Just received notice that my paper for the International Conference on Sustainable Design, Engineering and Construction, “Expression and evidence, advances in architecture studio pedagogy,” was accepted for presentation and eventual publication through Elsevier/Science Direct. The paper is another partial chapter toward my book project developing a design studio pedagogy to address resource conservation and enhance quality of life of building users.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me… – Psalm 23:1-4
In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of – Confucius
I had the wonderful, and simultaneously heartbreaking, opportunity to visit the Mathare Valley in Nairobi, Kenya last week. Mathare Valley is an extremely large and violent slum, an unfortunate result of political, military, social and economic forces that combine to form a place of need and want unlike any other. Officially, 600,000 people live in three square miles of 6’x6′, sometimes 6’x8′, corrugated sheet metal shanties. Fires, violence, and hopelessness are common daily experiences. It is a pitiful place that no one should have to live in.
Yet people do live there. I met a woman who has lived there seventeen years. She is a widow with nine children including one who has blessed her with three grandchildren. This multi-generational family lives in one of the larger shanties, thankfully. The youngest sleep on the dirt floor at night. The conditions for living in Mathare valley are unimaginable to a first-worlder. While the wiki site for Mathare valley is thin on the details, the wiki site for Kibera, a sister slum in Nairobi, contains statistics that are similar to Mathare, including how it came to be in the first place and why it will likely never cease. Sometimes when people experience something like this, a singular experience, something spiritually charged and life changing, they call it a mountaintop experience. My experience was rather that of an infinitely deep chasm.
My purposes in traveling to the Valley are somewhat convoluted. A faith-based non-governmental organization (NGO) located in the Chicago area connected with local architects and engineers seeking design and construction assistance for a new school facility. Through a network of associates and friends of friends, I was invited to be a member of this Mathare Valley dream team because of my faith connection and experience designing educational facilities. A group of six of us, three design professionals and three NGO staff, traveled to Nairobi intending to meet the people working on the ground, establish personal relationships, and to conduct a bit of educational operations assessment, facility reconnaissance and forensics. Assistance in the design of a new facility was the lead ask by the NGO, but we expected an assessment of existing conditions might yield some additional questions and potential outcomes. I speak to some of these later in this preliminary post.
The NGO works alongside a local church/outreach program in the Valley. The church provides for the community in the Valley through its own resources and generous global food and services organizations including World Food Program, Samaritan’s Purse, Bright Hope, and others. The church provides food to children and community members, spiritual development to the community, and educational programs from babycare (their version of Western daycare/preschool) through secondary school.
The church runs four primary schools and a secondary school as part of their holistic outreach programs to serve the people of the Valley. The matriarch of the church explained to us that she began teaching the children in small educational settings, but found they were so hungry that they could not pay attention to her lessons. Thus began their children’s feeding program, porridge for breakfast, and boiled maize and beans for lunch, with some occasional variations, to strengthen malnourished children toward the goals of spiritual development and primary/secondary education. The ministry runs an orphanage as well, but I can’t talk about all of the tangential threads of the amazing impact of these caregivers. I will address some preliminary observations of existing conditions in the schools themselves.
The prototypical classrooms we observed were approximately 18′ wide and 24′ deep, sometimes oriented the other way. In the US, we would call this less than half a classroom, a room that would house perhaps twelve students and one teacher (though teachers and parents would argue this to be completely inadequate, as would the US Department of Education). In this very small space between forty and sixty students are housed with a single teacher, sometimes aided by a parent or other volunteer. Since the student populations thin as you get closer to the secondary levels, these classrooms become ironically, though perilously, more spacious (i.e. less upper level students remain in school which results in smaller numbers of students per class and per teacher).
The school we are charged with replacing is a well-intended, deeply bathed in love and care and devotion, exquisite corpse, a shanty added to shanty until eventually a whole school, babycare through Form 4 (the US version of 12th grade), emerged. I cannot say enough about the heart of those who realized these schools. They did so with nothing and they are educating children who have nothing. What motivates this love? The glimmer of hope in the midst of absolute hopelessness? One third of these children will likely die from AIDS. Some will die from too much of the toxic local brew, changaa. Most will experience and/or witness violence in various forms.
