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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Kounkuey Design Initiative: The Kibera Public Space Project

Over the past two years working with Kounkuey Design Initiative in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, my team of 10 local staff was constantly writing articles to help further the discussions surrounding the challenges and opportunities of urban development and slum upgrading efforts in the city.  Many of these articles were published locally though did not find there way into online forums.  This article below presents the Kibera Public Space Project in its entirety – both the progress achieved, the strategies employed, and how the project fits in with other efforts surrounding the informal settlement.  The article was published in in the March 2014 issue of BuilDesign Magazine.


Urbanization in Kenya has been uneven and concentrated in big cities like Nairobi. The development of informal settlements are reflective of this asymmetrical development and they continue to multiply in number. Over the decades there have been several approaches to slum upgrading ranging from large-scale, top-down, public sector approaches; to small scale, self-help and enabling strategies.

Discussions surrounding development within informal settlements have gained traction as traditional approaches to slum upgrading have not been holistic enough in addressing the lived realities of slum dwellers, nor effective enough to meet their social and economic needs.  Drawing on lessons learnt from these slum upgrading precedents, Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), an international NGO specializing in the practices of architecture, landscape architecture, engineering and urban planning, has developed an approach to slum improvement based on multi-stakeholder participation, sectoral integration and networked change.

In the context of KDI’s approach, multi-stakeholder participation is defined as an iterative and open design process that mobilizes community groups (and their knowledge of the context), the technical knowledge of design professionals, the political will of local government, and the investment capacity of the private sector. Sectoral integration refers to the amalgamation of physical, social and economic strategies into an integrated slum improvement project.

Together, multi-stakeholder participation and sectoral integration optimize the potential for networked change. This networked change describes KDI’s approach to addressing macro-scale issues through the development of a network of micro-interventions.This physical network is supported by a human network of slum residents and institutional collaborators.

The Kibera Public Space Project 

KDI has developed and employed this method in collaboration with communities in need by creating low-cost, high impact environments called Productive Public Spaces (PPS).

kpsp network 2A PPS is a community-driven intervention that seeks to mitigate environmental hazards, provide public space amenities, build social networks and develop small business enterprises. Together, these layers of design address numerous environmental, social and economic needs for the project’s surrounding residents, villages and the settlement as a whole.

In 2006, KDI began working in Kibera to assist communities in transforming their surroundings through a bottom-up approach to slum upgrading activities named the Kibera Public Space Project (KPSP). KPSP is a series of  micro-interventions that work together to create a network of public spaces and communities which collectively address the macro-challenges of poverty reduction, river remediation, waste space reclamation, social cohesion, and general quality of life in the settlement. To date, KDI has completed six KPSPs and is working towards developing its seventh project in the network.

The Design and Development Process

KDI’s participatory planning and design methodology is key to the success of the KPSP. Each project takes about two years from inception to implementation. This process includes organizing community members, securing the necessary backing from local authorities, designing the space and associated businesses plans in collaboration with their community partners, as well as construction and implementation.

Each PPS begins with the vision that residents have for their community.  KDI solicits community organizations throughout Kibera to identify potential PPS through submitting formal Requests For Proposals. This process helps KDI understand the community’s vision for the proposed space and future community activity within the space.  Once KDI selects a community partner, the NGO seeks consent from the surroundings’ residents, youths and local authorities.

During implementation, KDI and the community partner hosts interactive, participatory design workshops with community members.  With the guidance of KDI’s technical team, these workshops include discussions about the physical planning of the facilities and the design of the social programs that will activate the public space.

Installation of KDI’s projects typically takes about 6 months.  The construction process begins by building up the waterway (as projects occur along river tributaries passing through Kibera) and connecting to water and sewer infrastructure, followed by the completion of the structures.  Kibera residents and community partners lead all of the construction work and fabrication, which guarantees financial investment within the informal settlement.

Upon completion, KDI monitors and provides non-financial support to the project for one year, ensuring that the members have the capacity required for project sustainability.  When it is appropriate, KDI exits; allowing the community to independently and sustainably operate the project.



KPSP01 - 2009

KPSP01 – 2009

KPSP01 lies at the border of Silanga Village and Soweto East, adjacent to the Nairobi Dam. For decades this site was unbuildable, used as a dumping ground, and impassable because of flooding. KDI and the New Nairobi Dam Community (NNDC) began working together to reclaim the site in 2006 by controlling the persistent flooding with a new waterway and developing the landscape.The site now hosts a community centre that functions as a school during the week and is home to several churches on the weekends. The walls of the building can be opened to serve as a covered stage with amphitheatre seating for special events. Also present on-site is a large urban agriculture facility that the community operates.


KPSP02 - 2010

KPSP02 – 2010

KPSP02 is located at the Mashimoni-Lindi Bridge in the heart of Kibera.  The site had four make-shift toilets that drained into the river and was otherwise devoid of activity. The Riverside Usafi Group emerged as a productive community group, which began working together with KDI to transform the space.  Today, a clean, hygienic sanitation block providing improved water and six toilets and four showers that are connected to the sewer line replace the polluting toilets.  Adjacent to the sanitation block are three community business kiosks and a children’s playground. The revenue generated from this project generates enough income for community driven expansion efforts.


KPSP03 - 2012

KPSP03 – 2012

KDI’s third KPSP is one of its largest projects. It is located in Gatwekera along the Ngong River at a key pedestrian access point into Kibera. The length of the river in this area was under constant threat of flooding, and was a common hideout for thieves. Residents rarely passed through the area during evening hours for fear of robbery. In 2010, KDI partnered with Bridge Community Group and the Kibera Christian Initiative (KCI) to design and build a PPS that would address these environmental and social challenges surrounding the site.

Today, the site includes several drainage channels and 75 metres of flood-mitigating, stone gabions.  This river remediation enabled the construction of a school, two business kiosks, a public laundry washing facility, a small poultry farm, and a playground for neighborhood children.


KPSP04 - 2013

KPSP04 – 2013

KDI’s fourth project lies at the border of the Lindi and Laini Saba villages along the confluence of two large tributaries. In 2012 three community groups came together to develop the space: Slum Care, Ndovu Development Group and Usalama Bridge Youth Reform. This project became KDI’s first site with a large association of youth. The collective partnership supported the development of a riverbank gabion system, a formal, improved water and sanitation block, a daycare centre, and a garbage collection and recycling program.


KPSP05 - 2014

KPSP05 – 2014

KDI’s fifth project in partnership with Empowerment to the Community Foundation (EMCOF) presented a number of challenges.  While the community indicated that a toilet block was the highest priority, this project location at Daraja Ya Masista (Sister’s Bridge), Gatwekera sits at a low elevation making a municipal sewer connection impossible. Over many months, KDI and EMCOF worked together to research, design and construct a septic tank + wetland solution for the community. The entire site was completed in February of 2014, and now hosts a public laundry washing facility, a day care center, a barber shop, and DSTV viewing theater.


