Designing and Building in Central and East Africa


From Sky to Earth: The Path of Water Through the Global Model Earthship

In my previous post, From Sky to Earth: The Path of Water in the Simple Survival, I brought us through the most basic path of water for a single studio sized “Earthship.” This was the most ‘bare bones’ method of providing sufficient water storage and reuse for a single person or couple living “off the grid.”

earthship-global-modelWhile this may be sufficient for the most resourceful homeowners (or for those of us with tight budgets), it’s important to know that some of off-grid housing projects can supply all of the amenities required for modern living. The Earthship team has developed such a design which they have titled “The Global Model”, named with the intention that such a design can be built anywhere in the world. While alternative designs should be considered for extreme climates, the path of water employed in the Global Model represents a top-of-the-line strategy to both provide filtered, potable drinking water, reuse grey water for the growth of crops, and incorporate standard septic details to ensure code compliance in formal building areas.

afritekt-earthship-gm-00The global model is designed almost purely in section. The slope of the front “greenhouse” glass and solar panel facades are designed to
maximum efficiency according to geographic latitude. The roof is also designed to a minimum, consistent slope in response to the winter solstice. This ensure that the roof receives sunlight at all times of the year, enabling snow to melt more rapidly. With the exception of operable skylights to assist in warm weather ventilation, the single surface roof also minimizes the potential for leaks.

afritekt-earthship-gm-01The path of water harvesting from the roof is much the same as the Simple Survival. While any standard gutter system could be used, on-site cut and formed gutters allow for a custom transition from gutter to scupper to storage. The current Earthship strategy includes a small dam at the end of the scupper, and gravel within a perforated industrial sized salad bowl (literally a salad bowl, as in cooking supply store, not hardware). The water then passes through an inverted toilet flange. This system must be bolted (with at least two bolts) to the water tank below.  If the project is being built in an area with regular snow fall, a non-toxic snow melting system can be installed that distributes heated glycol through copper pipes. This is an expensive option, but could be the difference maker when waiting for April rains.

afritekt-earthship-gm-02As is the case with the simple survival model, the water storage tanks are located within the earth berm and behind the tire retaining wall. It is essential that whatever tanks are installed are designed for operating below ground. (Most water tanks are designed for surface storage, and will rupture or otherwise deteriorate in subsurface conditions.) For a large scale home like that of
the global model, it can be assumed that more than one water tank would be required (precipitation rates and total number of occupants are determining factors). The connections between the tanks must be done with 2” flexible PVC pipe. The 2” is then reduced through a T to 1” semi-flexible pipe before entering the interior of the home at a single location. Everything viewed at right is buried below ground.

afritekt-earthship-gm-03While traditional homes may consider the fireplace as the hearth the organizes the plan of the home, the Water Organizing Module (WOM) is this the comparable element in an Earthship.  This system, comprised of a number of filters and connections, the effective hub of the entire water distribution system. Located just below the entry point from the water storage, the WOM begins with 50 filter, followed by a pressure activated 24 Volt DC pump. After passing through a 500 filter, water for washing is distributed and stored within a pressure tank. The pressure tank may be anywhere between 10 and 50 gallons, depending on your number of occupants and fixtures. Finally, an additional 1000 filter and ceramic potable water system distribute drinking water to a few points throughout the home.

afritekt-earthship-gm-04The Global Model Earthship seeks to provide all of the amenities of modern everyday life. This includes laundry washing machines, hot and pressured water for showers, and toilets that flush like normal. It should be made clear however, that this interconnected system will not work if it is not consistently used. Because grey water is drawn from the planters to flush the toilets, the system will come to stand still if the residents do not use the kitchen sinks and take regular showers. The human resident therefore becomes an integral part of this ecosystem; activating it and sustaining it.

After the initial use, the grey water is directed to a system of “greywater planters”. These basins filter the water for repeated use while providing needed moisture for indoor crops.  While the width of a planter is afritekt-earthship-gm-05typically determined by the 3 meter roll of EPDM that the Earthship team uses, meaning that for a needed depth of approximately 36”, the width also ends up being the same. (Depending on the strength of the terrain and the quality of construction, these channels could be made from reinforced concrete as well – though it would be harder to repair.)  At each transition moment in the planter, an inspection chamber is needed to ensure that water flows consistently through base of rock.  It must also be noted that a recirculation pump is required to run for a number of hours each day.  This bilge pump is typically linked directly to its own solar panel that provides power during hours of sunlight.

afritekt-earthship-gm-06The grey water from the kitchen sink and shower enter the grey water cells through a simple worm box. This composite box with perforated copper base makes an ideal home for red wiggler worms when kept closed and at a fairly consistent temperature. With only an initial base of wood filings, egg shells and/or newspaper clippings, the worms can convert the incoming grey water from the kitchen sink into natural fertilizers for the grow beds.  With the box sitting over a rock bulb, the nutrient rich grey water will be able to immediately pass deep into the planter.

Whenever the greywater is transferred from one planter to another or extracted for reuse, a rock bulb, inspection chamber, and EPDM skirt must be installed to ensure unobstructed flow. A transfer from one planter to another – pictured at right – must be installed so that both tanks are equalized; meaning that the water stay level and does not overflow from one to another. Also, any puncture to the EPDM must be done so precisely, cutting a 1” hole for the 2” pipe.



