(Summer 2014) Claudia Bode, G
Claudia Bode (G, Architecture)
Claudia traveled to the region of Mbeya, in Western Tanzania, in order to kick off the construction of a permanent home for 40 vulnerable children (the “Zion Home”) that she designed over the course of several months preceding the trip. The Zion Home is one of many programs run by The Olive Branch for Children, a small grassroots nonprofit organization that cares for the health and well-being of hundreds of low-income people in the rural region around Mbeya. Over the course of the four-week trip, Claudia advanced and adjusted many aspects of the design in conjunction with other volunteers and the director of the Olive Branch, researched local construction techniques, sourced materials, and worked with the organization in order to help them outline their larger vision and master plan.
Blog 7:Reflections on Tanzania
I’m writing this from the comfort of my desk back at MIT and with a bit of perspective on the trip to Tanzania.
One thing this trip was not was easy – this was, of course, partially due to the unfortunate theft of all of our equipment – but we also found it sometimes quite hard to adjust to different work expectations. This boils down to the fact that, at MIT, my lack of productivity is almost always my own fault. I’m on facebook too much, or I’m otherwise not focused, or I’m just not using my time efficiently. But in Tanzania, we had to adjust to the reality of life without the right software, with spotty internet, with iffy electricity, with no quiet workspace, and with working cultures that are sometimes much slower than fast-paced Boston. So, even when we tried our absolute hardest to get things done, it was sometimes just not possible. And this, for hardworking MIT graduate students, is a hard pill to swallow.
But the fact is that experiencing Tanzania firsthand, with all of its beautiful, diverse people, is the kind of experience that is worth a bit of inefficiency. Our Sukuma weaving trip, for instance, was not even really “directly” connected to the process of planning the Zion Home – but it was incredibly educational and gave us many ideas for possible materials that we could use. The opportunity to really understand how people live in the small, rural villages from which many of the Zion Home chilren come was invaluable, since these are the children for whom we are designing. And since the Olive Branch is an organization which cares very deeply about the overall health of these communities, we had an amazing opportunity to Deb to truly understand our site in a way that is normally not possible for architects.
The PSC was a great support after our belongings were stolen, for which I am very grateful.
The work on the Zion Home continues (they are pouring the foundations now!) and we continue to be in touch with Deb, Norma, Andreas and Putyei about the construction process. Susanna and I are learning that we can’t control everything about how this is constructed, but that’s a learning process in itself. We are looking forward to seeing the building and the site get built, and to a long relationship with the Olive Branch as they complete their vision for a new campus.
Below: some more work-in-progress images!
Blog 6: Final Days in Tanzania
July 31, 2014
We’re safely back home in the USA, but here’s a quick look back at our last days in Tanzania.
After Norma and Andres came back from their vacation, we had a jam-packed final week before we had to leave for Dar es Salaam to get new passports. We finalized a few decisions about materials (concerning columns: the vote was for eucalyptus trees with bark attached!) and spent more time on the site: taking photographs (geolocated so we can try to make a digital model of the topography), making final decisions about the placement of the Zion Home, and generally getting a better feel for where the other buildings could eventually go. We have already started thinking about the Peace Home (the Zion Home’s little brother!), and we’re trying to apply what we have learned in the process of making the Zion Home in order to make the construction of this building as smooth as possible.
We left Uyole just as the ground was getting cleared and leveled, and made sure that Andres and Putyei had the latest drawings that allow them to estimate material costs. Some decisions were put on hold until they can do some additional research on available materials (it turns out that some materials which we thought were available in Mbeya are actually not available, so we need to reconsider).
Since we’ve been back we’ve been working on making an accurate up-to-date 3d model (in Rhino) so that we can more easily see the impacts of some of our design decisions, and so that we can create nicer renderings for the Olive Branch. We have also been working on some concepts for the Peace Home as well as refining the overall master plan with the information that we are able to extract from our geolocated photos.
