Designing and Building in Central and East Africa

Design/Build: Library in Usalama, Kenya

As I break into this “blogosphere” scene, it only seems appropriate that my first post should be about my first project in Africa.  This was a small library design/build with the community of Usalama in June/July of 2009.  Working with Engineers Without Borders USA, I was part of a small team that included architects and engineers stationed in New York City.

Upon meeting the donor, Global Power of Literacy, I was confronted with the rapid fire meetings so common in New York City.  Before being given the chance to speak, I was told “This library is going to be done fast and cheap.  It’s just going to be a box with books.  It’s not complicated.”  My response was a polite “WRONG.”   This will be a library – perhaps the only library that this community will ever have.  Fitting within the donor’s budget was a welcomed challenge – though lowering our standard to “a box for books” would fall short of the community’s expectations.

Our design process produced numerous iterations, though we settled on a scheme that would provide space for book storage, teaching activities and exterior reading areas.

Upon arrival in Usalama, Kenya, our EWB team had boiled down to myself and civil engineer  Matt Sisul – though had added an entirely new contingent: the Usalama community.  Within an hour or so of meeting with the community leaders, the design had changed entirely.  We changed the location for the library on the school campus, material prices were different – and we adjusted the building plan to take into account the school administrators desires.

The following day we were joined by 30 or so parents to dig for the foundation of the new Usalama Library. Over the next month and a half, we worked together with a team of 3 masons and 3 assistants (whom were paid an average of 300 KSH each) to complete the skilled labor portions of the project.  On the few days that the project demanded a large work force to dig or mix concrete, we made room in the budget to pay each parent a few hundred shillings.  During the majority of the project however, the community regularly volunteered their hard work.  We could not have completed with project without the help of the Usalama men and women – who collected the much needed water for the school construction.

The completed project took 6 weeks and cost $7,400 USD.  This cost is comparable to the recognized cost of a classroom in this region of Kenya – however, it has accomplished so much more than a “box of books”.  Since building this library, Usalama has been put on the local map.  Villagers from the surrounding areas recognize Usalama as “the place with the little library”.  A few weeks after construction, Global Education Fund and Global Power of Literacy delivered over 4000 books.  The teachers and administrators have since incorporated the library into the school’s curriculum – allowing students to read during reading periods and to take books out for evening assignments.

You can read a more thorough post about this construction progress in my blog post for EWB’s Usalama project blog.

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