The end of the planter must create a filtered condition so that a pair of bilge pumps can regularly recirculate the greywater and extract water for toilet flushing. It is therefore essential that in the meter before approaching the rock bulbs, a pete-moss filter is placed.  This is essentially a perforated off-the-shelf bag that can fit snuggly into the channel.  A large rock build then supports two inspection chambers that house DC powered bilge pumps.


With water being reused from the greywater planters, a toilet flush afritekt-earthship-gm-09essentially consumes no water. With a pressure activated pump and a small 50 filter, the water is clear and no one is the wiser.  Upon flushing in a Global Model, the blackwater then heads to a standard, often prefabricated septic tank. These large concrete structures are designed to break down solid material and to be exhausted on a regular basis. These structures commonly overflow into a leach field safely underfoot. Earthships however, guide this black water into what the team has termed an “Evapo-Transpiration Cell” or E.T. Cell.  This outdoor system follows much the same standards as the greywater cells inside, though uses every bit of nutrients before reconnecting to a leach field.

Understanding this path of water and all of the details associated with it was one of the main reasons why I sought a place at the Earthship Academy. In light of the projected water crisis that will affect many parts of the world (including the high desert of Taos, New Mexico), it’s it extremely concerning that such decentralized water systems have not become more standard practice.  I expect that in the coming decade professionals will be looking towards these systems found in the Global Model as examples that can begin to question established building codes that require wasteful consumption of valuable resources.


From Sky to Earth: The Path of Water Through the Simple Survival Earthship

During the fall of 2015 I traveled to New Mexico, USA to attend the Earthship Biotecture Academy.  This one-month program occurs 4 to 5 times a year on the campus of the Earthship Biotecture design and construction company in the high desert of Taos.


(Image courtesy of

As is proclaimed on the Earthship website, “… the earthship is the epitome of sustainable design and construction. No part of sustainable living has been ignored in this ingenious building.” While I would say that there is always room for improvement, and that there is never a ‘right answer’ in architecture, the Earthship team has made some great breakthroughs in both the use of recycled materials and the reuse of grey-water for the domestic growth of food year-round. The academy session was a great experience, and I recommend it to anyone interested in off-grid housing.
Having learned of these strategies over the course of the one-month academy, I was then honored to be asked to return to Taos a few months after the session to assist the Earthship team in authoring graphics for a new version for the text book. earthship-academy-logo-2016Over the course of three months, I developed illustrations showing the path of water for domestic use, as well as a visual aids for effective use of recycled materials. (I also developed the new Earthship Academy Logo at right.)

To be honest, I’m not sure if the new textbook has been published or if it will be anytime soon.  Regardless, I’ve felt that it’s important to get these graphics out into the public realm. In this blog post, I will outline the path of water in a “Simple Survival Earthship” – which is the most basic, least expensive design to have been developed by the Earthship team. A follow up post will cover a more sophisticated path of water for higher-end clients, and a third will cover construction methods employing recycled materials.

From Sky to Earth: The Path of Water in the Simple Survival Earthship


The Simple Survival: A ‘greenhouse’ facade, two adjacent washroom spaces, an insulated studio space, water storage within earth berm.

The Simple Survival is the smallest, most economical model developed by the Earthship team. While the roofing system and precise location of some elements may change, the plan consists of a studio-style living space with a washroom, water closet, and equator-facing greenhouse. The entire space is both excavated and surrounded by a retaining wall and earth berm that allows the space to harness the thermal energy of the Earth. Using a maximum surface area for the roof, all rainfall is captured and stored within subterranean tanks behind the retaining wall. This water is then filtered, consumed and used, recycled through grow beds of edible foods, used again, then disseminated out into the surrounding property to foster growth of landscaping and season food crops.

afritekt-earthship-ss-1The first step of the process looks identical in almost all Earthships. While any standard gutter system could be used, on-site cut and formed gutters allow for a custom transition from gutter to storage. Alternative systems could be made from plastic or PVC. What is essential is to ensure that the water passes through a series of coarse filters. The current Earthship strategy includes a small dam at the end of the gutter, and gravel within a modified industrial sized perforated salad bowl (literally a salad bowl, as in cooking supply store, not hardware). The water then passes through an inverted toilet flange. This system must be bolted (with at least two bolts) to the water tank below.


afritekt-earthship-ss-2Your choice of water tanks is essential. Not all water tanks can be buried. In fact most are designed for surface storage, and will rupture or otherwise deteriorate in subsurface conditions. Be sure that whatever tank you install is specified for being buried and will be placed on undisturbed/compacted earth. If you are burying more than one tank (project location and the number of occupants are determining factors) the connection between the two must be done with 2” flexible PVC pipe. The 2” is then reduced through a T to 1” semi-flexible pipe before entering the interior of the home. Everything viewed at right is buried below ground.



afritekt-earthship-ss-3The supply side for the Simple Survival Earthship is exactly that: as simple as can be for survival. The tanks within the earth berm gravity feed a hose that can be used to fill up a bucket for washing or watering of plants. After passing through a minimal in-line filter, the supply must be pressurized through the installation of a pump of some kind.  This can either be a hand pump or an electric pump that is either pressure-activated or turned on with a switch.  If an electrical pump is used, a Power Organizing Module (POM), or small car battery hooked with standard outlets, must be connected. After passing through a hose manifold that would allow different attachments, the pressurized water can be stored in elevated black painted containers under daily sunshine.  The solar gain from these canisters will supply semi-reliable hot water (depending on the location) in the afternoons.


