John Norton is one of three founding members of Development Workshop. After studying for three years at Portsmouth School of Architecture (UK), John Norton transferred to the Architectural Association (AA) in London, where he was awarded a Diploma of Architecture/RIBA II in 1975. The move to the AA was to prove a life changing decision. In 1973 he joined a handful of fellow students in the newly established AA ‘Third World Studies Unit’, which took them to Egypt to do research on indigenous planning and building methods in Cairo and Luxor. This included assessing the climatic performance of mud brick vault and dome roofed houses built by Hassan Fathy, the Egyptian architect renowned for his work on building with the poor in Egypt. Returning to London, John, with fellow students Allan Cain and Farokh Afshar founded the Development Workshop (DW). In 1973 Fathy invited DW to carry out similar research on the performance and potential of traditional building methods, this time in Oman, and the title of John’s AA thesis (based on the Oman field work and jointly written with Allan Cain and the late Farokh Afshar) on “The potential of indigenous building in a developing country – Oman” could be said to sum up at least one key aspect of his career to date in some thirty countries.
Apart from two periods of teaching in the 1970s at the AA, including as Head of the Third World Studies Unit in 1979-80, and as a Visiting Lecturer to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA) in 1980, John has devoted his entire working life to Development Workshop and its projects. This has entailed prolonged periods working abroad, notably in Iran (1974-1979) to work on integrated rural development and in Angola (1981-83) where DW still works under the direction of Allan Cain. In 1985 John settled permanently in France, and set up the French not-for-profit association, Development Workshop France (DWF) in 1998. DWF has worked principally in francophone West Africa, in Asia and South East Asia.
Working always in less developed communities and contexts, John has taken principle roles in the improvement of the built environment and people’s living conditions in many varied contexts of change and vulnerability. From the outset his work has privileged respect for indigenous and local knowledge and practice as a starting point for solutions to contemporary built environment issues. Actions that strengthen the relationship and collaboration between the poorest members of civil society and public authorities have also been important, encouraging mutual exchange and understanding of different societal needs and evolving practice, as well as respect for good building and planning for a healthy, sustainable and comfortable environment.
With offices in West Africa and in Vietnam, DWF’s work since 1983 has focused above all on helping vulnerable communities address and reduce the impacts of both slow onset “disasters” resulting from desertification and climate change (West Africa) and on disaster prevention strategies related to typhoons, floods and earthquakes (Vietnam and other Asian countries). To date, DWF is the only organisation to have received two World Habitat Awards, one for each of these two areas of work.
John has published widely, including on promoting ‘woodless construction’ in West Africa based on the successful transfer from Iran and Egypt of ancient techniques of mud brick vault and dome construction, and the promotion of the preventive strengthening of homes and small public buildings in the face of typhoons and floods in Vietnam, and on more general subjects including “Building With Earth” – A Handbook”, which has been continuously in print since its first publication by IT Publications (London) in 1985. He currently collaborates on various research bodies and works on the implementation of DWF projects, and continues to share his breadth of experience and those of the teams he has been privileged to work with over some forty five years.