can engage with the shelter. It’s been great exposure for that project and just in general. We always make great connections at these events (the challenge, of course, is keeping in touch with them)
For the past three or four years, we’ve also used this event as a platform to launch the Birdhouse Social, our annual fundraiser. It’s become a well-known event in the design and non-profit communities here, and people really look forward to it. It’s been a great way to connect with designers and get donations.
The birdhouse social was started by one of our former chapter volunteers. We put out an open artists call for the community (and architecture firms) to design and build birdhouses that we auction off at the event. It’s our biggest fundraiser and it’s grown every year.
The OASIS Project bus shelter on display at the Birdhouse Social last August. Image courtesy of Kevin Griggs Photography.
HQ: That’s great! And once it’s installed I imagine you guys will get more recognition and may even be able to do the competition again, but more quickly or on a larger scale. Would that be something you’d all be interested in?
CF: Absolutely! The intent was for this to be an annual event but … we’re a small group and reality kicked in. Once we picked out the design we had it priced out at $500, it wound up being more like $1400. It was a challenge.
As soon as we can get one installed on site and really be able to count it as complete, we’ll be able to move forward and relaunch the competition.
We got really great interest the second time we put out the call for submissions (when I came on board): we went from two to seven.
The final design is amazing! There are actually six different configurations for the shelter - which was the point. All of the potential sites are different – some of them have a concrete pad, some are just a street, etc., and the design makes it easy to install anywhere. Also, it only takes about thirty minutes to put together, so it’s easy.
The submissions came from around the country, so I’m really excited to know that the word had spread. I think access to transit is something we all deal with, and this competition has the potential to engage our broader network.
HQ: That’s really interesting to hear that they were coming in from all over – do you know how these people heard about the competition?
CF: We had one come in from DC, which (we think) was from someone who had lived in Atlanta and was familiar with us. We also had a submission from southern California belonging to a student who had ties to Atlanta and had been following the chapter.
We definitely think this [competition] is something we’ll be able to deploy through the chapter network as a way to engage our partners.
HQ: For such a small group you guys seem to pull together really well, you must be a tight group. What’s the dynamic of the chapter?
CF: Like with any volunteer organization, there were some great people who started the organization (in May 2009). But, like other groups, we’re small and get frustrated with each other sometimes. Keeping up with and just being understanding each other’s schedules can be hard.
We’ve been effective by being interdisciplinary, open, and making sure that our supporters know that you don’t have to be an architect to be engaged and support us/our efforts. Most of us are either interested in architecture peripherally (as in, we studied it in school but don’t practice) or are directly involved in the field. We try to find the things that the volunteers are interested in and make sure they understand that it’s okay to just do a little.
One way we stay effective is to make sure that when someone brings something to us that would further our local mission, we support it. That’s been key to our success.
Social justice and humanitarian actions are things we can champion to help us continue operating as we are - which is basically a mini non-profit. We’ve been really fortunate to have some great people work with us.
Members and volunteers participating in a cleanup at the Atlanta Beltline, a patch of trails around the city.
HQ: You all have a very specific set of objectives that you outline in your About Us page - how is the work you do informed by them?
1. Engage the local community through educational outreach initiatives.
2. Lead volunteers in programs that advocate environmentally responsible stewardship as well as microeconomic development.
3. Resolve instances of disaster and poverty while assuaging socioeconomic hardship and restoring human dignity.
CF: These were drafted after the chapter was founded, when the question for us was how localize Architecture for Humanity’s mission. For example, we do respond to disaster (objective three), but here in Atlanta that’s on a socioeconomic level. The OASIS project is a great example of that: democratizing access to transit.
For locational outreach, we do local initiatives like our spring “dine like you give a damn”. It’s a three-course dinner where each course is about one of our projects. While everyone is eating, a project representative gets up and gives a brief overview of the project and its goal.
We also lead programs that encourage environmental stewardship and microeconomic development. I work at an organization called Southface Energy Institute (an environmental profit), so we host our meetings there and partner with them for educational opportunities.
We really try to realize these core objectives through projects, events and outreach - that’s how classify everything we do.
HQ: Sort of moving to a different topic altogether, you guys have a very interesting project in Nigeria, the Hope Floats Initiative. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Hope Floats was one of the first projects the chapter took on. It was brought to us by Akin, one of our members, who’s from Nigeria. His idea was to create this floating clinic where surgeries can be carried out (by his dad, a surgeon and his colleagues).
It was meant to demonstrate a bottom up approach to sustainable development. There are a lot of land issues in that area, so there were a number of issues we had to take into account when designing that project. AFH Atlanta volunteers actually built a prototype and tested it out in one our nearby lakes to make sure it would float. Akin took it from there and went through quite a few challenges, but eventually got some amazing funding and successfully deployed one in Lagos.
They’ve actually done 22 free surgeries there! Since that success Akin’s been looking to expand that model and his organization in general. He’s relocated to Houston, so we’ve been a little out of touch, but the initial goals of the project have been met and I know he’s working to continue that.
HQ: Any message for the other chapters? Words of wisdom?
CF: Just stick with it. We’re all here because we believe in the mission. I think that if you outline some goals - it may be one, it may be three - and just stay engaged, things will work. Partnering with like-minded (or not!) organizations is helpful, too.
As long as there’s a face and focus towards the community, you’ll always find the support to keep going.
Hope, officially afloat!
Chandra Farley and the other AFH_Atlanta members are looking forward to continuing their work in the city through local outreach initiatives - and we look forward to seeing it!
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