Looking for ways to contribute something more …

Over the past year I have been looking for ways to ‘contribute something more’ than my work designing residences and galleries in New York. Since I typically close my office for the Xmas-NY holiday, I took this opportunity to try something new, to look beyond my own small world and volunteer my time.

I found a program with an organization called Globe Aware, where I would be working in Cusco, one of the most visited cities in Peru. Given the vast scale of the country, many of the small villages are without schools so children come to the cities to live in homes, called albergues, during the school year while they attend local schools. This particular home provides for roughly 25 kids ages 9-15.

I thought with my architectural training and passable Spanish, I could help with the work to be done there. There were four other members of my volunteer team, from Los Angeles, southern Florida, DC and Atlanta, all with different backgrounds and experience, all fantastic people.


In just a few days the five of us became a team and I learned to work in a very different way, without extensive pre-planning, on-demand materials or specific tools for every task. We continued a project begun by previous groups, building and repairing the structures in the complex, putting in an irrigation system and roofing the greenhouse where they will grow vegetables for the kids’ meals. Just the process of sourcing and purchasing the polycarbonate material for the greenhouse walls became an adventure that included a walking tour to three lumber yards, a pick-up truck for hire to transport the 11meter long sheets and a stop by the Peruvian police as I bounced around in the bed of the truck.

Since returning to New York I continue to look for projects that go beyond what I know. The sustainable housing prototype we designed for the Greensburg/Greentown competition, helping to re-build the Kansas town wiped out by a tornado in 2007, breaks ground next month. I’m also looking at other opportunities to assist with disaster relief and consulting with a foundation interested in building housing in Haiti.

My trip to Peru was a ‘project’ that helped me to get out of my NY comfort zone and to launch me into the New Year with optimism, curiosity and purpose.

Steven Learner, AIA


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