One highlight from our last weekend in Uyole was that we got to see the Zion Home kids perform in a show that they spent an entire month working on. It included dancing, singing, music and drama, and the kids did an amazing job!
Our few days in Dar es Salaam were pleasant, and it was very interesting to see the “other” (very urban) side of Tanzania as well. A reminder of the incredible diversity that exists in this one country!
Blog 5: Circles & Columns
The past few days have seen us making changes to the plan of the Zion Home in response to Deb’s request to shrink some spaces and find ways to reduce the amount of bricks needed, working on the schematic design of the master plan of the site, and experimenting with conceptual designs for the Peace Home. We are also prototyping columns using the materials that we have been able to obtain. On Tuesday Andres and Norma (and their family) came back from their vacation so we had a meeting with them, Deb, Putyei and Crispin, the lead construction worker. Crispin left with a drawing that details the locations and dimensions of the brick walls so that he can return with a cost estimate for labor.
One of the curious aspects about our design for the Zion Home is that the edge of the slab is not straight. Rather, the continuous curves in the courtyard create built-in seating areas and programmatic zones. If these curve were “freehand”, it would be quite difficult to draw them on the ground; however, each curve is actually only a section of a circle which is tangent to another circle. This means that if the location of the center point of each circle and the radius is defined, it will be possible to recreate the entire boundary using only a stick and a piece of string. Of course, it is then very important to carefully locate the center point of each circle! In order to solve this problem have created a drawing which defines each of these points in relation to the structural grid of the building. In the next few days (after the land has been cleared) we will go with Andres and Putyei to begin the process of marking out these points.
We have also been hard at work experimenting with various column designs; currently we are playing around with strategies for lashing bamboo together to make composite columns that are colorful and fun, and which incorporate built-in blackboards or shelving. The detailing of the top and bottom of the columns will be quite important, since we do not want them to rot (if they are in constant contact with water).
With respect to the actual construction process (i.e. how will we get a work force, power tools, etc…): The Olive Branch is working with local construction managers (such as Crispin) and their teams in order to construct the Zion Home. The organization has worked with Crispin before in the construction of the Montesorri kindergartens, and he will be responsible for the foundation, slab and brick walls. Another manager, Stuart, will be handling the roofs. Specialized craftsmen such as carpenters for the doors and windows will be hired directly by Deb. The work force will likely come at least in part from the village of Ilongo (a few km from the site) and will include construction workers and guards as well as local women who will cook breakfast, lunch and dinner. Over the course of the construction process, the various craftsmen and contractors will be managed directly by Putyei, Andres and Deb, with continuing (long-distance) input from us. Andres and Norma have extensive experience as contractors and are handling much of the logistics and scheduling.
Blog 4: Learning from the Sukuma
June 23, 2014
Here’s a recap of our Sukuma weaving experience: we spent last weekend in the village of Luhanga, where we stayed with the very hospitable Mama Rose and her daughter, Hawa. Luhanga is near Kashu’s home as well as various Sukuma families. Because the Sukuma and Maasai are traditionally cattle herders, these homes are at a bit of a distance from the village and so we went with Kashu on a pikipiki (motorcycle) in order to talk to the Sukuma about their techniques.
We were able to speak to a family which consists of a father, his mother, his two wives, and their children. In Sukuma culture the men are traditionally the weavers.
The Sukuma make very large woven baskets that hold food and other items; they are stored under roofs to keep the rain out. Their weaving technique for the baskets is similar to that of traditional Japanese basket weaving, and the baskets may then be coated in dung. While we do not anticipate needing large baskets in the Zion Home, we are interested in creating sun-shading and could image a similar weaving technique being used for that purpose (or even other elements such as doors or gates). Of course, we would want to employ local Sukuma craftspeople in order to create these elements.