KPSP06 - 2014

KPSP06 – 2014

Designed as a second phase to KPSP01, KPSP06 was initiated in response to the dire need for on-site sanitation option. Without any improved toilets in the area, the project was one of the major priorities for KDI’s community partner, NNDC. The primary challenge  was similar to KPSP05; it was impossible to connect to the municipal sewer line because of the project’s elevation. Through numerous design workshops, KDI and NNDC determined an alternative composting toilet system as the best option for the community. Human waste is collected and mixed with various dry materials to create humanure compost. After a 6-8 month maturing process, NNDC will be able to begin use and sell the organic fertilizer for local farms and for added community income.

Expanding the discussion around Slum Upgrading Projects

While some of the larger efforts surrounding the needed improvements in and around Kibera have been representative of top-down methods, KDI has been paving the way to develop a methodology that brings residents’ concerns and creative potential to the forefront of the design process.  Larger interventions are often needed to address such challenges as those presented by Kibera. Small scale, grassroots methods however can limit the negative effects of large scale developments while ensuring unified, unanimous project support.

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Over the next few weeks I will be republishing a number of articles written over the course of the past two years. Many will be of my work with KDI in Nairobi.  Other posts will present my personal writings that discuss best practices of design analysis and implementation in the larger informal/humanitarian realm.  I look forward to sharing.

If You Plan to Build 100 Schools in Congo

.                within a limited time, you have to be efficient.

This means one needs a standard design prepared with an even more standardized system that allows small adjustments to be made for each project.

Having broken ground on more than 100 schools over the last year, my strategy for creating project construction documents has evolved.  In the beginning, I created all of the standard drawings for classrooms (in blocks of 3, 4, 5, and 6) and latrines.  Below you can see an example set for a block of three classrooms.  The brick + cast in place concrete + corrugated roof panel scheme is typical of rural East African architecture.  All dimensions conform to the Congolese Ministry of Education standards (which sometimes differ between provinces) and provide seating for approximately 30 students per classroom.

In the beginning, I would adjust each drawing set to cater the communities’ needs.  Some would want water catchment; some a ceiling, or a different type of flooring.  My first few sets of documents were consumed in these details – as I represented each variation visually.  It became clear by my 15th school however, that the number of projects and their pressing deadlines would not permit such attention to detail.  I have therefore begun using this single set of drawings and directing the contractor to the budget.  This allows us the control all construction details through contractual language and the material quantities that arrive on site.

Below is a Bill Of Quantities that we use to build the most common school unit of 3 classrooms, 2 latrines and a water capture system.  In this variation, the foundations have been budgeted as stone masonry which frames the cheapest flooring option: compacted soil topped with a brick pavers and a pure cement finish.  Quantities for bricks, sand and gravel vary according to material quality and brick dimensions – and have been slightly increased to ensure sufficient quantities.  (It should also be noted that all local materials here can be decreased in the event that the community has access to such materials and can contribute them to the building effort.)  Tools and measuring instruments should also be factored into project costs, as their quality usually limits them to a “one project” life span.  In all, a project of this scope (in the accessible regions of South Kivu) will cost less than $22,800 and take about 3 months to build.

Material Unit Quantity
1 Sand m3 46
2 Gravel m3 9
3 Masonry Stones m3 21
4 Bricks pce 40000
5 Scaffolding Posts (± 5m each) pce 60
6 Scaffolding Boards pce 6
7 Ciment sac 230
8 Ventilation Blocks pce 108
9 Formwork Wood (3.5m ea.) pce 35
10 “2×4” Wood  (3.5m ea.) pce 94
11 “2×2” wood perlins (3.5m ea.) pce 75
12 Fascia Board 25cm wide, 3.75m long pce 18
13 Shovel pce 5
14 Pick pce 3
15 Hoe pce 2
16 Machette pce 1
17 Trowel pce 2
18 Spirit Level pce 1
19 Wheel Barrow pce 2
20 Digging Bar pce 1
21 Measuring Tape, 50m pce 1
22 Measuring Tape, 5m pce 1
23 Mason Hammer, 5 kg pce 2
24 Mason Hammer, 1 kg pce 1
25 Mason Bucket pce 4
26 Wheel Barrow pce 1
27 Carpenter Hammer pce 2
28 Mason Square pce 1
29 Crow Bar pce 1
30 Hacksaw pce 1
31 Hacksaw blade pce 10
32 Scissors (Tin Shears) pce 1
33 Large Tarp pce 2
34 Paint Roller pce 6
35 Brush, 3″ pce 4
36 Brush, 4″ pce 6
37 Sand Paper ml 2
38 20 Liter Bucket pce 6
39 Large Sand Sieve (5mm) m2 1
40 Fine Sand Sieve (2mm) m2 1
41 Deisel Fuel litre 10
42 12mm String (100m Roll) pce 1
43 Nylon String  (100m Roll) pce 2
44 Rebar HA6 (12m ea.) pce 52
45 Rebar HA8 (12m ea.) pce 42
46 Galvanized Tie Wire kg 15
47 Galvanized Roof Panel (G30) pce 103
48 Galvanized Roof Crown pce 15
49 Roofing Nails kg 15
50 15mm Nails kg 10
51 12mm Nails kg 18
52 10mm Nails kg 10
53 8mm Nails kg 10
54 5mm Nails kg 6
55 PVC Gutter ml 44
56 Gutter Ends pce 4
57 Gutter/PVC connection pce 2
58 Gutter Brackets pce 26
59 PVC 110mm ml 15
60 PVC 110mm Elbow pce 3
61 PVC 110mm “T” pce 3
62 PVC Glue tube 2
63 Plastic Water Tank (2m3) pce 1
64 1/2″ Tap pce 1
65 Complete Wood Door 0.8×2.10 pce 2
66 Complete Wood Door 0.9×2.10 pce 3
67 Complete Wood Window (150×110) pce 6
68 Complete Wood Window (200×110) pce 6
69 Chalk / Lime (50 kg) sac 3
70 Latex Paint litre 45
71 Oil Paint litre 26
72 Chalkboard Paint litre 3
73 Kitchen Salt kg 6
74 Student Desk pce 45
75 Teacher Desk pce 1
76 Teacher Chair pce 1

I provide these details not to help you understand what a good three room school building will cost – or how to build such a building.  There are numerous beneficial details that are missing from this example. Rather, I present it here to show what a team of locally trained masons could be expecting to build.  It could also be assumed that a rural community would enjoy seeing such an example built for their school.

I welcome you to use this information as a reference point for your own designs.  Any improvements to this scheme could drive the project cost up – but in my view, any and all considerations taken towards appropriate, contextual design can have lasting positive affects towards the sustained development of your community.

