arch-peace editorials

18 October 2009

One Answer

In my previous editorial (September 2008) I posed a single question – ‘what role can architects play in improving the lives of the poor?’ I wrote the editorial as I was preparing to coordinate groups of postgraduate architecture working on two community development projects – the first in rural Thailand and the second in Australia’s ‘top-end’.

I stated in my editorial that many architects have worked in the community development field and spoke of their hopes, their shortcomings and of their varying states between. I spoke of cases where communities were reluctant to be involved, where local politics intervened, where architects failed to understand their clients, and of the effects when collective spirit is destroyed. I mentioned that in projects such as these there was much to go wrong. I spoke of the need to look for (and embrace) small victories and have modest aims. What did I do with my two projects and what were the outcomes?

In the last year I have coordinated two projects with Melbourne School of Design students from the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne. The first project was in rural Thailand and the second in one of Darwin’s ‘town camps’. In both cases our team consulted with a variety of stakeholders, designed and then built shelters at full-scale alongside local workers. Working with partner organizations we addressed ‘real-world’ problems and engaged with issues of sustainability in their many complex forms – cultural, environmental, economic and technical.

We knew that in projects like this excellent preparation was the key. A series of preliminary exercises had the students conducting research, convening seminars, designing prototypes, documenting the construction process and scheduling and sourcing construction materials. This enabled them to confidently begin prefabricating some building elements in the Faculty workshop. Once the prefabricated components were complete the teams moved to the University’s rural campus at Creswick for on-site construction. Here the students gained confidence, their familiarity with the tools and materials grew and their problem solving skills were put to the test over a three-day period.

Students learning to use construction tools in the workshop

Prototypes under construction at the University's rural campus

These preliminary exercises led towards the main component of each project – students forming partnerships to work outside the university on outreach projects. In both projects the subject coordinators have worked alongside students and community representatives building structures of significant size and complexity.

In 2008 a group of sixteen Melbourne School of Design students worked with students from Bangkok’s Thammasat University, Population and Community Development Association (a Thai NGO) and the Ban Nong Thong Lim community to build a sala (pavilion) for patients waiting at the government health clinic. Community representatives requested that the sala work in the traditional way and be open air and welcoming to the people using the clinic. A wise choice of construction technologies was a key consideration. After so much regional deforestation most contemporary construction in Thailand now uses concrete – but this creates all sorts of environmental problems.

The sala under construction by the health clinic.

The sala nearing completion

Our sala, built with steel framing and composite materials, tested possibilities to link traditional lightweight construction techniques with contemporary construction materials. In a broader sense this was testing possibilities that new housing could be built with traditional ideologies – reducing the need for air-conditioning and maintaining the open-air spaces that enhance community cohesion – as well as using new materials with lower environmental costs. The project will continue with an ongoing research project investigating links between construction technologies, environmental costs and the cultural behaviours that accompany various uses of space. In 2010 a new team of students from both universities will again collaborate with the NGO and Ban Nong Thong Lim community to investigate housing types using lightweight materials.

The second of our on-going projects is located in Australia’s ‘top-end’. Although the climate and need for housing is similar to Thailand there are vastly different cultural contexts. The federal government’s Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) and well-publicised ‘intervention’ program have brought indigenous housing to the attention of mainstream Australia. Whereas the agencies once responsible for indigenous housing in the Northern Territory were criticised for too little consultation the claim today is that there is too much consultation with too little housing being built. Today’s media provides many commentaries speaking of the vast sums allocated by the federal government but with little (or no) housing having been recently built. Paradoxically there are reports from the communities themselves that the consultation process is inadequate. How much consultation with indigenous communities is the ‘right’ amount? How should this consultation process be managed and with what outcomes in mind?