After being used at the kitchen sink and in the shower, grey water moves to two adjacent planters that filter the water and provide growth media for both beautiful and edible flora. The depth and width of any planter is limited by the waterproofing containment material strategy.  The Earthship team typically uses ethylene propylene diene terpolymer membrane (EPDM), which comes in rolls of  3 meter width. Each planter can therefore be only about 1 meter wide in order to achieve the needed depth to support plant life.

An effective planter must descend slightly along the path of water, ranging from 32 to 38 inches. Within this system, water must be circulated regularly.
Typically, a small sump pump is attached directly to a afritekt-earthship-ss-5single solar panel that ensures water movement during daylight hours. Inspection chambers,
connection details and soil mixtures will be covered in a follow up blog post.



When it comes to “number 2” in a Simple Survival Earthship, it should first be acknowledged that if not built correctly, a toilet system can become a catastrophic mess.  This is why typical septics and sanitation systems are developed in accordance with numerous building codes and regulations.  It is also why the Simple Survival uses a design that has garnered the nickname of an “Outlaw Septic”. This system will not pass most septic regulatory inspections. It will, however, get the job done at minimal cost. Placed over a 5’6” diameter EPDM lined afritekt-earthship-ss-6excavation, toilet flushes taken from the greywater planters are deposited into the center of a stack of large truck tires.  The solids eventually break down and seep through the cracks between the tire treads.  Further filtered through large rocks, the liquid overflows into an external grow bed that further breaks down the refuse. In this external grow bed, the black water is evaporated, consumed through ecological transpiration, and put to use in providing life in giving nutrients to our surrounding landscape.

This is the most basic path of water employed by the most “bare bones” Earthship design. When designed and used effectively, a single person’s water consumption can be reduced by more than 50%. As mentioned however, some of the steps here pose problems when building within a formal, law-abiding context.  I will address this in a follow-up post outlining that path of water for the “Global Model” (perhaps explained as a “deluxe model” Earthship). The next post will cover systems of filtration, circulation, and the incorporation of more standard design details.

Thanks for reading – I hope this has been helpful.  Feel free to drop a comment below with questions that I can use to develop the next post!

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Towards Safer School Construction: A Community-Based Approach

Throughout my emerging career as a designer, builder and humanitarian working in challenging environments, I’ve learned of numerous ‘best practices’ ranging from effective building details and construction methods, to strategies of planning and inter-agency coordination. I’ve additionally grown in patience and humility. These lessons however did not always come about through successes. I’ve encountering a number of avoidable challenges that emerged through organizations’ uninformed methods of development and implementation (some of which I worked with, others with which I partnered.)

I was therefore honored in early 2015 to be invited to contribute to a publication that was underway through the Global Alliance for Disaster Risk Reduction & Resilience in the Education Sector (GADRRRES).

Over the course of the year, I contributed case studies for safe school construction, edited those of other professionals, and contributed language and diagrams for Towards Safer School Construction: A Community-Based Approach. Available for free download HERE, the publication was has been developed as a means to share lessons and knowledge among designers, builders and development practitioners. The effort was funded by Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery to enable Save the Children to collaborated with the United Nations Educational scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Risk Reduction Education for Disasters (Risk RED), and ARUP to develop this guide.

The document is currently being translated into Chinese and is being used in numerous development efforts including the ongoing reconstruction in Nepal. To assist in the dissemination of this information, Save The Children is developing a short film to illustrate how communities have been using this document and its lessons. I expect that this film will be released within the coming year.

Please feel free to share this document through your professional channels. I hope it can help practitioners and communities develop safe and resilient education facilities long into the future.

Urban Infrastructure Development in the Informal Context: A Multi-Stakeholder Approach

((This article of mine was originally published by Digital Design Debates on July 11th 2016 for their 18th issue on cities. You can read interesting debates and discussions regarding other developing cities on their website here.))

Urban Infrastructure Development in the Informal Context: A Multi-Stakeholder Approach

Railway line - Showing Advancing Government-built Row Housing

When considering informal settlements and debating the challenges that face our world’s most vulnerable urban residents, one of the most referenced slums is Nairobi’s Kibera. As one of the largest settlements in the world, Kibera is also regarded as one of the most dangerous and complex neighbourhoods in East Africa. Residents and urban theorists alike struggle to find solutions for addressing the exceptionally complex and difficult conditions in Kibera.

… the Kenyan government responded with corrupt negligence (…).

When Kibera began its rapid growth as an informal neighbourhood in the 80s and 90s, the Kenyan government responded with corrupt negligence, allocating development funds to the city centre and more affluent neighbourhoods. In response, hundreds of NGOs entered Kibera intending to improve the livelihoods of residents, only to collectively contribute to an over-saturation of aid. Together these uncoordinated efforts among aid groups and a lack of initiative on the part of the government perpetuated the unruly expansion of the informal settlement, further reinforcing Kibera’s reputation as an intractable urban crisis.

