Veronica Simpson on community design projects

Every so often architects and designers put caution – and fees – aside and tackle a project for the sheer love of seeing good design being put to the best possible use. Veronica Simpson looks at some inspired projects making a real difference


There are few enough opportunities for creative professionals to do what they really want to do. Too often projects end up being horribly compromised by budget constraints, client vision or the contractors' stranglehold on the brief/bottom lines. But when times are tough and multi million-pound schemes are thin on the ground, it's probably more important than ever to re-engage with the idealism that often gets designers and architects engaged with their professions in the first place - the belief that when good design is put into practice, it can make a huge difference to people's lives.

In 2012 Cameron Sinclair, the founder of Architecture for Humanity, published a Valentine's Day plea for a widespread re-engagement with that kind of inspiration: 'A true professional knows when they have done a great job and continues to push themselves to new levels of achievement. On the rare occasion we get to be a part of a building that stirs desire and wonderment in the hearts and minds of our fellow man. That is the essence of the architect.'

Sinclair's Architecture for Humanity sets an inspiring example. Established by this London-born but now USA-based architect 13 years ago, it now harnesses the enthusiasms of an estimated 40,000 architects, students, engineers, designers and builders around the world in creating community buildings for around 100,000 people a year.

When art meets heart

Then there's Architecture Sans Frontieres and its associate Australian offshoot Architecture Without Frontiers, which harnesses the volunteered time, energy and skills of its many member designers, architects and engineers to scope out, raise funding for and ultimately build a huge array of vital structures, from a hospital in a remote region of Papua New Guinea to a nursery and primary school in the slums of Ahmadebad, India.

Indeed, scratch below the surface of the creative sector's glossy commercial veneer and innumerable projects emerge that witness designers and architects expressing their humanitarian and creative instincts, for the betterment of underprivileged or simply under-resourced communities.

Feilden Clegg Bradley (FCB) has probably done more than most of this kind of work over the past two decades. Its humanitarian architecture projects include creating an orphanage in Chennai, India out of bamboo; completing a school from mud bricks and eucalyptus poles in a remote part in the south of Uganda, not to overlook building a home for Aids orphans in South Africa, a community sports facility in Ethiopia and a youth health and social centre in the Yemen.

You could say this sort of outreach work is embedded in its DNA. Founding partner - now sadly deceased - Richard Feilden grew up in Africa with his missionary parents; his wife Tish Feilden, an educational psychotherapist, was also born in Africa. They kicked off the initiative to try to bring simple, effective and sustainable school and community buildings to remote parts of Africa, and since 2005 the Richard Feilden Foundation has carried on the good work in his memory, utilising minimal budgets and maximum resourcefulness, along with partner firms such as Buro Happold.

The benefits of all this good work are far from one-sided. With the practice's commitment to sustainable, low-impact and traditional construction techniques, these forays into the bush are a fantastic opportunity for FCB's staff to innovate and experiment - necessity (or lack of power tools, screws and hardware stores) being the mother of invention.

When art meets heart

Trips to Uganda or Yemen are also little short of inspirational for FCB's junior staff. Founding partner Peter Clegg says: 'We employ people to work for four years on door details, just fixed into their CAD programmes. It's not a great education. But this gives them an opportunity to go out there and exercise some social development skills and thinking on their feet. It's a terrific experience for young architects and engineers. It also allows you to exercise different mind skills. There's the whole corporate social responsibility (CSR) issue and where you focus your energies, because it's something we felt we wanted to establish ourselves in.'

There is a great deal of satisfaction, too, says Clegg, in being able to do a lot with such a little, while operating within totally different parameters. He says: 'The Foundation runs on a miniscule budget - £30K-£40K a year. Once every year or so we get to build something. The Bunyonyi school building cost £25,000. If you think that Worcester Library (£35m) took five or six years and you go through agonies designing it...we can go to Uganda and build a school in six weeks.'

These projects are also rich with opportunities for skills transference. For example, every project FCB has constructed at Bunyonyi has been done in conjunction with either pupils - some of whom are learning bricklaying and concrete practice (BCP) as a vocational course - and local people, one of whom has become so expert at these kinds of low-cost, sustainable projects that he's launched his own building firm, working across Uganda. FCB and its engineer partners have sponsored students to study BCP, prioritising orphaned children. FCB has also set up reciprocal knowledge-sharing links with the Royal Agricultural College, as well as a knowledge share with the science department of a secondary school in Bristol, where pupils are learning how to create their own wind turbines.

When art meets heart

Architype is another UK practice with a strong commitment to social sustainability - particularly self-build. One of its founding partners, Jon Broome, had worked with self-build guru Walter Segal and that spirit has permeated the practice, says director Bob Hayes, since its inception 28 years ago. Then the self-build movement was booming, with various housing associations and co-ops facilitating sites, time and budgets for eager self-builders, in the name of community spirit and empowerment. Says Hayes: 'It's amazingly satisfying working with people who have no building skills and see them progress. So often people who tried self-build went on to careers in construction.' The practice still works with housing co-ops and assists self-build initiatives, though that movement has 'dried up', says Hayes, 'since housing associations became run by accountants'.