The next step, of course, is the how.  Material procurement, appropriate construction methods, conflict, and corruption present the most formidable challenges to project completion.  … But perhaps that will be left to a follow up post…

Happy building!

Building a Butterfly

The decent down to Mwenga Centre

The descent along Route 2 to Mwenga Centre

Mwenga Centre is one our most remote outposts.  A six- to eight-hour drive to the south west of Bukavu, Mwenga is surrounded by dense forests and impressive mountain ranges beyond.  The modest town center is home to approximately 5,000 people with a handful of shops and restaurants along the main Route Nationale 2.   Two of our Tuungane communities, both named Kalole (neighborhoods of Mwenga Centre), participated in the governance program and determined that they both would like to use their grants to build a large market in their town center.

When this project landed on my desk in July of 2012, I realized that not only did we have a beautiful and prominent site, but with a budget of $45,600, we would be able to do something special.  I spent a Saturday preparing a modified set of drawings of our standard market design.  I found myself drawing an inverted roof with a descending king post to support the center of the structure.  I also took the time to clearly lay out the dimensions of the needed trusses – labeling truss type “A” and truss type “B”.

Drawing: Diagram showing truss locations

Market “Option 2”

I sent the plans down with my technician the following Monday along with a copy of the standard roof designs – and asked for the community to review both before choosing one.

About 10 days later, word came back: “They loved it!… But they decided that they would rather have two market structures than one market with a unique roof.”

A roller coaster of a response, but – in adherence to the Tuungane principals – the client is always right. The contract was prepared and as it came across my desk, I noted that the drawings included in the document were that of the typical pitched roof.  Another slight heartbreak – but gave my signature and moved on.

C:Documents and SettingsCharles.NewmanMy DocumentsProjects3

Standard Market Design

Over the next few months I heard the occasional updates and signed off on payments.

“Foundations complete.”

“Columns in place.”

Fast forward to December 2012 – and I received these pictures:

I was ecstatic to see that the community had built the structure almost exactly according to my “second option” drawings.  I was surprised because I only printed the drawings once – never to have seen them again.  The contractor must have held on to these documents with the intention of following them…

Now, first off, I had to have a solid conversation with my team.  I should have been informed that the community had planned to proceed with the inverted option the moment the trusses were being constructed.  Had I been informed, I might have insisted, for example, on a certain connection detail between the reinforced concrete beams and the wood super structure.    Looking at these photos my first thought (and perhaps yours too) is the threat of wind.  This region is not prone to large gusts of wind and the site is also flanked by structures on either side – but precautions must be taken to ensure the structural stability of the roof against lateral winds.

My staff is currently working to prepare an amendment to the contract for the addition of protective panels along the sides of both buildings.  This is an unfortunate need but a positive development.  These panels will be perforated to minimize pressure on both the side panels as well as the underside of the primary roof – which will come at a cost.  However, these perforations will be an opportunity to add decorative patterns along the sides of the buildings.

Regardless of these complications – the community is over the top with pride about the beauty of their unique market.  Located in the town center, it overlooks the main road and has earned the nickname “Le Papillon” – The Butterfly.

Burundian Splatter Plaster

Descending from Rwanda's 1000 hillsOn the road from Rwanda to Burundi, the rolling hills dissipate into the long, flat, straight road towards Bujumbura.  The temperature rises, and the mountains of Congo drift away into the distance.  The scenic drive is complimented by the small villages along the way – and the beauty of their architecture.

Almost all of the buildings are made of the same mud brick construction methods and topped with “iron” sheets or thatch.  What sets each home apart from the next though, is the paint – or perhaps more appropriately, the waterproofing.

Calcium Oxide, usually referred to as lime, is a building material used throughout East Africa and is often mixed into cement mortars and plasters to improve water resistance.  When used independently, mixed to 1 part lime : 3 parts sand, “lime only” mortar still retains cementitious qualities at a fraction of the cost of cement mortar.

Home owners in the North West of Burundi have incorporated lime’s qualities into their architecture using a unique method: splatter plaster.  A concentrated mixture of lime + water is applied to the exterior surface of the mud brick construction.  While the most appropriate location for this application would be at the base of the building (most exposed to rain), Burundians have turned this effective waterproofing material into an opportunity for decoration.  Splattered, splotched, dabbed or washed – each building presents a different method, a different design, a different home.

I honestly wish I had more pictures to post here.   Every house along the two hour drive is unique; assembling a collection of architecture that I have not yet seen in other parts of Africa.

One can imagine that for public infrastructure (schools, clinics, markets), such a method could be employed to create a truly contextual design.

. . . . . . . . . . .  What will really get you thinking is the introduction of colored chalks into the mixtures!

Article in Architectural Record

I recently had the opportunity to write a small piece about my work in Central and East Africa for Architectural Record, one of the leading voices in the architecture field in the United States.

In the article, I strive to explain how the IRC’s largest “good governance” program in the DR Congo is an appropriate model for development in rural Africa.  This is not only because it promotes unity and interaction with local government ministries towards responsible development.  The Tuungane program, from the perspective of an architect, creates relationships that put local populations in the position of a client; as apposed to that of a recipient or beneficiary.

I hope you enjoy the article.  Any comments that you can post at the bottom of the article would be much appreciated.  I look forward to responding.

Forcing debt upon local entrepreneurs

I don’t like some parts of my job – though these parts are often meaningful challenges that make me think harder about what I am doing here in the Congo.

Forcing debt on any of the entrepreneurs that I work with is a difficult task, especially when I am in one of the most poverty-stricken places in the world.  It must be said that I have had wonderful experiences working alongside truly inspired, organized and driven Africans.  However, as in the rest of the world, one eventually comes into contact with irresponsible businessmen.  Construction materials are shorted, then sold.  Occasionally, local laborers are not paid, and money finds its way into undeserving hands.  Sometimes, money is simply mismanaged.  The only way to effectively curtail such occurrences (and to ensure the completion of a project) is to use money: withhold it and create debt in the right places.

When I arrived in Congo I inherited a series of problems.  The vast majority of schools, roads and water systems had been completed, but 20 projects remained behind schedule and on the verge of failure.  Some had not been visited in weeks due to unstable security; others showed little progress, their funds dwindling.  These projects had not yet failed, however:  all they needed was a little encouragement and a bit of strong-arming.

The average construction cost of a typical Tuungane project hovers around $50,000. Our standard operating procedure is to withhold 10% as a guarantee, which is released only upon completion of the project and with the signature of the community president.  It ensures that when times get tough there is still a carrot on the end of the stick. This of course is a standard contractual agreement.  Sometimes though, the stick starts to get bigger and bigger, and the carrot gets smaller.

