Gaps between Expertise and Contextual Knowledge
In 2016 I was offered a construction supervision position at a university in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was going to supervise the structural retrofit, remediation and construction of the university’s core academic and administrative facility designed to accommodate a 2400-seat auditorium, classrooms and offices. The building had been designed by a foreign architect unfamiliar with the Congolese context and included technical features inappropriate to remote parts of Africa. Central air-conditioning, elevators, high-grade reinforced concrete were all inappropriate for the part of Congo where this facility was going to be built, where the tropical climate requires buildings designed to keep heat out of the structure, electrical power is unreliable, and the needed concrete quality could not be achieved. The biggest challenge however, was that the local contractor for the project did not have the expertise to construct such a massive building and could not understand the code that was used by the architect. The project was a disaster. The organisation I work for was called in to make changes to the design and prepare selective demolition, remediation, and construction plans for the modifications. My job was to work with a different local contractor and supervise the implementation of these plans. Several hundreds of thousands of US dollars were lost in demolition, but the building is now a stable structure that fits in its context and responds to the climate of the region.
In 2019 I was offered a temporary reassignment as construction manager at a hospital in Burundi. When I arrived in this rural community, I was immediately saddened to see a church building reminiscent of the project in Congo. The difference was that someone familiar with the local context designed the church and local masons built it. This building is a giant with feet of clay; it is massive and the structural elements are ready to give way at any time. Again we were invited to intervene and develop demolition and remediation plans, however, those are yet to be implemented. Unfortunately buildings like these are found everywhere in the Great Lakes region of Africa, even in cities with design professionals.
The challenges I have confronted in my work prove that expertise without contextualized knowledge is dangerous, but also that contextualized knowledge is never enough to make up for the lack of training. A combination of both is required.
These kinds of realities should awaken a sense of responsibility in design professionals towards their communities. As professionals, we cannot afford to make mistakes similar to the ones we witness everyday in the industry. We must be excellent and become experts in our fields in order to produce buildings that are safe and sustainable, appropriate and contextual. We should seek to understand the principles and tools of Sustainable Architecture, and their translation and applicability in developing countries.
Bridging the gap
In 2020, when I was designing the kindergarten building in Burundi, my foreman and other members of our construction team who are from the area approached me to tell me that the plan I was proposing did not take into account horizontal rains in the region that would cause rainwater to enter the classrooms. I had been living in the area for almost a year but was not aware of this climatic aspect. If my team hadn’t informed me, I would have produced a non-functional building during the rainy season.
As a solution they recommended that I change the orientation of the roof. This change would solve one problem but create others. I would have lost the advantage of bringing enough air and light in the classrooms but also other technical and aesthetic advantages. Instead, with the information given to me, we agreed to reduce the slope and lengthen the roof, and widen the sidewalk in front of the classrooms. This allowed us to have a building that responds to the climatic context of the region but also a building that exhibits many technical and architectural qualities. The result is a school that is dry, cool even on hot days, and well loved by the community.