“It´s a pity to see those “concrete boxes” being build…why??? You got a unique chance of building from scratch and could do it in a modern and green way…but most houses I see in the new Africa (and in other places) look like that! A real pity and waste of opportunities to me…” Receiving some […]

“It´s a pity to see those “concrete boxes” being build…why??? You got a unique chance of building from scratch and could do it in a modern and green way…but most houses I see in the new Africa (and in other places) look like that! A real pity and waste of opportunities to me…”

Receiving some interest after posting the above comment on Facebook, and having lived and traveled in Africa myself, I decided to write an article on the importance of community development through holistic, sustainable design, further explaining details that were behind my comment. Design is one of the most powerful tools to address 21st century challenges and will become even more important within the next few decades. The main motivation for me to write this article is to encourage people to rethink how we currently design and implement new developments, and what can be done to change those existing ways for the better. The question is: Can we handle creating more brand new slums, which we do at the moment, or shall we rather go for new, individual and creative solutions to address our 21st century challenges?

For starters, I would like to clarify one thing up front. There are examples of good design and housing developments out there and I´m not here to make it all seem bad, so please don’t get me wrong. What I’m offering is a chance to open your eyes and to point out the opportunities before you go down a certain path. I would like to suggest the unique chance any person from the (developing) world has in creating a forward-looking society by building local, sustainable and modern communities. 

Currently so many housing developments leave out a lot of potential for people, future users, the environment, surroundings and especially the community and society. Sure, those “modern concrete boxes” are an improvement in most place to the current situation, but are rarely designed after the needs and demands of the people or their surroundings. Rather than involving local people and future users into the design and building process, most projects are built in a similar way, inspired by western media and their building industry. No proper design research is done prior to construction, nor do projects have a long-term vision.

Photo courtesy of Global Properties

That, by the way, is not just a developing world, but an international problem. It is just one of those typical things which at one point was introduced, spread out and then established itself. Now, we rarely think about why we are still practicing these ways; it has become the ‘rule’ or even the ‘standard’ of housing.

The good news is awareness of this issue has been on the increase in recent years. Still, there has not been enough action. If we continue building this way, rather than creating adapted, individual and sustainable solutions, we will face the same future problems we currently see in Western societies if not worse.  That is why the entire world is looking for new solutions and ideas, as we simply cannot continue building the way we used to. We have to stop the horrible trend of standard designed buildings, ready to move in, built and designed to get the most profit out of the project and building site. Instead, we have to start designing and building houses with people for people rather than for profit.

Wouldn´t it be better to actually find the future users first and to develop buildings together? Building which are suited to their individual needs and adapted to their climate and surroundings? And wouldn´t it be wiser to use local materials and also involve local people in the design and building process to create skills and achieve their own identity?

So why don´t we already build this way? Because it is more expensive?! No, good design is not a question of money at all. Why would you pay a fair amount of money to have a catalogue home, not properly adapted to climate and surroundings, when you could build yourself a home designed after your needs with locally available materials and adapted to the climate? It is not a question of money. It is a matter of profit for the people building and developing, but should be about understanding how much positive impact an individual designed home has on your daily life compared to a catalogue house.

If you understand that fact, you also understand the bigger picture and the importance of community development through architecture and design especially in developing countries. Due to facts like population growth and urbanization, community development is one of the biggest challenges of our time – worldwide. By 2050 around 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. At the same time 25% of the world’s population will live in slums. The question is, are we ready for that?  I think the better way is to innovate and rethink our current way of doing things, which is creating “brand new slums” at the moment, and instead create better communities around the world designed after people´s needs and encourage one another to find creative solutions.

Unlike the Western world, developing countries don’t have the clutter of established old structures and buildings creating environmental and community problems. Rather, growing nations instead have the unique chance of developing their communities almost from scratch. With that, you have two choices: You can either continue building the way it is currently done, knowing about the future problems and issues or you can involve people in the design and building process and try a new, more individual approach, creating modern, forward looking communities.

Can you imagine the impact from building the first carbon neutral, modern designed town, region or country on your continent? Not only would you set yourself and your people up for the future, you would most likely become an example for other regions and countries around the world. That is a very unique opportunity to build your own identity and a better tomorrow. What do you have to lose from trying a new way of designing? Nothing – that’s right, so why not start today.

Published in The Capitol (Ethiopia) and Whatson Gambia in 2013.

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