Builders Without Borders

As Canadian planning and design professionals grapple with the complex and exhaustive health and life safety provisions of the National Building Code, it is easy for us to forget the privileges and protection these regulations afford us. Advanced building codes and practices and the presence of highly trained emergency response services help to minimize the effects of natural disasters and other major hazards to building occupants in the developed world. In contrast, third world countries rarely have more than the most rudimentary of building codes, and no reliable methods of enforcement.

Humanitarian agencies, while having a variety of skilled professionals at their disposal, have in the past lacked the expertise necessary to ensure that facilities damaged or destroyed as a result of a natural disaster are being rebuilt or replaced to sufficiently stringent construction standards. More recently, however, agencies like CARE Canada, Save the Children, the Red Cross and World Vision have been planning to meet this need with volunteer personnel supplied through the Vancouver-based organization Builders Without Borders.

Builders Without Borders (BWB) was founded in 1999 by Neil Griggs, a community planner whose credits include work on Vancouver’s False Creek South neighbourhood and Whistler Town Centre. Through BWB, volunteer expertise and energy can be channelled into the construction of shelter and related infrastructure in post-disaster situations, and to the long-term rehabilitation of those communities most severely affected.

Since its formation, BWB has worked with international humanitarian organizations providing Canadian design and construction expertise for disaster relief in areas such as Gujarat, India and Marmara, Turkey. BWB responsibilities have included supervision of the construction of emergency medical clinics and housing, as well as involvement in longer-term rehabilitation and rebuilding projects. To date, the work of BWB has generally been in response to a pressing need for shelter in post-disaster situations, but work done in organizing construction activities and teaching trade skills has also helped to address ongoing issues of economic sustainability.

Humanitarian agencies and NGOs often have capital budgets for the construction or reconstruction of buildings and infrastructure and usually let contracts to local designers and contractors. In some cases, the absence of recognized building code standards or a reliable project delivery system has brought inconsistent results. Now, Builders Without Borders volunteers can be brought in to participate in the design process, or seconded to the organization overseeing the relief effort, to act as client representatives on building and infrastructure projects.

The first Builders Without Borders volunteer to arrive in Gujarat was Vancouver engineer Bob Culbert, P. Eng., who coordinated the planning, design and tendering of 135 clinics and child centres in villages throughout Gujarat State. Currently BWB volunteer Charles McGrigor, a builder from Toronto, is on a three-month assignment, overseeing the completion of this construction.

In another project, the Vancouver-based International Centre for Sustainable Cities (ICSC) sponsored BWB involvement in post-disaster rehabilitation efforts in the aftermath of the Marmara earthquake in Turkey that left 200,000 homeless, devastating communities across the Marmara region. In this case, the need for emergency shelter was met by other agencies, but BWB supplied human resources to assist in community rehabilitation.

Much of the effort was focussed on empowering women. David Ellis, a British architect, designed a women’s multi-purpose community learning centre. Four technical advisors sent from Canada by BWB included carpenter Julia Armstrong, who taught local villagers woodworking and craft skills along with the use of power tools. In addition to technical assistance BWB also provided small business expertise in the person of Enda Bardell, who instructed community groups and co-ops on how to plan and develop viable business ventures for retail and craft enterprises.

BWB maintains a register of volunteers whose skill sets it matches to the demands of each situation that arises. Requests for assistance come from an increasing number of humanitarian organizations in Canada and around the world. Depending on the nature of the operation, there may be a need for planning, building design or engineering services, construction trade skills or construction management expertise.

When volunteers are successfully placed, BWB receives a finder’s fee, which goes towards the cost of administration and logistical support. Volunteers are required to undergo a background check and to sign a contract with BWB that covers transportation and living expenses. Having established an effective mechanism for matching volunteers with available opportunities and its credibility with major international humanitarian organizations, BWB is now entering an expansion phase. Discussions are currently under way with Canadian NGOs to send volunteers to work on a street children project in Haiti, a community project in Honduras and an orphanage building in Malawi.

Builders Without Borders is the latest in a series of initiatives that have served to further enhance Canada’s international reputation for concern with global humanitarian issues. It also serves as a timely reminder to design and construction industry professionals of the intrinsic value and universal application of their training and expertise, and the higher purpose to which it may be directed.

Jim Taggart, MRAIC is an Associate of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia. For further information or to volunteer for Builders Without Borders, visit the BWB web site at or contact Neil Griggs at