Take, for instance one of our projects in the Walungu territory, a six-classroom project in the village of Bashibashuma.  The contractor working on the project–we’ll call him “Jean”–has worked on two projects so far with the IRC’s Tuungane program.  His first project, a health center in Uvira, was extremely successful.  His second project was not.  After running short on money and souring a few relationships, the community opted not to extend his contract and to finish the project themselves.  This third project is still salvageable, though my colleagues and the community of Bashibashuma are getting restless.  Jean’s contract has already been extended, and little to no work has been done since I signed his last check for $6,300 – 4 months ago.

In mid-June, I invited Jean to my office for a chat.  He explained to me that he was having financial troubles, most of which were brought upon by the rains and the difficult roads conditions.

Jean had a remaining balance of $3,000 in our account, plus the $5,000 guarantee.  After some discussion, I offered a refinancing option that would reduce the guarantee and put more money in his pocket for the remaining construction. After all, he was very close to substantial completion of the project. All I would need from him would be a revised budget and construction schedule. I told him I’d be happy to set the paperwork in motion.

3 of 6 classrooms, unfinished in Bashibashuma

When I sought approval for this way forward, I learned that this had already been done for him in October of last year (something he had neglected to mention).  The guarantee could not be touched – especially by Jean.It became clear if this project were going to be finished, I would have to guide him through the budget revisions and scheduling process myself.

After visiting the site and taking notes on what was left to be done, I estimated what materials needed to be purchased: project completion would cost about $6,000. If we were to release the remaining $3,000, Jean would temporarily have $1,000 more in his pocket than would be his final profit if he were to finish the project.

$3,000 payment – $6,000 construction costs = $-3,000, Jean’s short-term debt

$-3,000 debt + $5,000 guarantee = $2,000, Jean’s profit.


$3,000 payment, and quit while ahead.

If he were to finish the project of course, he would remain in good standing with the community and the IRC, and would preserve his ability to win additional projects within the Tuungane program.  Up-front money, however, is a strong force (and perhaps one difficult for Jean to control), and this fact has led me to protect the community from the worst case scenario: a project that dies before it gets the chance to live.

I explained to Jean that he would need to front the first 50% of the remaining construction costs.  As soon as he could demonstrate that he had invested about $3,000, either through his receipts or by meeting benchmarks of construction progress, we would release the remaining $3000.  He would then be able to complete the project and receive his $5,000 guarantee, repay his debt, and net $2,000 profit.  I asked Jean to take the rest of the week to prepare a new strategy: scheduling out tasks, purchases, and setting a date when he would be requesting his final payment from IRC.

Jean arrived in my office a week later with a formal schedule, complete with his signature and a stamp.  By his estimates, the remaining work would take seven weeks costing a total of $6,180.  His planning showed that the costs would be split (apparently) between him and the IRC, and he would be ready for the final payment in two weeks.  Something had not translated.  Reviewing his timeline, I noted that he had severely front loaded 50% of the work into the first two weeks – an ambitious plan.  This is what I assumed he would propose, but after discussing his purchasing strategy and hearing of the large number of laborers that were ready to get to work, it was clear that he was determined to minimize the duration of his financial investment.  It was an aggressive plan, but I was ready to see him succeed.

“OK, Jean. We will come by the site in two weeks to see that this, this and this has been completed and to make sure to get you paid as soon as possible.”

He paused.  “Aww, Charles.  I will still be working on those things by then.  This is Africa.” He says with a smile.  “You can pay me on this date – that is what this document says.”

There is nothing I hate more than the “T.I.A.” bullshit.

“No Jean.  This is not Africa.  This is my office.  And this document is your proposed contract.  You signed it.  You stamped it.  And it clearly indicates that we will only pay you if and when you pay for this.”

What followed was a drawn-out, stressful conversation: interpreting the document and treading lightly so as to not offend one another.

Finally, I had to explain.

“Jean.  I understand that I am forcing you into debt.  But you have to understand that your debt will be my security.  It ensures that you will have no choice but to finish this project to gain your final guarantee.”

I have since given Jean a week to revise his plans.  I have no idea if he actually can get $3,000.  Nor do I want to think about the dangers involved in seeking such a loan in Eastern Congo.  Is this reason enough to ease the rules? Because life here is difficult?  Because this is Africa?


Bashibashuma needs a school. And if forcing short-term debt upon a contractor is the means to that end, that end will provide new opportunities for the next generation of Congolese entrepreneurs.

Introducing a new detail. My strategy.

I have been warned against trying anything new.  “You will not have the capacity to oversee such unique details – and many of the contractors will simply ignore things they don’t understand.  Besides, you will just be creating extra work for yourself.”

In some ways it is true.  Working with over 270 communities, the names of communities and complications of individual projects are already starting to blend together.  Further, contractors (as most architects will tell you) often make mistakes.  The difficulty in this part of the world though, is nor do they ask questions.  Introducing even the smallest innovations will clearly be more work for everyone.

Some ideas however, ideas are two hard to pass up.

The Liter of Light concept has been on my mind since installing a series of them in Kenya.  This is a simple and wonderfully effective detail that I am determined to introduce it into our school projects.  This starts with a construction detail but doesn’t end there.  On the sheet that I have inserted into our construction documents, I have included photos to illustrate a 1,2,3 process.

Liter of Light construction detail

Liter of Light construction detail

This additional detail will also have to be accompanied by the budget: 1 bottle of ammonia $5, one extra roof panel $20, black sealant $12, plastic bottles $1ea.  As long as these line items find their way into the contract, I am well on my way.

Next, I will have to purchase a few materials myself, make a prototype, hold a team meeting with my 30+ technicians, break them into teams, and have them build a prototype for themselves.  Soon, I will be armed and ready to try something new.

A new IRC logo: Women’s Protection and Empowerment program

Working as part of the large operation that is the IRC in South Kivu, I often get the opportunity to help out with other programs when a little designing is needed.  When the “Gender Based Violence” program changed its name to “Women’s Protection and Empowerment”, I found myself with another such opportunity.

The reasons for changing the program name are clear.  The old GBV title reflects all of the difficulties and dangers facing the women of Eastern Congo yet communicates none of the positive attributes of the IRC’s programs.  Yes, the team works with rape victims and provides medical and psychological treatment – but an equally important initiative provides micro-finance training that gives women the tools to improve their lives and those of their family.   A short, informative video explaining the micro-finance programs in South Kivu can be seen here  BBC story: IRC in the Eastern Congo

With this change in name however, comes the little task of changing the program’s logo.  The previous logo consisted of a hand symbolizing defiance or defense – I assume perhaps also to show strength.  The team wanted to change this logo to better reflect the new name and the positive nature of their many initiatives.

The team came to me with this challenge and I quickly accepted.  This new logo that I’ve created has been accepted and added to the standard issue black IRC t-shirts. I will be happy to see this printed and accompanying the team into the field as they continue their amazing work.

