Bridging the gaps in the practice of architecture in remote parts of Africa (Part 3)

Accessing high quality building products and fabrication services

The first two articles in this series focused on the challenges associated with knowledge gaps related to design and construction in remote parts of the Great Lakes Region of Africa. Another gap to address is the lack of access to high quality products and fabrication services needed to complete a building. Windows, doors, lamps and furniture are essential to any space but procurement of these products is not always straightforward.

In remote areas, such products are made by local welders and carpenters, but their quality is not necessarily satisfactory. Lack of training, lack of machinery and lack of suitable workspace among other factors limit the quality of the final outcome. The alternative is importing higher quality products, but this solution is never very cost effective. In my experience procurement difficulties are the most challenging to solve for a construction manager or contractor in the region.

However, high quality fabrication is possible when the creativity and talent of local craftsmen is leveraged and combined with opportunities for innovation. Working with talented and dedicated construction teams in Burundi and DRC has helped me appreciate what they can produce.

For example, Desiré is a welder in Burundi. He spends 5 days a week away from his family to live near the Kibuye Hope Hospital construction site. He is a talented and hardworking man who now leads a team of 7 other welders.

As soon as I got to know Desiré, I discovered that he is an excellent welder who loves precision and pays attention to detail. I noticed that he likes new challenges and enjoys solving problems but feels frustrated by routine. He is always eager to learn and sets high standards for himself. See examples below of products he created based on my drawings.

While procuring quality products was one of my greatest challenges as construction manager, with Desiré it became a great adventure. We had fun creating our own products for hospital, school and residential projects. After sharing with him a good design, Desire took care of the rest and made it a reality.

Working with Desiré and other innovative craftsmen like him has taught me that it is possible to create high quality building products in remote areas. But it takes work and intentionality to get there.

So practically how do we bridge this gap of accessing and creating high quality products?

1. Identify and develop local skills and talents

I have learned to collaborate with members of my construction team by inviting them to solve problems and make decisions together. I consider them as partners and not just as beneficiaries of my services or executors of my orders. Solving problems together gives the opportunity for talent to manifest. And when the talent is discovered, I try to expand the range of what can be created by setting high expectations. I am always surprised at how much talent is found locally.

2. Encourage innovation

In my experience, construction teams in remote areas tend to think that there is only one way to solve a problem, and that a particular solution is applicable in all circumstances. This mentality limits the imagination and creates resistance to any approach that differs from familiar ones. I am learning to address this challenge with my teams so that we can have the freedom to try new things. I do this by developing a relationship of trust, showing precedents from other contexts, explaining the reasons for new solutions and when needed, pushing for implementation of a new idea. Changing this attitude opens the door to innovation in the way we face challenges encountered in the region.

3. Communicate well

Construction crew members in this region generally do not have the training to read and understand technical language and drawings. This leads to poor communication which can have serious consequences in the execution of projects. To overcome this challenge I translate my drawings to a language they are used to. For exemple, I prepare easy-to-read 3D drawings with annotations for the team instead of two-dimensional technical drawings. This allows the welder or the carpenter to understand and clearly visualize the design. The fact that they fully comprehend my intentions allows them to use their imaginations, anticipate the challenges they will face during execution and find solutions or suggest changes to the design. They become part of the process.

4. Monitor the process

Due to the lack of references of other high quality work, it is difficult for a local mason, painter, welder or carpenter to produce excellent results and finishing. But regular supervision during the fabrication process gives an opportunity to teach attention to detail and to offer constructive feedback. Regular quality control allows craftsmen to understand expectations for their work.

5. Increase the value of the local

Both locals and outsiders commonly believe that nothing produced locally is sustainable or beautiful. This attitude prevents us from appreciating resources and materials that are available. I have worked toward changing this mentality by adding value to local materials and using them in innovative ways.

This screen wall is made of clay pots produced by Twa women, who belong to the most marginalized community in Burundi. These women did not understand why I wanted to buy 130 clay pots from them because these are normally used for household functions in poor homes. The idea also seemed very absurd to my construction team at first. But after adding polish and incorporating them in a green wall, they had a sense of pride to see Burundian handmade art celebrated and become a part of a modern home.

Twa women delivering clay pots to the construction site

This stone wall is built with red stones sourced from the Gitega region of Burundi. In this rural environment, stones are generally used in foundations and very rarely in elevation walls of a building. Red stones are not very useful for foundation work because of their shape. But we decided to use them not only for exterior accent walls but also as a feature wall in the living rooms of a multi unit residential building. After the walls were in place, we further experimented by grinding and polishing the exposed stone to reveal its beauty.

Collaboration between design professionals and local craftsmen generates creative solutions to the challenges of procurement and fabrication of building products in remote areas. The local craftsmen are exposed to new techniques and high standards, and the design professional gains local knowledge and the opportunity to develop the construction industry in the region.

6 Replies to “Bridging the gaps in the practice of architecture in remote parts of Africa (Part 3)”

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