With these questions in mind two groups of Melbourne School of Design student have been involved in subjects that work with two indigenous communities in Darwin’s ‘town camps’. At the community’s request early projects looked at providing design ideas for housing ‘long-grassers’ – generally itinerant young men who have been held responsible for many of the problems facing indigenous communities. However after consultation students were invited to recycle one of the derelict houses in the Gudorrka Community. The steel framed houses (nicknamed ‘chicken coops’ by all concerned) were in appalling condition with no bathroom or cooking facilities and no outdoor shaded areas.

The 'chicken coop' house before renovation

The interior of the 'chicken coop'

With $50,000 funding from a variety of sources the sixteen students, two staff and help from local men and children we ‘blitzed’ the house over a ten day period and recycled it into a respectable house. The new residents – one of whom had been born in the house three decades ago – were eager participants in the process and are delighted with the outcome.

A verandah was added to provide much needed 'indoor/outdoor' space

The new interior

We reclad the interior, enclosed two more bedrooms, built an internal bathroom, tiled the wet areas, installed a new stainless steel kitchen and added louvres to the windows.

The renovated house has significantly less environmental impact than a new house, cost one-tenth as much and was completed in a vastly shorter time-span. It also linked the indoors with outdoors to provide greater levels of comfort and a closer connection with the land. This project did not end there – the students then used their experience to design some further facilities for this community and the neighbouring ‘Knuckies Lagoon’ mob. Their designs are being reviewed by both mobs, and local government funding agencies, before another group of students comes to continue the project in 2010.

The new verandah becomes an ‘oasis’ for people to gather

Have I learned something useful?

These projects revealed their small victories and there was much for us to learn. It seemed – to use the words of one of the local agencies providing the funding – that we worked with the community rather than for it. This is an interesting distinction. The students, and I give them heaps of credit for this, really engaged with the local people of all ages. Unlike building contractors – who are on wages and predetermined schedules – we made the time to consult, get to know the people and involve them in the process. In the indigenous community the kids were really drawn to us and we should make an effort to further include them in the future (alongside their parents). We were also flexible enough to be able to change our plans as we went through the construction phase – buildings were rotated minutes prior to earthworks beginning, additional items were added or deleted as we went along and so on. The construction processes were fluid and dynamic.

These structures, in both Thailand and Darwin, are only parts of a larger process. The intent has been to use the construction processes and outcomes as a way to stimulate further discussions with the community groups involved. Marginalised communities are not well used to making decisions about their environments and their shelter. Traditionally they have had little or no choice. The process of talking, designing and then building together opens up many opportunities for a more useful dialogue which then enriches the ideas, processes and outcomes for the next project and so on.

The bottom line is that I am convinced that there is a need for architects in community development projects such as these. Traditionally projects might have the involvement of bureaucrats, aid workers, engineers, accountants, builders, anthropologists and the like, who do have great skills but remain narrow in focus. Not many can balance the complex and interlinked variety of needs and at the same time produce a tangible outcome. At the same time we are fortunate that we work within the university structure that enables these projects to develop in a ‘laboratory’ (to use a popular word at this time) setting free (or relatively free) from commercial obligations.

David O'Brien
Architects for Peace, October 2009


Anonymous said...

Great work David! The open and flexible approach you take gives so muh more to all the participants. Is it a problem that this approach is not really scalable? It cannot be multiplied by 100 as for one there are not enough students to go around. I think so. The goodwill generated can sustain people through less responsive situations.
Regards, Nicolas Ewald.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nicolas,

Yes you are right in that we (as a small group) cannot undertake the renovation of 100 houses. But I have been asked by other organisations how they might also take on their own project and two of our Darwin based partners have received a contract to renovate some houses in the Bagot Community. Small steps maybe, but in such a situation with so few 'good news stories' we'll take what we can!!

David O'Brien

arch-peace said...

Thanks David, this is a very positive experience. However, given the benefits of a direct students' engagement with real problems and communities, I am surprised of how little is done in the way of highlighting these studio projects within the architectural faculties. Is it that there are still too few studios doing what you do, or is it that the emphasis is on projects that privilege imagery above addressing real issues?

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