New Logo for the IRC’s Women’s Protection and Empowerment program in South Kivu

Can a Water System be Beautiful? – Part II

On May 15th of this year I posted an article about a new approach to designing and building rural water systems.  In this post I detailed one large project currently approaching construction in Minova, just Southwest of Goma.  For this project I reached out to local artist Innocent to turn the large water tank into a piece of public art.  He produced a rendering, and is currently preparing to coordinate is painting with the local contractor and the construction schedule.

I have since introduced this water system as art idea to the community development committee of Mulama, another community on the outskirts of Mwenga Centre.  As I have come to learn however, for many communities throughout the Eastern Congo, an artist is not always easy to come by.  Unfortunately, art is a difficult trade on which to survive, and most rural Congolese focus their energy on agriculture and on conducting small business.  This lack of artists is not entirely a problem.  In fact, it is a wonderful opportunity.

The governance goals of Tuungane strive to bring communities together to make decisions on how to improve their communities.  During the short design phase of each project, my office holds the hand of the community throughout the process.  For education for example, my office works to reach the communities’ goals of 3 classrooms in brick or 4 classrooms in wood.  For water systems however, the amount of community involvement is somewhat limited.  The committee indicates the number of taps stands it wants and where – but in actuality, these locations are largely decided upon by the amount of water available and by gravity.  Bringing a community together to beautify their own infrastructure would not only create a water system that stands apart from that of their neighbors, but it would become an opportunity for elders, men, women and children to contribute to the true design of a single project.  Colors will have to be chosen, patterns discussed, and over a few days volunteers would come together to bring a piece of beauty into their village.  Such an opportunity could have lasting positive effects in community communication, enthusiasm, and project ownership; while creating a monument to the community’s efforts that will stand for decades.

It must be noted that the amount of paint proposed for these projects is a small expense when considering the communities’ budgets.  The envelope for construction averages $24,000.  One water tap, depending on its relative location, costs around $1,000.  Therefore, any remainder of funds can go towards this extra artistic expense.  I estimate that the amount of paint and brushes for a water system with one large tank and 5 water taps would cost $400.

In order to present this idea to the communities, I have prepared these two pages showing how a water tank and water taps can be designed.  These pages are printed on our black and white printer and left with the communities who indicate enthusiasm for the project.  I have intentionally left these pages vague – showing only examples and suggestions for themes.  With a minimal use of words, these diagrams can be interpreted and design can be sparked.

Currently I am working on contractual strategies that will allow these opportunities to proceed without complication.  For the coming construction in Mulama, our community partner in Mwenga, I will be holding meetings with their development committee in the coming weeks to confirm their plans for their project.

A construction detail – informed by the construction process

Proposed OPEQ Teacher Learning Center plan

Proposed OPEQ Teacher Learning Center plan

Since posting my article about the Flexible Teacher Learning Center, the OPEQ team has gotten to work detailing the structure and budgeting out the materials and labor.  Unfortunately – the team has had difficulty getting the cost estimates under budget as they have made various adjustments to the design.

One of the biggest changes that was one made to the columns.  The team opted to changed from wood columns to reinforced concrete.  This will be much more expensive (and undoubtedly a reason for their current budgeting issues), though the structure will perform better against termites and the heavy seasonal rains.

This decision brought about questions regarding how to create the connection detail between the concrete columns and the wood screens.  Without questioning the team’s modifications to the design too much (it’s not my office or my project, really), I’ve offered this simple detail that shows how the construction process can inform the design and its dimensions.

Wood Screen/Concrete junction detail

This detail uses the standard formwork (coffrage) method but identifies temporary formwork and permanent formwork.  By placing a series of nails along the interior of the permenant pieces, a strong connection can be forged between the concrete and with the wood screens.

Details such as this one require detailed measurements and a little planning, but nothing more.  There are no additional materials; and the formwork, which is often discarded after use, gains a permanent place in the life of the building.

Design can often be informed by construction processes and vice versa.  Therefore, when working on construction projects (in rural Africa and beyond), it is imperative to understand the construction methods and their order of operations in order to create effective construction documents.

Can a water system be beautiful?

Minova Water System

In November of 2011, 7 communities in the Tuungane program came together to address a common problem: access to potable water on the outskirts of Minova, DRC.  After a thorough analysis of demand, a survey of water sources, and a community led design process, we arrived at a solution: a gravity fed water distribution system, combining 13 water sources into 27 kilometers of pipe, 2 water tanks, and delivered through 21 water kiosks located throughout the communities.  This is the largest water system to date for the Tuungane program in South Kivu and will give the communities access to clean water.

Typical Water Tank, South Kivu, DRC

For many projects of this scope, NGOs (or sometimes the government), will place signage of sorts on the project site with their name, logo and contact info.  This increases the visibility of the organization to both communities and donors.  It also provides a self-acknowledged accomplishment on the part of the donor.  “We built this.  Look at all the work we have done.”  Often with water systems, a large water tank is the perfect canvas for such signage.

Unfortunately, such signage places ownership of the project in the hands of the organization, not in those of the people.  It also reinforces the sense that Africa is a place of dependence, devoid of its own entrepreneurial drive.  For this project, nothing could be farther from the truth.  The communities around Minova organized themselves through elections, guided our IRC staff to the water sources, and decided upon the location of the water kiosks.  As the construction coordinator, I wanted to find a way to for the community to create its own signage – for its own project.

Innocent in his studio

Innocence, a tall, shy, mid 20 year old is a painter and sculptor in the Biglimani neighborhood of Minova, one of the seven communities working to construct this massive water system.  Most of Innocence’s work is in signage.  He has done work for local churches, schools and storefronts in and around Minova.  He also draws many portraits and landscapes for sale and for his own pleasure.  I asked Innocence if he would be interested in painting the community’s water tank as a piece of public art.  We briefly discussed his fee for the work (which I placed in the contract going out for bids from contractors) and he produced this rendering: a series of colored stripes that frame an image of a man drinking fresh, clean water.

Water Tank Rendering, Innocent

In his drawing, there is no mention of IRC, no mention of Tuungane, no mention of who funded the project – only color and design created by the community’s own artist. This past Thursday, we held a meeting with the community to discuss the details of the project and presented Innocence’s drawing.  I could see the look in many of the committee members’ eyes as they began to visualize a water system that is unique, beautiful, and most importantly, theirs.

Water tank painting suggestions

I have begun to incorporate paint in the financial estimates for all of our water projects; and I’ve instructed each of my technical supervisors in Kalehe, Mwenga, Uvira and Walungu to seek out local artists, craftsman, and others in these communities.  So far, these proposals have been well-received. Often though, we receive comments such as “Please tell us what to paint.”  The creative drive has to come from the community, not from me or my office.  However, in order to spur the creative juices of the communities, I have produced this small document that illustrates various options (colors, text, hand prints, scenery).  We will be presenting this page to communities that show interest creating something unique.