NGOs have also begun making notable progress (…) within the urban fabric of Kibera.

The last eight years, however, have seen unprecedented development efforts inside the settlement that have successfully improved both public infrastructure and public service delivery. NGOs have also begun making notable progress both in working alongside the government and in developing smaller scale infrastructure interventions within the urban fabric of Kibera.

The Government of Kenya – Redrawing the Urban Plan

KENSUP Complete

The KENSUP project, 2016. Photo Cred: KDI

The unprecedented flurry of development activity from Kenya’s government began in 2010 when ground was broken for the National Kenya Slum Upgrading Program (KENSUP).  In Kibera, over 20 high-rise residential buildings have already been built with dozens more planned for later phases. 2014 saw the implementation of new initiatives, starting with the construction of sewage lines and over 100 public sanitation blocks. In 2015 work began on turning the main pedestrian routes through the settlement into two-lane paved roadways. In 2016 the area around the iconic railway track that runs through Kibera is scheduled for redevelopment with an expanded buffer zone and adjacent row housing.

…public housing, water and sanitation, and transportation infrastructure on the largest of urban scales.

Government Sanitation Block

Government Sanitation block, 2016. Photo cred: KDI

Together, these efforts have sought to address issues of public housing, water and sanitation, and transportation infrastructure on the largest of urban scales. The funding and motivation for each of these projects came from both county and national offices, reflecting a shared dedication across government stratum to execute massive upgrades throughout the settlement.



… forcing them to hastily cut their small shops in half (…).

Government Backhoe and Demolitions

Government demolition crew clearing the way for planned infrastructure, 2014. Photo cred: KDI

From residents’ perspective, however, this flurry of activity has followed a familiar sequence of top-down implementation. Plans were drawn up in government offices, and budgets and financing models approved by elected officials. Only after these plans were complete were surveyors and task forces sent into the community to designate illegal structures for demolition, and, in some cases, to inform residents of their forced relocation. The projects were often initiated with little warning. When a sewer line was constructed through the dense Lindi neighborhood in 2014, some residents reported being given less than 48 hours to disassemble their homes before they would be forcibly demolished, and no relocation services were provided. Store owners were given similar timelines in advance of the road expansions, forcing them to hastily cut their small shops in half to accommodate the approaching bulldozers. These developments have generally been accepted by residents as long overdue upgrades, though the seemingly haphazard implementation methods have been jarring and disruptive for the Kibera community.

The International Community – Refining Public Space

With this surge of activity, NGOs working in Kibera have found their roles evolving. Once independent stakeholders working on grassroots development projects, they now work on a larger scale, collaborating with governmental implementing agencies.

Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), an international NGO of engineers, architects, urban planners and Kibera residents, has worked in Kibera since 2007. KDI’s mission began with initiatives to help residents improve their own neighborhoods in Kibera through the development of productive public spaces. These locally scaled projects sought to resolve environmental, social and economic challenges by developing the water and sanitation infrastructure, gathering spaces, playgrounds, and income-generating activities.

… an iterative design process that puts residents forward as the primary decision makers.

KDI Design Process

The KDI team working with community members to design a public space, 2014. Photo Cred: KDI

These smaller, more intimate projects have required a much more nuanced approach to development, as such projects require unique, site-specific solutions. In response, KDI developed an iterative design process that puts residents forward as the primary decision makers. Through open forums and referendums, residents decide everything from public/private boundaries to the locations and details of public facilities.

The bottom-up strategies of KDI’s design and implementation methods stand in stark contrast to the government’s approach. Based on the lessons learned over the past few years of development activity however, KDI and the government have started working together and sharing resources, coming together in an effort to address the seasonal flooding that occurs as a result of Kibera’s over-development, for example. This joint project employs community-driven flood mapping coupled with government strategic planning and risk assessment.

Examples of government/NGO coordination can be seen in numerous other parts of Kibera as well. Where government leadership once generally worked independently, offices have now begun to take advantage of the expertise of NGOs and contract them to assist in their large scale interventions. Additionally, much of the large-scale public infrastructure labour costs have been linked to government-run savings and loan schemes, a strategy normally associated with non-profit aid. This growing coordination and cross-fertilization of efforts represents an emerging acknowledgement of the complexities surrounding life in Kibera.

Kibera Residents – Activating the Neighborhood

Kibera residents now have unprecedented opportunities for more secure investments (…).

This combined approach of top-down interventions on the part of the Kenyan government and the bottom-up development efforts of NGOs has begun to formalize and solidify the physical infrastructure and urban plan of Kibera. This has gone beyond the simple construction of needed infrastructure and begun creating social and economic opportunities for residents. Kibera residents now have unprecedented opportunities for more secure investments in their neighborhoods and private businesses.

Local Scrap Metal Business Kiosk - Kibera

An informal business in Kibera, now one step closer to formality.

On roads that used to be dirt alleys only wide enough for pedestrians, buses and motorcycle taxis now ferry passengers in and out of Kibera on paved roadways. Local business owners have reported that with the improved vehicular access, they have been able to import goods for sale more easily. This enhanced connectedness to the larger city of Nairobi along with a new system of night-time lighting has also brought more customers, injecting Kibera business owners with a very new sense of competition and opportunity. Private structure owners are now building more permanent homes and businesses along the roadways and adjacent to public spaces, as confidence in what is “public” and “private” in this informal setting has begun to solidify.

