Words by Abul Mahdi
Humanitarian architecture isn’t just about making a physical impact
We try to use the construction process as a vehicle to upskill people and build capacity locally. Unskilled workers from local towns and villages may earn US$1 a day, but once they become a skilled worker in a particular trade — through learning bricklaying or plastering or carpentry, or becoming an electrician — their salary will most likely jump to US$5-6 a day. That has a big impact socially because they can now afford to send their children to school, to buy medicines, to have more than one meal a day. We’re not just going to a country, dropping a building in and getting out of there. There’s many facets to success, but it all comes down to the users and the community: have we improved their lives and made it better and safer? That’s the key thing.
It’s not only the construction workforce, it’s the consultants as well
We are building a preschool for children with disabilities and able-bodied children in Tanzania at the moment, which WSP is involved in, and we have a site architect from Europe working with a local architect who has just graduated. She’s on site to assist managing the project. Consultants in the West have a range of expertise and tools that might not be available locally — for example, seismic design — and our job is to train the next generation of architects and engineers to make them understand why we’re designing it in that way so that they can look after themselves in the future.
"We always have a very limited budget, so innovations and technology from the West might not be available to us. So we would push for those things to be made locally, in a local way"
It’s not a one-way transfer
We learn so much from the local community about the vernacular way of doing things, and we try to apply those ideas so the building doesn’t become a white elephant. We spend a lot of time with the clients refining the brief, and we go to markets to understand what is available — what kind of pipes, what sizes of timber? There’s no point in us specifying something that’s either bespoke or not available locally. And it’s more sustainable in the long term if users can maintain the building themselves with components from the local market. We also meet contractors and go to building sites to understand what skills are available. In some areas of the world, they’re amazing at carpentry; in other places they might be great at metalwork fabrication.
Using local materials and skills also means we don’t have to rely on imports
Emerging economies don’t have as big a carbon footprint as the rest of the world, but we are always trying to drive it down even further. We always have a very limited budget, so innovations and technology from the West might not be available to us. So we would push for those things to be made locally, in a local way, which would be much more sustainable and in turn also has a social impact.
We also need to change this idea of looking always to the West as a precedent for good design
When we arrive, the community will say “we want a concrete building with AC units”, but the vernacular architecture they have is amazing. They have a lot of great techniques for using thermal mass, natural ventilation, daylight. It’s often about the perception of wealth and how people should live. In Bangladesh, where my parents are from, if you have a house built out of mud, you’re from the lowest part of society. The next step up might be a tin shed, then maybe half-tin and half-brick, then brick. Concrete is right at the top, when actually mud bricks are the best in terms of energy efficiency and comfort throughout the year. We try to make them see that we’re not the people to look to — we have a different climate, a different context, and a much bigger carbon footprint.
Abul Mahdi is a project architect at Article 25, a UK-based humanitarian architecture charity