NGOs and developers often overlook the importance of art to the success of their projects. Art can in fact drive success by reinforcing cultural pride, unity, and ownership.

Construction of the water system in Minova will begin within the next month.  The contractor will determine the timeline for construction, but we have estimated three to four months.  I will be following this project throughout construction, and look forward to posting updates on the construction and the work of Innocence.

Designing a HydroElectric Dam in Kalehe, DRC

The Tuungane project has been in operation for the past 5 years and is entering its 2nd phase. Phase 1 saw certain strategies in financing, construction and community involvement that have been adjusted and improved. Almost all of the large Tuungane 1 projects have been completed – but the most complicated one has yet to break ground: construction of a hydroelectric plant in Kalehe Centre.

Kalehe, view of Lake Kivu

Spanning the entire length of Lake Kivu’s west coast, Kalehe is among the most beautiful regions in all of South Kivu. The beauty of the mountain views are surpassed only by the picturesque islands and peninsulas that define the water’s edge.
After meetings and elections, the community of Kalehe Centre indicated that its biggest need was for consistent electricity. Kalehe is the least electrified region in South Kivu, which is surprising, since it rests between the two largest cities in the Eastern Congo, Bukavu and Goma. The community leaders decided to use their $80,000 grant for construction of a hydroelectric plant, and pointed the IRC team to an ideal site: a waterfall located 2km outside of the town center. Upon inspection of the site, it was clear that construction of such a system had once been attempted. The crumbling foundation of a turbine house along with some overgrown canals exist adjacent to the 10m high waterfall. It is unclear if the project had ever been completed, or if construction had halted at the start of the wars, fifteen years ago.
This project marked a large jump in complexity for the Tuungane team. Some of the other Tuungane communities had chosen to use their funds for electricity, but those projects had required only a connection to existing electrical lines. This project would require expensive machinery, substantial planning, and a technical expertise that was not currently available. The IRC team explained the difficulty of the project, and proposed to the community that they build a school or market instead; but the community of Kalehe Centre was unwavering.

These meetings occurred two years ago. Since then, the project has moved forward in stops, starts and tangents. Feasibility studies have been done, quotes for turbines have been sought and nearby existing hydroelectric dams have been studied. The estimated budget for the turbine and 2km of electrical wires alone have topped $100,000; putting more and more pressure on the community to finance the difference.
Upon arriving at my office for my first day in Bukavu, I was told that this project that would become my “mal de tête”, and was handed a folder that contained a pile full of papers:

a narrative listing the power needs (the demand),
a photograph of a hand drawn site plan,
a quote for a turbine with technical specs,
some sketches of a reservoir and dam,
a budget with little correlation to anything,
a feasibility study warning that “this project is not viable”.

I began by reviewing the energy demand of the community. The people’s primary concern was servicing the local hospital. They also wanted current for market areas and for a few mills to process cassava into FuFu, a staple dish of the Congolese diet. It was estimated that their electrical demand was approximately 130Kw. The cheapest turbine option would provide a maximum current of 32kw, so the math was obvious: we would be able to

Initial Scheme: 20m wide dam

provide current only to the hospital. I asked for a complete survey to be done of the hospital’s power needs: number of light bulbs, incubators and anticipated additions of equipment. Our estimates came to 27kw, putting the hospital’s power needs within reach.

The proposed development of the waterfall site showed substantial construction. A 20m wide water dam would not only require enormous quantities of raw material, but it would not take advantage of any of the existing canals and terrain. I began with this simple sketch to show how this large construction can be consolidated into a few components. This sketch illustrates my basic strategy for the project, and within a few weeks, we began moving towards a complete design.

Revised Scheme

Upon choosing the appropriate turbine, we began to size each of the components: the dam itself (technically a “wier”), canals, settling pond, final conduit, and the turbine house. Each of these components were sized in relation to the flow rates of the river. This ensures that the flow to the turbine will remain perfectly at the turbine’s maximum capacity during both the rainy and dry seasons.

As I began to develop the construction documents, amid numerous miscommunications with the community’s contractor, I opted to place site photos directly into the construction set. By drawing on top of these images to create colored diagrams, the plans are clarified and references are made to each construction detail.

In creation of the final budget for the project, the total has risen to $170,000. Amazingly, the community has not only committed to contributing $10,000 worth of manual labor, but they also reached out to a local leader who has committed to donating $30,000 towards the project. Further, two of the sub communities in Kalehe offered to forgo their plans for construction of schools, and allocate their grants towards the balance of the budget.
Currently, we are waiting on the community to write a formal proposal. Soon after, funds will be released, orders will be placed, and ground will be broken.
This project will provide a fascinating construction process. A waterfall will have to be diverted and controlled, and each component must be constructed with extreme precision. I look forward to guiding the construction of this project – and of course, to providing consistent updates on our progress.

Designing A Flexible Teacher Learning Center

In February of 2012 the project leaders from IRC’s OPEQ program (Opportunite Pour une access plus Equitable de base de Qualite – which roughly translates to “access to education”), identified the need for the construction of a series of Teacher Learning Centers. These buildings will serve as administrative hubs that provide meeting space and guidance for teachers throughout the South Kivu and Katanga provinces.
The vision for this prototype is to be a flexible space – one that can serve as a small library for reference books and a lecture hall while at times becoming a space where teachers can break into groups for smaller workshops. Further, because the building will only have limited use throughout the school year, the program leaders indicated the desire for the building to be public space that could be easily used by the surrounding community. The final requirement, as is always the case, is cost. With only $12,000 available for each building, some of which will be in extremely remote areas, alternative materials and details must be considered.
While the program has its own construction team of qualified engineers, they have no architects. Many of the building plans that were presented to the team leaders were varying versions of an “adult size” classroom + small office included within the square plan. These typical masonry constructions enclosed with doors and windows would not only be too costly, but the schemes fell short of the team’s vision for this functionality and character of the space.

It was at this point that the OPEQ team came to me for some ideas.

I found myself gravitating towards a solution to minimize the heavy construction needed. When considering the program, a library will need to be secure – with perhaps a desk for administrative purposes. All other activities require a large, open space. Therefore, the heavy construction can be consolidated around the a small meeting room / library, with an efficiently sized storage area for desks. During meetings among teachers, these desks can be organized as needed throughout the large auditorium. This large space can remain without doors to be open at all hours, with bamboo screens to define the enclosure. The floors slab can remain compacted earth, clay, or paved with brick.

While many of the details still need to be clarified, I can estimate that this structure will come in at 75% of the cost of the original schemes. The OPEQ team is working through the construction details and logistical concerns that will eventually lead to 22 of these structures to be built throughout the Mwenga territory of South Kivu.