The school is a private school in the Valley, one of many faith-based outreach private schools. The government operates four schools for the community of 600,000. The supplemental private schools are the only hope of modest formal education for the vast majority of the people of the Valley. Education is not compulsory in Nairobi, many children do not attend any school at all. Since police do not enter the Valley, enforcing education wouldn’t be possible anyway. Private schools are expensive for parents in the Valley. Humanitarian aid from the outside is the only way education happens in the Valley at all.
Below are some images and descriptions of the current conditions of the school we are replacing. The funding for the school will likely come from US philanthropic efforts. While the conditions do not inspire, there is nonetheless inspirational work happening in this and other schools in the Valley. Children graduate from these schools and go on to technical programs and the universities. We met a former Mathare Valley resident who lives and works in Wisconsin on the flight home to O’hare! There is always hope, no matter how seemingly deep the valley.
This preliminary snap-shot of our recon visit will be followed up later this fall with an account of our programming process which is now underway. The dream team is eagerly considering the existing conditions, context, suitability, and potential of a new school in this environment. If, after reading this very long initial account, you know of successful case studies that lean toward resilient solutions that you could point us toward, we would be very grateful. We do not presume to be the only dreamers. Please contact me directly.
Life begins on the other side of despair – Jean Paul Sartre (wherever truth may be found, it belongs to the Lord – Augustine)
The office I consult with, Serena Sturm Architects in Chicago, has recently completed two solar responsive residential projects, one in MT and the other in NY. My role in these projects has been design architect and net zero energy strategist. The MT project features a nicely designed solar hallway that serves as a solar energy collector during the cold months and is properly shaded in the summer months to avoid unwanted gains. This net zero energy home is going to be monitored for energy consumption over the next several years. A photo of the solar hallway details is included here.
The house in NY is remarkable in that it is also a net zero energy home and due to its orientation challenges. Occupying a site that is 45 degrees off of normal and sloping toward a major lake, the building was rotated 45 degrees to allow for exposure to the cardinal directions. This allowed the south sloping roofs to be designed with unisolar infill panels between the standing seams of the roofing material for a seamless BIPV approach. We expect this house to perform well and achieve net neutrality even though it is three stories, and also is being monitored for energy consumption.
Students from my fall semester Case Studies in Sustainable Design seminar have placed in an international design competition. The winning design blends aesthetic goals with building performance goals. Exploiting aspects of local contemporary design while at the same time addressing the impact of buildings on climate change, the team of five students worked collaboratively to design a beautiful urban infill solution and reach performance goals below 15 EUI for market rate and affordable housing. The press release can be found here: http://www.architectureatzero.com/2014-winners/
I’m working on a paper that has been accepted for presentation at the International Conference on Sustainable Design, Engineering and Construction in Chicago in 2015. The paper is titled “Substantial Energy Use Reduction Strategies For Buildings In Continental Climates.” It explores the problems associated with meeting the AIA 2030 Commitment goals of energy use reduction in the built environment and articulates evidence-based design strategies to close the gap.
I had the privilege of lecturing on my design and building experience at a University in Madrid this past fall semester. The subject of the lecture, presented to an eager audience of about 40 masters students and 10 faculty at UCJC, was the use of passive design strategies in the construction of academic buildings. Strategies I continue to explore in k-12 and higher ed applications include passive solar, daylighting, and natural ventilation. These are almost always hybridized with mechanical systems, especially in Midwest USA applications where both heating and cooling are expected of owners. The approaches almost always require “training” of building users, and the nature of the training usually is in response to a cultural expectation and attitude of building automation (automated comfort controls, lighting controls, etc.). What I have found is that the passive building approach, one that has any hope whatsoever of really reducing energy usage and utility costs, requires an intentional effort on the part of the building owner and users. Often, it is the building user, more than the systems, that require the most care. In this way, future architectural practice will most certainly include the education of the owner and user groups to optimize the effectiveness of any comfort control system, passive or active. I dismiss the notion that we can somehow design low energy or high performance buildings without changing our cultural expectations. This flies in the face of conventional approaches that seek to solve technological problems with more technology, but nevertheless it is true. Low energy is directly related to “low tech/smart design” in my observation. The link to the newsclip, in Spanish, is here.
The January 2014 issue of Architecture Record carried a continuing education article that included the recently completed St. Francis High School project by Serena Sturm Architects. More information about the article can be found by clicking here .