It has been impossible to work on this project over the past two months without thinking about the catastrophic violence that has broken out in Kenya. We have watched in horror as the programs for which we had been designing, such as SIDAREC´s radio station, have suddenly become tragically indispensable to the people who live near Mukuru Kwa Njenga and relevant to people around the world. The violence in Kenya has made life increasingly difficult for the people whom we imagined might use this facility, while simultaneously undermining the idea of the very agency of a design proposal to help people. It is precisely because of how powerless we feel in our ability to affect change in this situation, that we have come to care enormously about the successful completion of this project.
When we began researching Mukuru Kwa Njenga, we were struck by densely people lived. Given the fundamental issue of ownership for many of the settlement’s residents, it seemed important to make the Resource Center a place over which the residents of Mukuru Kwa Njenga could feel a sense of pride and ownership. The challenge of the project lay in our ability to create a proposal that would evoke this sense of invitation but also be secure enough to protect its valuable infrastructure. In order to design an architecture that would be accessible to the community, it was essential that we utilize as many local resources as possible. As a direct result we decided to propose Compressed Earth Bricks (CEBs) as the construction system for the Resource Center. Numerous precedents exist demonstrating the use of the CEBs and the ready accessibility of the raw materials for their manufacture throughout Nairobi. The soil on the sight is that of high clay content making it a viable source for the manufacturing of CEBs. To provide additional strength to the bricks, volcanic ash can be sourced from the Great Rift Valley. Additionally, CEBs are significantly more ecologically efficient than typical fired bricks with five to fifteen times the energy savings and eight times less pollution during production.
Research has proven compressed earth bricks to be incredibly economical: including the initial cost of the presses and labor, they can be produced for twelve Kenyan shillings apiece. Furthermore, the manufacturing of the bricks would employ a local labor force, developing a new skill set and setting up the possibility for both short and longer-term growth within the local economy.
Another important aspect of CEBs is how much more efficiently they will perform in Mukuru Kwa Njenga compared to other typical building materials. Most materials currently being used have almost no thermal mass and consequently magnify the heat during the day and cold at night. The use of CEBs at the Resource Center can help set in place a new precedent for building technology throughout the settlement.
Finally, the use of CEBs easily ties itself into another issue we wanted to emphasize, water runoff. The hole created, as a result of harvesting of soil for the manufacturing of the bricks, can be strategically located so that it can be used as a water retention basin for the intense rainy season. Through some minor regarding of the existing site, the basin can be used to collect water runoff. The positioning of the roof structure over the larger building is such that it directs the water into the basin, whose contents can be used to cool the roof or purified for use within the Center itself. Additionally the use of pavers throughout the site helps to direct water flow and assist in the ground absorption process that is notoriously slow Nairobi.
In an effort to continue utilizing local materials, the decision was made to use corrugated metal for the secondary roof structure. The easy accessibility of the metal and commonplace use within local construction made it immediately appealing. Additionally, the ridges within the metal’s surface can be used to aid in the process of water control, directing rainwater on the roof towards the backside of the site, directly into the retention basin.
The roof structure also serves the purpose of creating a covered outdoor space. The oversized roof helps to define and activate the area outside of the buildings´ footprints, providing space for daily markets and community gatherings. Additionally it lends protection from the sun’s glare as well as rain.
When it came to organizing the programmatic elements of the Resource Center, we decided to split them amongst two buildings. The larger building serves as a more public center containing the library, computer training facility, and internet café. The smaller structure houses the radio station in its front while also containing the administrative offices, a small storage space, and childcare facility.
The buildings are oriented so that they create a path through the their center leading towards the playing fields and clinic at the north end of the site. Having this `street´ run through the center of the Resource Center helps create a sense of community within the site as so many activities, both inside and outside the building, layer and open up onto each other. The shape of the buildings defines the outdoor spaces of the Resource Center so they can likewise be used for a variety of functions including sports fields and public performances. While the smaller building contains more concretely defined spaces we felt that by contrast the spaces within the larger building should be very flexible. While each program has its own area within the building it was important to allow for the space to be readily adaptable in the case that a class or meeting is being held and a space needed to be closed off, or the entire facility be open to the public. This flexibility is accomplished through the use of sliding screens as opposed to fixed walls.
Finally, to make both buildings more accessible from outside the walls lining the interior courtyard are made of folding doors. The doors allow for the buildings to completely open up to each other, or close themselves off depending on the required use of the space and the weather. Letting the buildings be exposed to each other helps to accomplish the sense of openness and community that we felt the Resource Center would need while maintaining the flexibility necessary to ensure an essential protective element.