Homemade Charging Station

Homemade Power StripWhile traveling through the country side of Mwenga, I came across these guys running a small business charging  cell phones.  Upon further inspection, I realized that the power strip they were using was completely home made.  Using a regular piece of wood with hand drilled outlets and homemade rivets, these guys recycled the wire from the broken power strip, seen on the left side of the table. The new power strip has the capacity to charge up to 35 devices on a single current.   This of course would require a hefty generator, which they did not have.  The machine they were using could charge two phones at a time.  A new generator can be quite expensive, but these guys are well on their way to earning the necessary funds.

Traveling through the Eastern Congo, I am always impressed by the people I meet.  The combination of human ingenuity and extreme need often brings forth simple and innovative solutions such as this one.

Proposed Improvements: Health Center Station in DRC

Standard Plan – Health Station

Many communities working through the Tuungane program use their grants to address public health needs.  We present four construction options for them: a regional health center, a maternity clinic, a dispensary, and a health center station. The health center station (Poste de Sante) is the smallest and least expensive option.  The health programs that come with this construction provides a nurse, a lab technician, and an office manager.  The clinic is open during business hours and dispenses prescriptions, lab tests, and referrals to larger health centers.  The current design for a health center station provides 4 interior spaces: a waiting room, an office and archive, a consultation room and a treatment room.  These spaces are complimented by a modest veranda at the front of the building that serves as an extension of the waiting area.  This plan is simple, logically laid out, and “gets the job done.”  That’s about it.

Cost Consolidation

Our standard construction documents call for a masonry structure with iron sheets.  The cost for such a health center station then comes in at around $20,000.  Unfortunately, under the revised Tuungane strategies, communities are now allocated only $15,000 and $19,000. Grants are given in these amounts in order to promote coordinated efforts between neighboring communities.  However, in the event that a community is isolated from its neighbors or it does not share the same goals, the only option is to downgrade the existing design in order to cut costs. Concrete block is replaced with mud brick, and iron sheets with thatch.  These choices can limit the life of the building and the sustainability of the health services that it is built to provide.
With some adjustments to the standard design however, not only can a health station of quality materials be achieved within the community’s budget, but it can improve the lives of the community members.  This can be achieved through consolidation of the existing plan and the incorporation of local construction methods.
The needs of the health center station list treatment and consultation rooms that require security, clean surfaces, and privacy.  In addition to these spaces, the plan shows two waiting rooms: the large interior space and the exterior veranda.  These two spaces are not only redundant, but the amount of material used for their construction is the same as for the treatment and consultation rooms.  To consolidate costs around the essential spaces, the secondary waiting spaces can be “lightened” by pulling them out of the main construction to engage the surrounding landscape.  A clay slab or brick patio surface can be used for these exterior spaces.  Further, screen walls can be built to help define the corridors and waiting areas while providing shade and protection from winds.  Bamboo and thin wooden sticks are often used throughout central and east Africa in wall construction.  By using such details, the community can not only lower construction costs by donating materials, but they can also incorporate their own building expertise and aesthetics into the design of the building.
Finally, the pitched roof of the original design can be inverted to consolidate water catchment to a single axis.  Water can be diverted to one side of the building to provide running water to the treatment room (which would achieve World Health Organization standards).  In the event that a water system is already available, rainwater can be diverted to a garden for irrigation of traditional medicinal herbs.

Decorative screen walls would use more wood than the original design; and precise measurements for the gravity-fed irrigation system would be needed.  However, the amount of concrete and the number of doors and windows would be cut by 30%.  Such consolidations of materials and reformatting of the standard plan could bring the cost of a health center station within the financial reach of a single community. I will soon be going to the field to review the existing health station designs and to talk with the local staff members.  In the mean time, I have presented these thoughts to my colleagues in the IRC health department and to construction managers from other projects within the Bukavu office.  So far, they have been accepted as clear improvements over our standard design.  After defining exact material quantities and a budget, the final step will be a formal presentation to the health ministry here in Bukavu for formal approval.

Architectural Prototypes in the Congo: Proposing Improvements

Typical Classrooms, Cihumba, DRC

Thousands of structures have already been built within the IRC’s Tuungane program; and with 470 communities in South Kivu still progressing towards construction within the next two years, it is impossible to custom-design each village project.  The IRC strategy has been to create a series of standard designs that enable reliable cost estimation, rapid construction, and efficient project monitoring.

When I arrived in Bukavu, I found simple drawings that serve as the construction documents for each project sector: water/sanitation, education, health and public markets.  The communities can then modify certain materials in order to fit the project costs within their budget envelope.  However, due to the small grants that each community receives, these prescribed designs have been schematically consolidated in order to cut costs to the degree that adjacencies, circulation needs, and contextual considerations have been sacrificed.  Unfortunately, these designs still comply with the DRC building codes (which often prescribe exact building plans – thereby preventing any improved designs from being implemented).

Typical Health Center, Ihoka, DRC

Some engineers feel that the buildings and systems that have been built so far have been the best and most efficient designs, but their assessments have been base entirely on spread sheets of quantities, prices and purely quantitative data.  Contextual design can be cheaper to build, thereby sparing funds for additional projects.  It can also improve the community’s ownership of the project – a vital consideration.

In the past, I have freely changed “standard” designs in order to better serve the needs of communities; and proceeded through construction without some government approvals.  So far, the various government ministries have endorsed my changes upon seeing the final product. However, because the Tuungane program prepares communities to operate within local governance systems, such a strategy would undermine the goals of the entire initiative.

In order to promote the creative design process as essential to the development efforts of the Tuungane program, and indeed to any program, I will follow through a formal analysis of each building design and propose structural modifications, schematic revisions, and site planning considerations for each.  These will be presented to government ministries for approval before any construction can begin.

My first analysis will focus on the smallest construction available to the communities in the Tuungane Program: Un Poste de Sante (health center station).

The Largest Development Effort In Africa: Tuungane

Having begun my career in Africa working on small teams, tackling one project at a time, I was often skeptical of big NGOs.  However, as I begin work with the International Rescue Comittee, I’ve come to realize that massive problems require massive efforts.  Working as one of five construction coordinators with the IRC, I have joined an enormous initiative that has been working with over 1,500 small communities across eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.  This is the largest effort of its kind in Africa.

Although many might expect that building schools, clinics and general infrastructure would be the best long-term solution to problems in the DRC, construction by itself doesn’t take into account the complexity of Congo’s problems. The root of these problems is a lack of good governance practices and citizens’ lack of confidence in government.   The only way to pull the DRC out of economic stagnation in a sustainable manner is to help the people and their government take responsibility for the country’s development. The IRC’s program, Tuungane (“Let’s Unite”), addresses governance deficiencies at the most local level.