Issues of high unemployment, informal education, and public health remain.

The challenges facing Kibera’s residents are by no means resolved though. Issues of high unemployment, informal education, and public health remain. The concerted efforts of development actors over the past few years, however, have made substantial progress towards mitigating the numerous challenges that confront development strategies in the informal context.

… solutions at the urban scale cannot be mitigated by solely invasive, top-down, sweeping interventions.

Kibera’s recent history teaches us that solutions at the urban scale cannot be approached by solely invasive, top-down, sweeping interventions. Additionally, results stemming from time-intensive, small-scale, community-led efforts can prove insufficient without the support of larger public sector development. It is only with the coordination of efforts, the sharing of ideas, and the acknowledgment that multiple actors working in a single environment is an opportunity for collaboration that the challenges and volatility of informal living can begin to be addressed. This coordination can then effectively allocate resources and expertise to open the door for the private sector to emerge.

Slowly, Kibera is beginning to rewrite the neighborhood’s troubled reputation, as well as the common misconception that its many challenges are too complex to analyse, too difficult to clarify, or too big to address. What was once often referred to as “one of the worst slums in Africa” is set to stand as an example of the “formalized informal” resulting from inter agency coordination.

A Public Architecture of Flood Protection: The Design and Construction Process

During my time as the Kenya Country Director with Kounkuey Design Initiative I contributed to the development of seven public space projects within the settlement, though directed only the seventh project from inception to completion.  Known now as Site 07, it is one of the largest projects in the KDI Kibera portfolio. It is located at a point along the Ngong River that presents dangerous seasonal flooding risks and sits upon a contested border between the formal and informal city.Site 07 Panorama KDIOver the course of 18 months I directed the KDI team through a lengthy community-driven design and construction process, coordinated closely with local government offices, and executed construction with a team of local youth.


Site 07 PosterThe project was initiated by residents via an application to the Kibera Public Space Project. (I’ve detailed the Request For Proposals process in a previous post titled How To Start a Project in Kibera.) These residents had established a unified, government-recognized Community Based Organization named Kibera United For Our Needs, or KUFON. Within this group the residents had elected leadership that was representative of the diversity of their neighborhood, and were proposing a series of programs that they had hoped to implement.


Afritekt KDI WorkshopBoth the direction of the project and the parameters of the design were determined by the community group in regular weekend meetings, the results of which were then assessed by the KDI team the following week. Together our team used community-identified operations and maintenance challenges as well as practical technical limitations to structure design meetings. Activities such as blind voting, gender sensitive  groups, and children’s design competitions ensured that all voices in the community were heard.

Some components of the design development were not KDI Afritekt SitePlanningdriven through collective decision-making. These resulted from the need to engineer flood control and the availability of financial resources. As our team of engineers gathered data and secured funding, constraints were introduced into the community’s design process.  This allowed some construction to run concurrently with project design.


Kibera Flood ProtectionFor the primary flood protection, we chose to install a gabion wall: over 50 stacked 2mx1m steel mesh boxes filled with stone. In order to reach our desired finished ground level and to ensure a footing on undisturbed soil, we had to stack these cages four levels high.  This created a total height of 4 meters from footing to finished ground level, much of which to exist below grade.

Halfway down the site, the wall changes to a gabion mat as a less aggressive protective option.  This was necessary as a bottle neck in the river flow occurs at the middle of the site due to turn in the river and a boundary of the formal city. While the sloped design cut into the useable public space, it did provide landscaping opportunities as plants with deep roots are essential to the resilience of the structure.

Even with all of this labor and cost (roughly 25% of our construction budget), our calculations estimate that the Ngong River will still overtop this protection every ten years. With this regular threat of catastrophic flooding, the entire site would have to be designed to accommodate the rushing river waters full of solid waste and untreated sewage.

Afritekt KDI Site 07 Plan

Schematic Site Plan

The expected force of rushing flood waters soon began to carve out the architectural forms that would house the community’s list of desired programs. These programs include a public sanitation block (3 showers + 3 toilets), a business kiosk (for selling water and groceries), a large gathering space, and a play space and a public laundry washing area, which are all defined by a secondary level of curvilinear drainage and tiering.  These tiers serve as seating areas that shape the public spaces while creating opportunities for informal businesses to take root. The resulting open spaces are then further defined by crisscrossing circulation paths that guards against land grabbing that also support further development of public space along the river’s flood zone.

Afritekt KDI Site 07

Afritekt KDI Site 07 Section



DSCN0084The complex construction detailing of the sanitation block marked a big step forward for me personally and for our whole team.  The rectangular structure consisting of 6 stalls, a business kiosk with an elevated water tank, and a ground level space for capture and storage of rain water, consists of three different structural systems that marry strength with ease of construction. The substructure and business kiosk were constructed with masonry and reinforced concrete.  This base serves as the foundation for a steel tube frame system and roofing. Structurally Insulated Panels (SIPs – though commonly known as “EPS panels” in Kenya) wereEPS installation then tied into the steel system as partitions.  These panels are still very new in Kenya. Their rapid assembly, ease of integrating plumbing, and cost savings as compared to standard masonary walls are starting to be used in numerous projects around the capital.  We were happy to be the first to use them in Kibera.