As a practice, however, it gained a great deal. Says Hayes: 'What it taught us is to keep things simple. The building process is a logical one. What's happened in recent years is that architects have forgotten that basic principle and complicated things. Buildability is important and working with self-builders teaches you that.' That understanding of how to demystify and communicate the building process has also stood them in good stead in working with schools, communities and public sector organisations.

Unsurprisingly, given the state of world economies, social responsibility is very much part of the current cultural zeitgeist. Perhaps inspired by the buzz around Eindhoven student Massoud Hasani's Mine Kafon, a wind-powered land-mine clearance device that debuted at the 2011 Milan Furniture Fair, the Canada-based International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid) announced in February 2012 the inaugural World Design Impact Prize. Kenyan-based Planning System Services was declared the prize winner, for its 'Community Cooker' project in Nairobi (see case study), a way of recycling waste to create fuel and heat for low-income families to cook with.

Its creator Jim Archer has been incubating this project for more than 10 years, in response to the ever-increasing mountains of rubbish that litter the streets of East Africa. He says: 'I thought if I could find a commercial use for the rubbish then maybe people would be encouraged to pick it up, take it away and use it.' And the idea of using it to create heat for cooking was a way of tackling the shortage of cooking fuel.

When art meets heart

His community cooker burns the rubbish at 800C to eliminate any toxic fumes so the firebox has to be incredibly well made and secure. The rest of the equipment is very straightforward. Says Archer: 'I knew when I was designing it that it had to be incredibly simple to build, to operate and to maintain because otherwise it would be left just like the other rusting heaps of junk.

'Our aim is to have a firebox manufacturing centre. Then people can buy them and take them back to wherever they need a community cooker.' Another community cooker has been set up, with six more nearly ready and another 30 in the pipeline.

But it's not just the developing world that needs investment in spaces and opportunities for community engagement and enhancement. A new, low-cost community theatre can substantially boost the local economy and cultural life of a tough inner city area (see Yard Theatre case study, left), and a new, no-cost house can help sustain and support communities trying to live more sustainably, such as the 'rocket house', created by architect Oliver Lowrie (see case study) with the help of friends, some skip-diving and £100.

And then every now and again, a client comes along with a dream commission to create a socially sustainable scheme on a major scale, with proper budgets. Such a commission materialised after Professor Alan Dilani, founder of the Swiss-based International Academy for Design and Health, convinced South Africa's health ministers that, in upgrading the country's health infrastructure, it needed to take a radical approach and design health centres that actually work to prevent ill-health rather than simply cure sickness. An international competition to design a 'health promoting lifestyle centre', which could subsequently be extended across sub-Saharan Africa, resulted in a win for Canadian practice Farrow Partnership Architects teamed with American practice Clark Nexsen and South Africa's Ngonyama Okpanum & Associates (see case study).

When the right project, conditions and spirit prevail, the benefits can be enormous. On the smaller, individual scale, it can also provide a precious burst of renewed focus and excitement, as it has for Jim Archer, who admits that, 'the community cooker is the thing that really gets me up in the morning'

Lake Bunyonyi Community School amphitheatre, Uganda

When art meets heart

With the help of students, local craftsmen and builders, volunteer teams have built a dining hall, kitchen block, carpentry shed and site/store office, latrine blocks, washrooms, and some retaining walls to stop the schlake. Landscaping, drainage and dustbin installation has further improved the environment. But the big event of 2011 was the creation of an amphitheatre to hold the ever-expanding school population during lesson times, assemblies and celebrations. With no electricity, power tools or screws, a design incorporating a reciprocal timber frame was selected. Twelve enormous eucalyptus tree trunks formed the structure of the roof surrounding the open-air amphitheatre. Stripped, cut to length, jointed and fitted, the poles essentially rest on each other, locking the frame into place. According to director Peter Clegg, master carpenter Charlie Brentnall - who accompanied the team from Bristol - 'claims he's never encountered a building so rigid'. Clegg says: 'I'm pretty sure it's the only reciprocal roof structure in the whole of Uganda and probably the whole of Africa. Every column and rafter, some weighing 750kg, were hauled up the hill by 20-30 teenage building students.

When art meets heart

Client: Lake Bunyonyi Community School
Architect: Feilden Clegg Bradley (for the Richard Feilden Foundation)
Engineer: Buro Happold
Cost: £25,000

Protea Health Promotion Centre

Designed to improve health, rather than simply treat sickness, the Protea is an exemplar for South Africa's ambitious new range of primary healthcare centres. Following an international design competition, its creators are now embarking on the first scheme, with roll-out planned across sub-Saharan Africa.

The competition was to design a 'health promoting' (salutogenic) community resource that should inspire use through its welcoming design and facilities.

