A: Architecture for Humanity (AfH) is an organization that provides design services to people and groups that might not typically have access to architects, engineers, or designers. There are local Architecture for Humanity chapters all over the world.
Q: What kind of projects have you worked on with Architecture for Humanity?
A: I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some small projects locally here in Washington, D.C., and also around the world. Several years ago, I travelled to Nigeria and helped to design a primary school there. The last project I worked on was a Children’s Center in India. We designed a campus with dormitories for sixty boys, a community center, a kitchen and dining building, offices, a small marketplace and a cricket field.
Q: How is the Jitegemee building project different?
A:The Jitegemee project is really different than any other project I’ve worked on because we’ve been able to work very closely with the actual school members students, teachers, and parents to design it. I think if you really want a project to be successful, you have to really get involved with the users and make them a part of the decision-making process. We, as architects, know how to design, but the students, teachers, and parents, know Jitegemee. So, to really take advantage of this, we hosted a school design workshop with the school to start the design process off. We put together a “planning committee” together made up of about 9 students, 4 teachers, and 8 parents and had a four-day long workshop with them to explain just what goes into designing a school, have discussions on what they liked and disliked, and what their short and long-term goals for the school were. We even travelled to other examples of new schools so they could get a feel for design and construction projects. It also allowed them to see concepts and solutions they might not have been familiar with in the first place. In the end, we left with a very good idea of the school, its members, and its goals. We all left not only as informed participants, but also as friends. It wasn’t your typical architect-client relationship. Although we were still the architect and they were still the client, we were making decisions together on an equal footing. It really became a learning experience for everyone and helped to spread ownership of the project.
Q: What is the building project status?
A:We had a great start with the design workshop. From there we have been working through detailed design of the new school campus. When we left the workshop, we had a really good idea of what everyone wanted and why they wanted it. Presently we are taking all of that information and working on the details. Exactly how big are the classrooms? How will the school be sustainable and use less energy and collect rainwater? Where is the best place for windows so there is enough natural light in the building without a lot of heat gain and glare? All of those kinds of details need to be figured out while still maintaining good communication with the planning committee in Machakos. As we make design-oriented decisions, we need them to respond and let us know if it will work for them programmatically. It’s a process that takes longer than traditional design, but I think that in the end, the new Jitegemee campus will be specifically tailored to the organization’s needs and wants and will be a very intimate solution to the school’s experience.
Q: What are the important next steps?
A:I think the most important thing is to keep up the involvement and awareness of the project. This is actually a very unique endeavor and the more people that are involved and aware, the more successful it will be. For instance, I was recently invited to speak at a conference on Green Buildings in Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, by the United Nations Human Settlement Division (UNHabitat) where I gave a presentation on responsible design education, and community involvement. I was able to present the Jitegemee building project as a case study to the delegation and it was very well received. Many of the attendees were very interested in how they could learn more, if they could contribute, and how they might participate in projects like this in the future. It really proved that the way we are going about this building project is not only unique, but that the potential to build something really special at many different levels is very possible.
Mark Palmer , LEED AP, is a member of the Washington, D.C., chapter of Architecture for Humanity (AfH DC) and is the lead designer on the Jitegemee building project.