KDI Site 07 ExcavationFrom beginning to end, the process of construction in Kibera, and particularly on this site 07 project, can be described most eloquently as CHAOS.

Constant strategic decisions had to be made during construction to resolve conflicts. Coordination with the ministry of environment that was building a sewer line through the project site at the time of our construction caused delays on the order of weeks, then months.
Private developers across the river had the funds and legal ground to encroach upon the project site, further enablingSite 07 Sanitation Block mother nature to flood the construction site every few months.  The resulting demolition from these events would then bring about public/private “property” line disputes, as surrounding homes could be reconstructed within only a matter of hours. These challenges and others resulted in erratic construction timelines, at times going from 50 workers one day to only three the next.

Site 07 Sanitation Block

From initial engagements with the community in 2014 to the opening of the sanitation block in early January of 2016, the entire process took about 20 months – and there are still a number of final touches that are needed. We expect that the pavilion roof over the performance space, the construction of the playground, and the pedestrian bridge will be filled out over the course of the coming months.KDI Kibera Site 07


Upon the opening of the sanitation block, responsibility of the project was passed over to KUFON. This includes not only daily operations of running the site’s businesses and ensuring that nightly security for the site is in place, but developing monthly revenue and profit reports to the KUFON members.  This is easier said than done.  To ensure a transparent community reporting system, the KDI team will be working with the group to sustain good governing practices within the group, and assisting in regular bookkeeping meetings.  In the coming months I look forward to publishing a follow up post highlighting both the group’s progress and the strategies that are being implemented by the KDI team.


Land and Water – Resolving the Tensions of Climate Change and Urbanisation in Nairobi’s Largest Slum

The following post was published in the July 2015 issue of BuilDesign magazine, a Kenyan architectural review publication. The article was the last of such articles that I contributed to as the director of Kounkuey Design Initiative’s Kenya office.  This one in particular outlines our work on flood risk assessment which will continue throughout 2016.

During the April just before writing this article, Nairobi and Kenya as a nation endured flooding on an unprecedented scale.  Families and businesses rural and urban, formal and informal were affected.  It was with these events fresh in the mind of Kenyans that the entire July issue was dedicated to the challenges of flooding facing architects and planners in Kenya.  Our article below was presented as a special feature.


In the last couple of months heavy rains have brought the issue of flooding to the forefront of many Kenyans’ minds. Traditionally, flooding has been a problem associated with rural areas and places like Narok that have developed in floodplains. However, the recent floods in Nairobi and Mombasa have highlighted the issue as an urban problem, raising questions about how Kenyan cities are designed to face the environmental challenges of the 21st century; including climate change, increased variability in weather patterns, and the subsequent threat of natural disasters. There is a need for our cities to grow resilient to the risks that threaten the lives and livelihoods of city dwellers. Particular attention is needed to address the risks that affect the poorest and most vulnerable citizens that not only make up a huge proportion of cities’ population, but who also often live in the most hazardous locations.

Urban Flooding in Kibera
In rapidly urbanizing cities informal settlements are consistently located along natural drainage paths. In many cases, residents’ housing encroaches on the adjacent waterways, exposing residents to regular (and dangerous) flooding. Nairobi is no different.

Nairobi Rivers and Slums

Nairobi River Basin + Informal Settlements

Nearly all of Nairobi’s informal settlements are located along one of Nairobi’s three major river systems (the Motoine-Ngong, Nairobi, and Mathare rivers) that make up the Nairobi River Basin.  As the city continues to experience exponential growth (most of which occurs in informal settlements) and global climate change increases rainfall variability, flood risk in the city’s informal settlements will continue to rise.

Kibera is an example of one such informal settlement. Kibera is situated along the Motoine-Ngong River in Nairobi and it has an estimated population of several hundred thousand people living in single-storey dwellings in a space two-thirds the size of New York’s Central Park. The inhabitants of Kibera face many challenges including high levels of economic poverty, high population densities that result in a lack of public spaces within the settlement, and insufficient sanitation infrastructure. Solid waste management is also a problem. With nowhere to dispose of their rubbish, residents resort to using any available open spaces as dumping grounds or to throwing their trash into the Ngong River.  Informal drainage systems also lead into the river, and as a result, the river and the Nairobi Dam to which it flows into are heavily polluted.

Kibera Flooding

Flooding along the railway in Kibera

In Kibera, the cheapest dwellings are found along the Ngong river and its main tributaries; attracting the poorest residents who are willing to risk their lives and assets to live in the city. Bridges, access ways and other essential infrastructure can be found in these flood zones which, during the heavy rains, are often dangerous and impassable. The localized flooding of pathways and drainage systems is aggravated by the high level of impervious roofing and the erasure of natural water retention zones caused by human disturbance. Flooding can destroy the limited assets of poor households, halt economic activity, contaminate water supply, and lead to outbreaks of disease and displacement.