We also learned more about the process of building thatch roofs (from the Sukuma as well as from Kashu, who has built his own mud and thatch house!) This process begins with the placement of a main ridge beam on either the walls of the house or on wooden columns. Bamboo is then connected (tied) from the walls to the ridge beam to create the basic frame. After this, smaller pieces of bamboo or wooden sticks are laid perpendicular to the bamboo frame. The thatch comes on top of these sticks and is tied in bunches to the framework, starting at the bottom. At the top, the thatch is either bent over the ridge and tied down, or it is tied vertically. At the moment, we are not anticipating using thatched roofing in the Zion Home. However, it is definitely a strategy which we foresee incorporating into future (more open or temporary) structures on the site.
We were also interested in learning more about traditional weaving techniques for mats and smaller baskets, for which we were directed to Mama Pita, in Luhanga. We found her sitting outside of her house weaving grasses into a strip that she then connects into large floor mats. She graciously gave us some of her weaving material so that we could try it ourselves, but it was a group of Rose’s neighbors who patiently sat with us to show us how to do it. We were only mildly successful! This is a very common technique that can be seen in many places, including Uyole. We would be interested in seeing if the material can be woven more loosely, into a sunshade that allows some filtered light to pass through. If the sunshade is backed with mosquito netting, it could serve as a roll-up divider for some of the unsecured rooms in the Zion Home.
After eating lunch with Kashu’s family, we went to go check up on his rice field (which he had just harvested). Unfortunately we found the neighbor’s donkeys eating his rice crop! While Kashu was chasing the donkeys away, we spoke to some boys who were separating rice grains from the harvested rice by beating it with sticks. They were quite excited to demonstrate their acrobatics and also to practice their English with us!
Blog 3: “For Culture”, June 13, 2014
dance held in the village of Sulowaya, which is about an hour and a
half’s drive from Uyole and one of the more remote communities that
the Olive Branch serves. The Maasai are a pastoralist tribe who have
held onto traditional customs even in the face of increasing pressure
from the government and landowners. Putyei and his brother Kashu are
members of the Maasai tribe, as are several of the children who live
in the Zion Home. The village of Sulowaya is home to a Maasai
community made up of two brothers and their many wives and children.
The traditional dance we were invited to join consists of complex
sounds and movements performed by both men and women and centers on
jumping (on the part of the men) and rhythmically shaking jewelry.
They were quite patient with a bunch of wazungu newbies!
Before going to the village we stopped by a large bi-monthly Maasai
market in the village of Utengule, where one can buy livestock as well
as such practical items as cowbells, fabric, rubber boots, bracelets
and sandals. While there we happened upon a dance performed by members
of the Sukuma tribe (another pastoralist tribe readily identifiable by
their tendency to wear rubber boots, many hats, and bright colors)
which involved men dancing in a circle and a screaming drummer covered
head to toe in white powder. When we asked why they were doing this,
the answer was “for culture”, so we’re still not sure what the
occasion was. At any rate, it was very interesting and a great
opportunity to see something that most Western visitors don’t get to
see. (That goes for the Maasai dance as well!)
of the Home Based Care team, who have been receiving medical information from
members of the Irish delegation (many of whom are medical students). The HBC team did a great job, putting on a play to talk about medical issues and disseminating information to a group of about 40 curious onlookers. Some of the medical advice may seem obvious but raises serious questions in Tanzania: for instance, “don’t carry heavy loads” is easy to say to a desk worker who occasionally lifts a box of replacement printer paper. But what about the rice farmer who needs to get his heavy bags to the market, or the mother who needs to carry firewood home? Easier said than done.
waiting in the village for several hours (and got to see the process
of skinning a goat, which was quite interesting and significantly less
gross than expected). On the plus side, we ate lunch with Deb, Putyei,
Serianne, and Hazel (one of the Irish volunteers) at a restaurant in
Irigusi (a village on the way back to Uyole) which serves excellent
traditional Tanzanian food (rice, greens, beans, meat).
Putyei, Andres and Norma about changes to the design of the Zion Home.
Among other things, we decided to extend the porch spaces around the
sides of two of the buildings, in order to allow for even more usable
covered space (a terrace for Deb and Putyei and an area to hang
laundry). We reconfigured the kitchen in order to maximize area for
food storage, and also added to some space to the manager’s house in
order to leave more room for Adrienne and Kashu.