  • Context of the Eastern Congo

The great wars of Africa occurred in the aftermath of the 1996 Rwandan genocide, and raged across central Africa for over twelve years.  The fighting involved eight countries and killed over 5.4 million people.  Jason Stearns has chronicled the conflicts in DRC in his comprehensive book, Dancing In The Glory Of Monsters.

While the conflicts have subsided, and some consider them “over,” there are still many pockets of unrest. Independent militias continue to roam throughout the eastern provinces. Their ideological motives have morphed into a fight for control of lucrative resources and for the power that comes with that control.  The DRC government’s solution has been to consolidate many of these resistance movements into the national military, but since the government rarely pays these soldiers, they still survive by extortion and violence.

  • Tuungane

The goal of the IRC’s Tuungane project in DRC is to help to establish solid, enduring principles of good governance at the village level. Participating communities lead themselves through local elections and assessments.  Then, they work together to construct schools, health centers, water systems, roads, or markets as a vehicle to strengthen these community driven decision processes.  While the financing for these projects is provided by the IRC, it is the communities themselves that decide which projects are most needed; and it is their elected leaders that engage local government ministries in approvals, monitoring, and in some cases, in construction.

Within this large project, I work as a construction coordinator.  While I believe that architecture and design itself can have a major positive effect on communities and individuals, I play only a small role in this massive program. During my time with the IRC in the province of South Kivu, my personal goal is to empower the communities that I work with through art, design, and construction.  This will ultimately solidify their emotional connection to and their ownership of these projects. For the purpose of this post however, an explanation of the Tuungane program will help illustrate the larger framework within which I work, and lay the groundwork for further posts.

The Tuungane program is vast, working with over 1,500 communities across the provinces of Katanga, Maniema and North and South Kivu.  The protocols for the processes of introduction, elections, project development, and construction are comprehensive, requiring 32 community meetings and milestones, quorum requirements, financing options, and the creation of various subcommittees.  The program has been laid out to ensure flexibility and to maximize the chances of project success.

The process is divided into four phases.

  • Phase One: Preparation, Introductions, Elections

The first half of phase one is dedicated to large-scale preparations: meetings with governors, district commissioners, relevant offices (roads, education, health, etc.), and organizing census information to delineate village borders and population data.

Then, engagements with each village begin. The first meeting is with the chief of the village, as chiefs not only preside over ceremonies (weddings, circumcisions), but also settle disputes and maintain general order throughout the community.  The first meeting is for formal introductions and to explain that the village has been selected to participate in the Tuungane program if it chooses.  This initial meeting is followed by a complete explanation of the governance processes and the level of community dedication that will be required.

Choosing the Development Sector

The three meetings that follow are with the entire community.  These meetings include various group activities that are aimed at helping the community understand and prioritize the problems that need to be addressed.  Once two of the five sectors are identified as priorities (for example, education and potable water), the community elects a development committee.

Elections take place over the course of an afternoon.  Half of the positions are reserved for women, and other “vulnerables” (members of the community who would otherwise be overlooked) are given chances to run for office, speak, and vote.  After the votes are compiled and totaled, the responsibilities of the elected are discussed in an open forum. IRC facilitators ask such questions as, “What will you, the community, do if funds are embezzled?”  At this point, the community and their elected leadership begin to realize that the future of the project is in their hands.

Later, villagers meet with neighboring communities who have chosen the same type of project so that grants can be combined for more effective and coordinated development.  As many as five communities may come together to pool resources and select a location or locations for the project.

  • Phase Two: Proposals, Coordination

Phase Two begins with a self-analysis of conditions in the communities, leading to a formal proposal that outlines goals and available resources (both material and human). This process of putting aspirations into written form solidifies the community member’s understanding of the tasks at hand and their capacity to work together.

Elections - South Kivu

Phase Two continues with field trips for the local elected leadership to provincial government ministries to engage leaders in local infrastructure development via school recognition, allocation of health professionals, etc.  These meetings are one of the most important steps in the Tuungane project: local leaders not only learn the process of working within existing governance systems, but they also begin to hold their local ministries to account.

  • Phase Three: Project Development

During Phase Three, communities begin to define the details of the construction project(s).  IRC representatives meet with the community to clarify the limits of the grant (between $12,000 and $19,000 depending on population).  If, for example, the community chooses to build a school, the number of classrooms, the materials choices, and the overall quality of construction are discussed. This means that the community can choose to build two classrooms with concrete block and iron sheets, or five classrooms with adobe brick and a thatched roof.  This exercise in cost/benefit analysis helps community members to make decisions about how they would like to spend their grant

Project Development

and to improve their community.

After materials are chosen and the scope of construction established, a bid request is issued in much the same way that it is done for any construction project in the rest of the world: construction timelines are outlined, and specific design drawings and material quantities are provided.  Contractors are notified via broadcasts on local radio stations, and through other local media. Once a minimum number of bids are submitted, elected officials meet with the community to open each bid to compare.  A rating system, provided by the IRC, helps ensure unbiased decisions.

If the community finds the bid estimates to be too high or otherwise undesirable, the community can opt to assemble its own construction effort.  IRC field personnel explain the pros and cons of these two options, along with the different financing structures.

By the end of Phase Three, everyone, from elected officials to each member of the community, has a complete understanding of what is expected.

  • Phase Four “A”: Construction

The first half of Phase Four covers the execution of the project.  Construction is monitored by IRC technicians and by the construction manager.  After predetermined milestones are reached, the contractor or the community asks for release of funds.  If agreed-upon milestones aren’t reached, the community may fire the contractor and hire another.  Most of the contractual language and construction monitoring methods follow the same models as are used in privately funded projects in the west.

When construction is complete, the contractor, the community and the construction coordinator sign off on the project, authorizing the final release of funds and progression to the last phase.

  • Phase Four “B”: Monitoring

The final phase begins with a series of monitoring exercises that take place 30 days after construction has been completed.  The community is given an outline that helps pinpoint any concerns about how the programs are being run.  Further, any staff that may be involved (for example, teachers or nurses) are given the chance to write their own reviews, one in response to the community and one outlining any administrative problems that have prevented them from doing their jobs.  This is followed by a series of meetings with the community, providing a forum for further problem solving.

It is the goal of the Tuungane program that these town meetings and election processes continue after the IRC staff have moved on to other communities. Some communities have since started subcommittees to address public health or maintenance of community spaces.  This unity has the potential to bloom into larger grass roots movements that can influence the national government.

Not every project has been successful. Since the IRC works with many communities in a very large territory, complete oversight is impossible. Money has found ways to disappear and contractors have abandoned projects.  When these problems occur, the communities are given a small time frame to come together to find a solution.  Some lose their chance participate in the program, while others commit to raising the funds themselves to replace what has been embezzled.

As this blog continues, I will be writing not only to document the progress of the Tuungane program, but also to comment on it as an architect: addressing design, construction, and community involvement.