The business world is always talking about the importance of flexibility- can a business be agile and respond quickly to situations that arise? It is seen as one of the calling cards of a successful startup. But does flexibility play a part in humanitarian architecture?
As I have mentioned in other posts, I look at nonprofit work as a business. It's really the business of doing good, and because of this I see flexibility as one of the primary factors of success. There is never a sign that lets you know that an issue is around the bend and that you and your team should start preparing in advance. Instead things like failed fundraising efforts, locals who are less than thrilled with your design but don't tell you until the last minute, or suddenly finding out that the roof structure you came up with won't work, will suddenly throw a wrench in your plans making quick thinking and fast decisions crucial.
The general timeline for humanitarian architecture projects is as follows: research and community engagement, schematic design, design development, construction documentation, and then finally construction. The fundraising phase is also woven into the mix only adding to the complexity. With such a structured timeline how can flexibility play an important role? Community driven humanitarian projects must leave room for errors and unforeseen issues just like any architecture project, but they also must leave room for changes that need to happen during the construction phase. For the vast majority of humanitarian projects, the construction site is remote, there isn't consistent access to materials, skilled labor can be hard to find, money could run out, and community input can change the design at any point. All these variables require a large amount of flexibility.
A great example of the necessity of flexibility is seen in the work of Francis Kere. The architect from Burkina Faso has done a number of projects in his home nation despite having his architectural office in Germany. Although a large amount of planning is done in advance he never goes to the construction site with a finished set of drawings. He explains that so much of the decision making happens on site just before and during construction that he sees fully planning the building in advance as an unnecessary use of time. This level of adaptability would make any project manager cringe but it is a prerequisite for humanitarian projects.
As Design Cause gets ready to move into the construction phase of our first project we are very aware of the need for flexibility. Although we want to make sure certain elements of the design remain as intended we have an understanding that certain aspects will change. This isn't because we haven't done adequate research or planning, it's because we understand the nature of humanitarian projects and the mentality that goes along with it. At the end of the day this project is by the community and for the community, and in order to make both those things true there needs to be ingrained flexibility on the designers part. I feel as though we have a fuzzy image of the final product. We can see the general idea but understand that some of the details will change from our intended design. I can't wait to see how these details unfolding and what comes of our flexibility.
Adaptability and agile quick thinking are important parts of any business venture including very specific professions like architecture and engineering where every step is carefully premeditated. Humanitarian architecture, however, can't enjoy the same amount of careful planning.
Here are the top five reasons flexibility is a crucial component to the success of humanitarian architecture:
1. The remote regions that many humanitarian projects are located in commonly require inventive thinking and trial and error during the construction phase. This can be due to lack of construction equipment and/or skilled laborers among a host of other things.
2. Not having access to standard building materials or running out before the project is finished are common problems which often lead to ingenious solutions, thanks to the flexibility and ingenuity of designers.
3. Finding out mid-construction that an element of the design doesn't work with the climate or culture and needs to be changed. Sometimes there are things that you miss in the research and design phase that either a local points out or you realize during construction. These situations require fast pivoting and decision making to ensure that the project keeps moving forward.
4. Running out of money suddenly or before the project is finished. This is all too common in humanitarian work. That material that you really wanted to use was much more expensive that you thought, or unforeseen expenses kept popping up and now the project is running out of funding fast. These decisions can be some of the hardest but they need to be made and a flexible mentality is key.
5. The community wants something changed. With a community centered project this could change everything in a matter of minutes. The community is your client and, although there are times to introduce new things and educate, your first priority as a designer is to provide them what they need. If an important community member has a problem with the structure you better have the flexibility to scramble together a plan B.
In many ways humanitarian architecture is a very special beast. The need for flexibility only adds to the puzzle, but it is an important part of making these structures inspiring and beautiful.