Andres and Norma have been great about suggesting additional materials
that they have found in their time here – lightweight wall materials
and discarded pieces of marble, for instance. We hope to spend much of
this week and next week sourcing and experimenting with various kinds
of materials. In particular, we are interested in developing shelving
units that double as windows between the dormitories and porches, and
in designing columns for the interior courtyard that are creative,
colorful, and fun.
Blog 2: Zion Home Update June 11, 2014
Hi again! We’ve had a busy week and not very much time to post so
today we’ll backtrack a bit and talk about the project as well as what
we’ve been doing in the past few days.
First things first: the Zion Home. It’s an orphanage, but also much
more than that. For Deb and Putyei, the kids who live here are family
and will always have a home with them. The Zion Home also employs
teachers, translators and cooks and houses many short-term and
long-term volunteers. It makes for a fun, lively and multicultural
To wit: the kids have spent the better part of a week at a performance
camp currently being run here by some Irish volunteers. At any given
moment, you are liable to trip over a child practicing on a tin
whistle, belting our One Direction or practicing their Western or
Tanzanian) dance moves. In addition to the kids, Deb, Putyei, and
their daughter Serianne, we are joined by Mama Iloma, four dogs, Cleo
the (insane) kitten, a group of Irish volunteers, a couple of Canadian
volunteers, a Costa Rican family, and several teachers. Also here are
Adrienne, a former volunteer-turned-manager, and her fiancée Kashu
(who is also Putyei’s brother). At the head of Costa Rican family are
Andres and Norma, who are also working on the new Zion Home and have
blessed us with their contracting experience and general awesomeness.
A video tour of the Zion Home below! In the second half of the video the kids take some time to explain The Olive Branch’s programming.
As we mentioned before, the Zion Home is currently located in a
not-quite-suitable rental property. In addition to problems with
drainage and space, the organization spends a great deal of money on
rent. Deb’s dream is to disperse some of the functions currently
housed in the Zion Home, such as the school and volunteer housing. So
the new Zion Home will be somewhat smaller than the current version
and more specifically designed as a home.
The plot of land that Deb has purchased is located near the village of
Ilongo, about 45 bumpy minutes away from Uyole.
It slopes gently in one direction and is currently covered in scrubby
bushes and trees. Even more importantly, this site is at a lower
elevation than Uyole and is HOT. During the dry season, the land is
indeed quite dry; during the rainy season it sees some torrential
One of Deb’s main requests was a building that allows “inside-outside”
living, or the ability to inhabit outside spaces comfortably by
creating shade. If the enclosed spaces are efficiently planned, then
ample outside, covered spaces can be used for all kinds of social
gatherings: eating, playing, performances, singing, dancing and
conversation. In this part of Tanzania, the “enclosure” that is
created is not based on temperature but rather mosquitoes (since
mosquitoes carry malaria). So rather than worrying about thermal
bridging and insulation, we are worrying about making sure that every
crack in the building is sealed off with mosquito netting (even if
it’s open to air movement!)
Because this site is located close to the equator, it makes sense to
orient the Zion Home so that the long sides face (roughly) north and
south, which minimizes exposure to morning and evening sun from the
east and west.
High ceilings with ventilation under the roof allows for air movement,
which prevents heat buildup (and eliminates the need for ceiling
The materials that are available include bricks, corrugated metal,
thatch, bamboo, concrete, pine lumber, as well as various surprises
(such as a possible donation of marble scraps).
Conceptually the Zion Home we are designing is an example of a
courtyard typology, with three “layers”: an outermost enclosed layer
of enclosed buildings, a middle layer of “porch” space, and an
innermost layer of exterior courtyard space.
In the outermost layer are “mosquito-proof” programs, which include
dormitories, bathrooms, interior living/study rooms, a kitchen, and
living quarters for the manager (meaning Deb and Putyei). The kitchen
and manager’s house are located at opposite ends, and the living rooms
are in the middle.
