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Taking on big issues, not just buildings

An architect strives to put roofs over refugees

In Matthew Jelacic's world, there are no wealthy clients asking him to design million-dollar houses. Jelacic's clients are people who have lost everything: refugees.

As an architect, Jelacic has spent years seeking an alternative to the familiar sea of white tents that relief agencies set up for refugees fleeing their homes.

He has won praise for his design of an easy-to-assemble shelter that includes a bathroom and kitchen. Now, as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, he is working on redesigning refugee camps altogether. Drawings and photographs of his work are currently on display in the graduate school's lobby.

With his academic pedigree -- he graduated from Pratt Institute in New York in 1991 and went on to get a master's degree in architecture from Harvard -- Jelacic could have followed a much different career path, working for a big firm with rich clients.

But that life didn't appeal to him.

He is not, as he puts it, one of those ''chic architects in Prada clothes."

Jelacic, who is 39, may be part of a growing number of young architects who are forgoing profits for projects that help people who most need it -- those dispossessed by war, famine, natural disaster, or simply bad luck.

''There is definitely a shift going on in architecture now where designers, especially young designers, are getting more involved in critical issues, as opposed to designing the next big museum," said Cameron Sinclair, 30, an architect and founder of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that has helped generate disaster relief designs for countries worldwide. ''Design isn't just about creating the next beautiful object."

When Sinclair started out five years ago, 200 people joined his e-mail list. Today, that list totals 10,000 people from 108 countries. And, he says, attendance at his college lectures has grown from 20 students to as many as 1,000.

Among his fans is Monika Wittig, 24, of Cambridge, who was so inspired by one of Sinclair's talks and his opening line -- ''design like you give a damn" -- that she's trying to organize a local chapter of the group. She has a degree in architecture from the University of Colorado and is waitressing in a restaurant while she applies to graduate schools.

Already, she knows where her career will not take her -- to a cubicle in a corporate-type architectural firm, ''drawing lines on a computer" all day.

''I think it's important to be true to your beliefs and do what's appropriate and not be concerned by money," Wittig said. ''As designers, sometimes we only reach the people who can afford it. It's more about changing the lives of people who need it most."

Last summer, she entered a contest in New York City to design homeless shelters. To prepare, she spent hours talking to homeless people in Boston. She didn't win, but, then again, winning really wasn't the point. She knew she had done something meaningful.

Jelacic also knows the rewards of projects that address social challenges.

He's been passionate about designing since childhood. When he was 4, his aunt gave him a box of LEGOS she inherited from a toy salesman. He spent hours making cars, houses, and planes. He built tree houses and forts in the backyard of his suburban Washington home. And in third grade, he submitted a design for a dollhouse to a friend.

His uncle gave him his first drafting table -- ''with all the fancy instruments" -- when he was in sixth grade, and he continued to draw through high school.

After Pratt and Harvard, he teamed up with another architect, Deborah Gans, who went to Harvard as an undergraduate and got her master's degree in architecture from Princeton University. Jelacic is living in Cambridge while he attends Harvard, but he and Gans have offices on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building.

It was an international competition sponsored by Sinclair's group -- as well as the US Agency for International Development and the nonprofit group War Child -- that put Jelacic's shelter into the spotlight.

Sinclair asked designers to submit proposals for transitional housing for refugees returning to Kosovo. He received 215 entries from 30 countries. Jelacic and Gans were among the 10 winners.

''What was fascinating about Matt and Debbie's project is that they created a home -- a place to cook, a place to eat, a place to go to the bathroom," Sinclair said. ''It allows a life to happen; it's not just a place to live."

The shelter is divided into three sections: a sleeping space in the middle, with an outhouse-type bathroom on one side and a kitchen area on the other. The frame is made of ceramic poles that are fire resistant and lightweight.

Initially, the exterior of the structure could be covered with tarps provided by relief agencies. Keeping the poles as a framework, refugees could eventually use material from the site, such as adobe, blocks, or wood, to make a more solid structure.

And when the refugees return home, they can take the poles with them to use in rebuilding new houses.

''Rather than think of this as housing, we think of this as tools for housing," Jelacic said. ''In the end, [the shelter] is strong enough that you can actually build a whole house."

Of course, a major challenge for Jelacic is convincing someone that the shelters are worth building. (A prototype built a few years ago is in storage in a box in the basement at Pratt.)

Persuading a bureaucracy like the United Nations to give up the white tents is no easy task. It may be a small nonprofit group willing to take a risk that actually builds the first shelters, Jelacic said.

He has plenty to think about until that happens. He'll continue to refine his shelter design and press on with his latest project, a redesign of the kind of camps where 12 million refugees throughout the world live, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The number of people in the camps range from 20 to 80,000, according to the UN statistics.

During his research over the past year, Jelacic discovered that the camps are designed like grids, with rows of tents somewhat isolated from each other.

The grid design, he said, does little to encourage community living. He believes the shelters should be arranged in clusters, each with a courtyard in the center where children can play. The cluster design would also allow families to share kitchen space.

Jelacic's fellowship is over at the end of the academic year. If he has his way, his next move would be a trip to ''the field" to see firsthand how people with little or nothing survive. Afghanistan and Iraq are at the top of his list. ''The two most desperate places," he said, ''in the world now."

An exhibit of Matthew Jelacic's work is on display in the lobby of Harvard's Graduate School of Design. The show will include his designs for refugee housing and a historical look at designs for refugee camps, as well as suggestions on how to improve them. The exhibit will remain up until June 13. For more information, call the design school's Office of Exhibitions and Publications at 617-495-4784. 

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