In the province of South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, a list of over 270 communities hangs above my desk: Mubondwe, Bulinzi, Karhwa...Each project is labeled school, health center, market, road, or water and includes a status: in process, contract, construction, or complete. My office is one of five that makes up the largest community-level reconstruction effort in Africa–we have completed well over 1,500 projects to date. After joining the team in January of this year, we began a second phase of the program to complete 1,200 projects by June 2014. Since my arrival, we have broken ground on 50 new projects in South Kivu alone.

After several years working in the States, I grew tired of creating spaces that were simply beautiful. I started to feel the urge to design buildings that would improve lives not only because they were attractive, but also because they were essential. I now do this with my team, which consists of one engineer, five technical supervisors, and 30 technicians, all employed by the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

As the construction coordinator in South Kivu, I am part of this massive effort which spans five regions of the eastern Congo. Tuungane, as the program is called, means “let’s unite” in Kiswahili. It is the IRC’s largest “good governance” project, which emphasizes community-based decision-making, development, and cohesion among regions, ethnicities, and government offices.

From the perspective of an architect, this approach is appropriate because it puts decisions directly into the hands of the communities.

Typically, a well-meaning donor to Africa does a diligent study that determines the need for “x” amount of development. After returning home, a design is produced and funds are raised. Local labor is then hired, money is wired in installments, and construction is monitored. Such methods fit well into a donor-beneficiary relationship.

Within Tuungane, however, each community becomes a client and designs are tailored to the community’s requests. Local elected community members are consulted on design decisions and are free to define the scope of their project. Upon the client’s selection of a development priority, my office begins with a feasibility study. We assess site access and available building materials; we then produce an existing site plan. In later meetings with local residents, we discuss their budgets. My team presents design options that fit within government construction standards (plus a few standards of our own), which then spark discussions over cost-benefit analysis. In the case of schools, for example, I explain that the client can build four classrooms of poor quality or one classroom that will last long into the future. Typically, with community contributions of building materials and labor, a middle ground is chosen that brings the scope of work to two or three classrooms. An RFP is then released via posters and the local radio. We later assist the village with contractor selection, hold meetings to explain and review contractual language, and monitor construction with bi-weekly visits from our technicians. So far, projects are generally made of reinforced concrete with masonry infill or a wood frame. Local entrepreneurs hire local laborers for construction.

With so many communities and projects, an efficient mass-production strategy is essential. In response, I have been teaching AutoCAD to my team, and I’ve prepared sets of drawings that can be easily tailored to each village’s preferences. We also have efficient estimator tools that allow us to create a complete construction set and a bill of quantities within one day.

Within this large machine, I have insisted on creating design variations. I have inverted roofs to consolidate water catchment, and introduced the “liter of light” detail in which recycled plastic bottles are turned into skylights. With each variation, however, I must seek client approval. A handful of my suggestions have been accepted. Many more have been rejected. I learned, for instance, that introducing bamboo and banana leaves for interior finishing is often regarded as “not modern” and is quickly dismissed. To find guidance, I tap local artists to be involved in the design process, and I have found that their contributions can be just as valuable as mine. In the village of Minova, I have been working with a local painter named Innocent. Our goal is to turn a large water system we are working on into a functional piece of public art. Using local labor is one thing, but incorporating local creativity can add to project ownership, community pride, and true contextual beauty.

For any architect in the West who wants to work in Africa, I would simply say, “Go for it.” The best way to get started is by volunteering and by learning from colleagues and locals alike. One must consider not only the quality of design and construction, but also the manner in which a project is delivered, the relationships that are forged, and the knowledge and opinions that are exchanged between both the architect and the client. It is only with such respect that your work will make a difference.