The only way to mitigate the hazards of flooding is through the enforcement of effective flood risk reduction policies. The only concrete policy for flood protection that exists in Nairobi is the designation of a blanket riparian zone for flood management, within which all structures are deemed illegal. The policy has proved difficult to enforce as city dwellers from every strata of society encroach on the Nairobi River Basin riparian zone. In Kibera (and other informal settlements) this has created tensions between residents and implementing agencies. Many observers have advocated for a more nuanced approach to avoid the costs and mass evictions that would ensue should the policy be fully implemented.

Public Space as Flood Protection
The Kibera Public Space Project was initiated by Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) in 2006 as a means of addressing some of the challenges mentioned above. KDI is a design and community development organization that partners with communities living in extreme poverty to physically transform degraded environments, grow economic resilience, and build social cohesion. At its inception KDI developed a conceptual strategy for addressing Kibera’s macro-scale challenges like economic opportunity and watershed remediation through the development of micro-scale Productive Public Spaces (PPS) in key locations along the waterways.

Kibera Tributaries

Concept: The Kibera Public Space Project as River Infrastructure

The premise of the concept is to create a network of active, attractive community-hubs along the Motoine-Ngong river and its tributaries as a means of; (1) building the river infrastructure to ameliorate resilience to flooding, (2) retaining and re-introducing much needed ecological buffer zones, (3) protecting the riparian zones along the river, (4) reducing point pollution subsequently contributing to the remediation of the river,Nairobi Dam and downstream areas, (5) introducing much needed water and sanitation facilities and recreational public space into Kibera to serve the most vulnerable residents.


The Kibera Public Space Project – 2015

To date, KDI has completed six PPS projects and is currently working on its seventh. These projects have achieved a level of support, appreciation and endorsement from Kibera residents not only because it is the residents themselves that propose the projects in the first place, but also because KDI adheres to strict principles that prevent them as an organization from demolishing any structures. This sensitivity and intimate understanding of the Kibera context has enabled KDI to operate within the extremely complex environment.

The Future of the Waterways

Over the last decade KDI has gained a wealth of experience building PPS in Kibera that integrate physical and social solutions while building the resilience of local communities to flooding along the settlement’s waterways. This year the team has embarked upon a program focused on urban flooding to further understand flood risk in Kibera. The project aims to quantify the vulnerabilities of affected persons and to work with them to build the resilience of communities to both adapt and respond to flooding. The overall objective of this project is to create a “toolkit” that can be used to implement flood risk reduction strategies in Kibera (and in the future – other informal settlements) by incorporating local perspectives. The toolkit will comprise of a digital flood map developed through hydrological modeling and physical surveying, flood risk assessment which incorporates community perspectives on risk, and policy prescriptions for applying the tools in Kibera and elsewhere.

Ultimately, the development of the toolkit will address the need to protect riparian zones and negotiate the realities of residents living in flood zones. The project aims to pave the way for a more nuanced approach to planning by helping define where different structural (physical) and nonstructural (social resilience) measures might be most appropriate. Overall it represents an opportunity to re-imagine the identity of Nairobi’s waterways. What if the riparian zone could be reclaimed to provide an environmental buffer against flooding, while providing public space, access ways and underlying infrastructure (sewerage drainage, water) in a series of linear parks?

Kibera Linear Parks

Concept: Kibera Linear Park System

For KDI it is the next step in building the vision of the Kibera Public Space Project to consider this possibility. By continuing to build Productive Public Spaces that demonstrate the potential of integrated and participatory approaches while providing settlement-scale data to inform larger planning decisions, we hope to influence the development of the Ngong River and the wider waterways of Nairobi towards a sustainable, equitable and resilient future.


From Waste to Place: The Creation of Kibera Park

The article below was written my me and my KDI team in the fall of 2014 and was ultimately published locally in East Africa’s BuilDesign Magazine. The text and images seek to summarize the strides taken and the successes achieved in developing what has become known as Kibera Park – the largest (and greenest) space of its kind in Kibera.  Work on the site continues to this day as the community is slowly expanding the park to fulfill their envisioned master plan.


Kibera From Above

Kibera From Above

Kibera has grown to exemplify the broad range of challenges facing hundreds of thousands of Nairobi residents. These hardships extend beyond the basic needs of economic insecurity, inadequate housing, or limited access to quality water and sanitation facilities. These challenges also include minimal access to open, green public spaces that allow residents to enjoy recreational space which is a vital part of everyday urban life.

Like so many other informal settlements, Kibera is characterized by a dense concentration of people and housing. Relief from this congestion in the form of public park space is a rarity.  The existing public spaces in Kibera, which are mostly bare, open football pitches, are few in number. Furthermore, the ambiguities surrounding land ownership and the limited space availability, means that creating new public spaces with amenities that serve Kibera residents continues to be a contentious issue.

One organization working to develop public space in partnership with the residents of Kibera is Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI). Featured in our previous issue, KDI is an organization of urban planners, architects and engineers that has partnered with six communities throughout the informal settlement to reclaim and transform waste areas into Productive Public Spaces (PPS).

The Original State of Kibera Park - 2007

The Original State of Kibera Park – 2007

KDI’s first PPS began in 2006 and remains its largest project to date.  The one-acre public park, Kibera Park, is situated in Silanga Village, bordering Soweto East and sitting at the edge of the Nairobi Dam Basin.  Born from what was once a dumping site and a hideout for thieves, Kibera Park now stands alone as one of the only public green spaces within the informal settlement.  KDI’s community partner, the New Nairobi Dam Community (NNDC) group, operates multiple programs within the park including a multi-purpose structure that hosts primary school classes, religious services and public gatherings on the weekend, two showers, three compost toilets, a compost processing facility, an urban farming initiative, and an artistic co-op that creates

designer baskets for sale.  The community group is also looking to expand the project to include a polytechnic school, a recycling centre and a community café.

