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Commonwealth of knowledge The Commonwealth Association of Architects can play an important role in spreading the lessons of the Habitat Agenda

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The commonwealth of nations is 50 this year, sustained by its use of a common language for commu-nication and a linked history which has developed commonalties in the institutions of civic society. It continues to prosper in a rapidly networking world to improve the quality of human existence and attracting a younger generation.

The Commonwealth Association of Architects is not quite so old. The organisation was formed in 1965 and currently has 38 member institutes representing more than 44,000 architects around the globe.

Common methods of practice, and the application of common standards of architectural education through a system of validating university courses throughout the Commonwealth, ensure the framework for a substantial pro- fessional network.

With the development of modern inexpensive methods of commu-nication, the traditional difficulty of holding together this kind of organisation - communications, or lack of them - has been largely overcome. Countries and professional institutes, which vary dramatically in size, prosperity and location, can exchange information and ideas rapidly. Those with a particular need can be put in touch with those with a particular expertise.

Over the current and past two presidential terms, the organisation has had a single aim. How can an English-speaking, multi-national organisation that is cash poor but rich in human resources use its professional networks, a common system of education and modern information technology to make the world a better place? Efforts must be focused on a range of achievable projects. Support must be given which reinforces these projects, has a gearing effect and a measurable outcome. Collaboration with like-minded organisations is preferable to competition and duplication. Modern information technology, which is cheap and easy to use, must be central to achieving this mission.

Within two of the current activity themes-cities and sustainability and, architecture for all (school-based)- several projects have been developed which illustrate these principles.


A current project, which illustrates some of these principles, is the Habitat Challenge. CAA has linked with other commonwealth organisations to form BEPIC - Built Environment Professions in the Commonwealth. This comprises planners (CAP), surveyors and land economists (CASLE) and engineers (CEC). BEPIC is a collaborative, cyber-network, with no headquarters, no income stream and no constitution. It exists primarily to promote the United Nations Habitat Agenda (particularly sustainable development) using the power of an enlarged, multi-disciplinary pro-fessional network.

Habitat Challenge is an educational programme using modern technology to gather and disseminate projects and questions related to the Habitat Agenda. It will be launched formerly in November in South Africa, to coincide with the bi-annual meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) which will take place in Durban.

A pilot scheme will be run in South Africa prior to extending the Habitat Challenge around the Commonwealth. Built-environment students on university courses in South Africa will be asked to visit a local secondary school and run a workshop explaining the Habitat agenda, (sustainability, eradication of poverty, gender equality, capacity, building etc.). They will be given briefing notes and ideas for projects. Each school will be asked to undertake one project which helps to implement an aspect of the Habitat agenda, however modest, e.g. plant a tree, build a sunshade, set up waste recycling, create a job.

Each project will be recorded briefly on video by the university students and put on the BEPIC web site where others wishing to learn, or do something similar, can access it. At the end of the video, a pupil will be nominated to ask a single question on behalf on the school, directed towards 'the people who know' (politicians, business leaders etc.). Questions will relate to the Habitat Challenge - 'Why is there poverty?' 'Why is there homelessness?'

By this simple process, BEPIC will accumulate a massive database of experience around the Common-wealth; produce a powerful set of questions for influential people ; and help to embed and disseminate ideas for achieving aspects of the Habitat Agenda. Modern IT makes this not only enjoyable, but possible with modest cost. The cascading effect will reinforce many of CAA's themes - collaboration, communication, sustainability, education, professional updating and validation. Besides making the web site available to all, the results will be presented to an expert panel for a high-profile debate.

The Habitat Challenge will take two years to complete, in time for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2001. Inevitably, a programme such as this will have limited penetration initially, but if it became a permanent feature of Schools of Architecture, Planning, Surveying and Engineering, to visit local schools and spread the message about building a sustainable future, the cumulative effect would be significant. In countries within the Commonwealth that do not have university courses on the built environment, help will be sought through the professional member institutes.


Education, of course, is the key to changing attitudes. The CAA validation system for architecture courses can ensure all schools of architecture include The Habitat Agenda and the principles of environmentally sustainable design to be on every syllabus for every course validated in the Commonwealth. In theory, CAA can ensure that the next generation of architects will have the basic knowledge and attitudes to produce more sustainable buildings and cities than we are doing at present.

At primary and secondary levels of education we should be aiming to foster future clients and citizens with an appreciation of the built environment and an enthusiasm for contributing towards the process of securing better buildings by design. In its 'Architecture for all' programme, CAA is asking all its member institutes to gather good examples of existing work going on in schools within their country, and to forward them to the CAA. These might, for example, be resource packs or schemes for taking local architects into schools. The hope is that by creating a central database of good practice we can advertise these examples around the Commonwealth for others to use or adapt elsewhere.

Copyright permitting, whole publications can be put on the Internet, making them available around the world at next to no cost.

This kind of gearing effect is central to CAA's mission. Rather than inventing resource material for use in schools, which will be expensive to produce and inevitably inappropriate in some context, CAA is much more suited to acting as the post box and distribution system for existing good practice. CAA then acts as a facilitator and conduit, which is a more appropriate use of limited resources.

In this country, the number of architects is virtually equal to the number of schools (28,000). Even if every architect was able and interested enough to 'adopt a school', he or she would need good teaching material to get across the message of appreciating good design. Inevitably, teachers are key to promoting enthusiasm towards architecture as opposed to indifference. Subjects required in the National Curriculum could integrate built-environment source material, if good teaching material were available.

CAA's 'Architecture for all' programme will uncover good work and teaching material from around the Commonwealth, and make these examples available to countries such as the UK.

So from Papua New Guinea to Pakistan and from Australia to St Vincent, CAA is doing what it can to bring contemporary relevance to its world- wide network of 30 countries. The Commonwealth has 54 member countries, with many others wishing to join. Its foundations may appear to be an anachronism but its work certainly isn't. This is why it will not only survive, but will flourish and adapt to the needs of society. CAA intends to play its part in this process.

George Henderson is president of the CAA, and professor of architecture and head of school at The Leicester School of Architecture, De Montfort University

CAA's Web page is at : www.comnet.mt/caa

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