When art meets heart

South Africa's national flower, the protea, inspired the form of the building, serving as a metaphor for hope, healing and renewal. Its cupped petals are replicated in the translucent roof structure over a central gathering and waiting space, off which spins a variety of single-storey pavilions for health clinics, offices, education rooms, workshops, retail outlets, library and theatre spaces, plus areas for worship and meditation. These peel away from the centre like flower petals providing tranquil garden and seating spaces between each 'leaf', with verandas along each side offering shade from the sun. Clear sightlines are offered through the pavilions to the central space and across the campus, maximising legibility. Daylight and natural ventilation flood in from stepped roof sections and through opening windows. Photovoltaics and solar panels provide power, supplemented with solar composting and rainwater collection. Under-floor air circulation feeds passive-air movement through roof vents.

The buildings will be constructed from prefabricated structural steel, crafted timber, molded reinforced concrete panels and translucent fabric membrane roofing material - all of which use construction techniques well established in South Africa. The building design is scalable and flexible, according to location.

Educational and vocational training programmes and cultural activities will reinforce usage of the centre, improving prospects and empowerment for local users, while the placement of health services at its heart promotes health is a priority.

Client: Ministry of Health, South Africa
Architects: Farrow Partnership, Clark Nexsen and Ngonyama Okpanum & Associates
Area: estimated 1,608 sq m)
Cost: estimated £1.8m
Schedule: Ongoing

Community Cooker project, Nairobi

Community Cooker project, Nairobi

With sustainability written into every aspect of this project, the Community Cooker is a worthy winner of the World Design Impact Prize, newly minted in 2012 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid). The brainchild of Nairobi-born architect Jim Archer, chairman of Planning Systems Services, it deals with the profusion of waste in this part of Africa, while reducing deforestation and ground water pollution, and providing an energy source for cooking in a way that also brings a community together.

Archer and his team set up a prototype community oven in Kiberia, one of the largest slums in Nairobi. It uses a combustion oven to convert all manner of waste into fuel. Local people are encouraged to gather up waste from the surrounding neighbourhoods and donate it for fuel in return for cooking time. Already the area around the community cooker has far less rubbish clogging up the gutters, which means a reduction in pollution of the nearby river. And the cookers are also used to boil and distill water for the community, helping to improve health. What's more, Archer estimates that burning rubbish could save around 2,400 mature trees from being destroyed to make charcoal.

Rocket House - Grow Heathrow

Rocket House - Grow Heathrow

In March 2010 collective action group Transition Heathrow claimed an abandoned market garden site in Sipson, near Heathrow, one of the villages intended for demolition should the airport's proposed third runway go ahead. Around 30 tonnes of rubbish were cleared from the site. In the two years of occupation, the group has turned the site into a community garden, now named Grow Heathrow, and become the test bed for some ingenious low-cost housing.

Rocket House - Grow Heathrow

Oliver Lowrie, an architect at social and community architecture practice Architype, has spent his spare time helping some of the group design a house from scavenged materials. The building was designed around the dimensions of scaffolding planks, a material readily available from a neighbouring builder's yard. The structure is made up of three 3m x 3m portal frames, braced by a skin of 4m-long boards that effectively become the cladding. Large double-glazed window units were salvaged from a skip. Water tightness is ensured by a polythene advertising hoarding draped over the roof and nailed to the inside of the timber skin walls. Roof and floor voids were filled with straw from a nearby farm, while the walls were insulated with Rockwool, then lined with bedsheets to create a soft, duvetlike interior. A raised bed was erected from steel scaffold poles to maximise usable floor area. The only project costs were for 24 bolts, 400 screws and two rolls of Rockwool. The entire building was erected in a weekend by 10 friends, and is a demonstration of the power of self-build, recycling and cooperation. It's called Rocket House because it is heated by a 'rocket' stove, a home-made burner that emits minimal fumes.

Rocket House - Grow Heathrow

Client: Rob Logan
Architect: Oliver Lowrie
Size: 129 sq ft
Cost: Approx £100
Completed: 2012

The Yard Theatre - Hackney

The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick was conceived by theatre director Jay Miller as a collective and accessible space for young directors to develop and show new and challenging work in East London. Miller invited his friends from Practice Architecture - Paloma Gormley and Lettice Drake - to create it on a minimal budget, using materials salvaged from the nearby Olympic site - primarily scaffolding planks, lino, pink plasterboard and polyurethane foam. It has been designed for maximum flexibility, allowing for evolutionary amendments and additions.

The Yard Theatre - Hackney

Constructed within an existing warehouse, the theatre is arranged as an auditorium, with balconies that extend along the outer walls enclosing the space. The 120-seat, steeply raked ramp becomes a dividing wall between the theatre space and its bar, to the rear, with the projecting underside of the ramp creating natural alcoving and shelter in the bar area. This wall acts as an acoustic and fire barrier between theatre and bar. Material finishes are left raw.

In tune with its collective and accessible ethos, all rehearsals are public and tickets are priced at just over £5. Artists are on a profit-share scheme, and also double up as bar and box office staff, along with local volunteers. After its launch in 2011 director Miller hoped that it would hang around longer than that summer. It's still there!

Client: Jay Miller
Architect: Practice Architecture
Cost: £11,000
Completed: July 2011
Engineer: Greg Tyldesley
Theatre design adviser: Chris Daniel

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