After numerous meetings with area leaders and surrounding residents, construction of the project began in earnest in 2007. The area’s residents began by contributed their efforts to sorting out and cleaning up the rubbish that clogged the river tributaries that delta into the Nairobi Dam. Together with KDI, the residents excavated and defined the river waterway to guard the site against future flooding. This process led to the complete reclamation of the dumping grounds into buildable land.

Community Wide Design Meeting

Community Wide Design Meeting

With the land secured, KDI engaged NNDC in initial design workshops.  In these meetings, visioning activities were conducted using various mediums of engagement—interviews, mapping, modeling, and photography—to give residents a new lens for interpreting their own landscape. Together, the community and facilitators proposed and then prioritized physical and programmatic solutions through a democratic, iterative process. Constraints of space and budget were then incorporated into the decision-making process via a series of applied exercises: surveying, footprinting, costing, and business planning which led to the final design resolution.

The completed multipurpose structure boasts five 8x8m spaces.  Each of these spaces are defined by folding walls that can be opened to transform the modular structure into a unified performance space for public gatherings. This flexibility has allowed the community group to reinvent the space(s) to accommodate multiple programs. Adjacent to the structure, KDI and the community members developed the land into a farm for growing vegetables and an improved water vending station for the community group to sell quality water to local residents.

Kibera Park - 2011

Kibera Park – 2011

A few years after this first phase of the project was completed in 2010, NNDC worked with the Ministry of Agriculture to further improve the yields of their farming project.  This led to the installation of a polytunnel greenhouse with a drip irrigation system.  These improvements have increased the quality of the produce cultivated by the community group.

KDI returned to the site in 2013 to kickstart a bamboo planting initiative, construct a much needed foot bridge, and to design and support NNDC in building a much needed sanitation facility.  This particular area of Kibera presented two unique challenges: the reclaimed land is too low to connect to the elevated sewer line and build a modern toilet, and the subterranean water level is too high to build a traditional septic system.  These design constraints led KDI and NNDC to investigate a number of decentralised sanitation systems like urine filtering wetlands and dry toilets.

After a number of field trips and design workshops, the community decided to develop a compost toilet system.  This decision then informed the design of an elevated toilet structure with compost chambers located below it.  Inside each chamber is a compost receptacle that collects human waste and dry materials. This receptacle is then moved to compost bins to mature into usable humanure which NNDC intends to sell to horticulturalists and planting initiatives around the site.

The detailed design of the structure, completed by KDI with technical support from Buro Happold (an engineering firm), boasts wide, steel reinforced concrete footings to ensure a strong and sustainable placement within unstable soils. The super

Kibera Park Compost Sanitation Block - Feb 2014

Kibera Park Compost Sanitation Block – Feb 2014

structure was erected with Interlocking Stabilized Soil Bricks (ISSBs), which not only cut down the construction timeline and expedited the building process, the fabrication of these bricks on-site kept the financial investment within the community. The finishing of the structure was completed using local fabricators and materials. The tiling throughout the building adds a distinct accent among sanitation facilities within Kibera.

The completed sanitation block now boasts three compost toilets, one urinal, and two showers for the use of surrounding residents. While the non-flushing, compost toilet has generated curiosity among the surrounding residents, it has also piqued the curiosity of the Ministries of Environment and Health as potential solutions to the complex water and sanitation challenges facing this area of Kibera.  Since the opening of the project, KDI has been working together with the community to establish maintenance and operational procedures that ensure a quality compost product is produced and that the facility remains clean and safe for area residents.

The NNDC Group has spearheaded each incremental development within the site.  Having prepared a complete master plan of the site in partnership with KDI, the community’s vision for the next decade includes expansion of current agricultural facilities to include a fish pond and elevated grow beds.  This improvement of the farming methods on the site will ensure that all agricultural activities produce organic quality produce.  Additions to the multi-purpose hall will provide more classroom space for the existing school’s children and will expand the project’s ability to be used in a variety of ways – perhaps even allowing the school to turn into an open air market during weekends.

Kibera Park Master Plan - Afritekt

Kibera Park demonstrates how a public park, its programs, and its community members can be unique catalysts for the wider community and for economic spin-offs. The project has provided environmental, social and economic benefits for Kibera residents as a place that allows residents to reconnect with nature and escape the stress of city life. This has had a positive impact on visitors’ mental health whilst providing essential water and sanitation facilities.

Kibera Park is one of five Public Space Projects that KDI has realized in Kibera over the past eight years.  While each project presents unique challenges, all of the projects are geared towards creating environmental, social and economic impacts that ensure they are owned, operated, and sustained by the residents of Kibera long into the future.  Further, with the support of technical experts, the Kibera Public Space Project is raising the standards of design and construction within the informal settlement. KDI’s approach to creating public space through a non-intrusive, community driven design method stands as an example of contextual slum upgrading that produces quality design and sustainable programs.

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