The middle layer is a large continuous porch that also functions as
the main living and social space. The boundary between the porch and
the courtyard is shaped to form a number of differently-sizes “nooks”
that accommodate a variety of social programs, from group performances
to conversation to potato peeling to laundry drying.
In the center of the Zion Home is a linear courtyard that drains water
and contains trees and gardens. On one end of the courtyard is an
entrance for the car; an entrance for people is located between the
two study rooms.
But thinking about the Zion Home as three strictly separated layers is
not really accurate: rather, the kitchen area includes an enclosed
area as well as parts of the porch and a part of the courtyard, just
as the central living rooms extend out from the enclosed area to
include the porch and the courtyard. This allows for maximum
flexibility in usage.
Blog 1: Getting Our Feet Wet- June 5, 2014
Here we are, sitting in an internet cafe in dusty Mbeya, Tanzania, as we race against time to download AutoCAD before the cafe closes and/or our companions revolt after a full day of technological mishaps.
Susanna Pho and I are in Tanzania as volunteers for an organization called The Olive Branch for Children. The Olive Branch for Children was founded in 2005 by Deborah McCracken, who is originally from Toronto. Its main objective is to “help remote communities in Tanzania assess their primary needs and establish programs that target the most vulnerable.” In practice, The Olive Branch has embedded itself deeply in the communities it serves and the organization has earned the respect of countless Tanzanians in the area. The organization positions itself as the enabler and facilitator for community-designed and community-led programs that address such issues as health, including the HIV epidemic (and reducing social stigma); increasing opportunities for vulnerable children; early childhood education; income-generation and microfinance; food security; and women’s empowerment. We have been working with this organization ever since one of us, Claudia, spent two weeks volunteering here in 2013. During her trip Deborah mentioned that she had a dream of building a new Olive Branch campus and that she could use some architectural advice. Starting the next July, Susanna and Claudia (and, briefly, Maya!) began working on various schematic designs for the campus.
A year and a half later we are here to kick off the construction of the first buildings on site (yay!). The organization runs two homes for vulnerable children, the Zion Home (30 kids) and the Peace Home (15 kids). At present, both operate out of rental properties which are insufficient to meet the needs of all of the children. After a year long search, The Olive Branch for Children has secured 50 acres in the village of Ilaji, in the Ilongo ward of the Mbarali District, on which it would like to locate all of its activities. The first buildings that will be built on site will be the Zion Home. Thus far, we’ve worked with Deb, her husband Putiyei, Andreas and Norma (volunteers from Costa Rica) to create a home design. The design of the Zion Home is based on a modular structure which will simplify construction, environmental strategies that increase comfort passively, and the use of local compressed-earth bricks. While the Home must be feasible from a financial and construction point of view, it is also very important to the director that it feels like a permanent home for the children. Because of this, we have focused much of our work on designing playful child-sized spaces and details that fit into the more standardized structural framework without adding to the complexity of the construction process.
Since we’ve been here, quite a bit has happened! It started off a bit rocky with a multiple day airplane journey from Boston through Istanbul to Dar Es Salaam which culminated in a 12 hour bus ride (from hell) to Uyole (the home of the current Zion Home). Along the way a kind soul decided to liberate us from most of our (most expensive) worldly posessions. An itemized list of our missing goods:
- 2 laptops (1 nice and 1 janky)
- 2 DSLR cameras
- (inexplicably) 3 passports
- 1 lucky ring
- 1 wallet
- 2 apples
- 1 external harddrive
- 1 Turkish adaptor for European plugs only + 1 US > Europe adaptor to adapt the previous adaptor (WORTH A RIDICULOUS $50 USD)
- 1 vintage (to put it lightly) North Face backpack
- Pens. Pens galore. Pens that look like markers but write like pens. Pens from different countries. Pens.
Which brings us here, to the internet cafe. Where we are using a laptop that (saintly) Deborah has lent us to download an educational version of AutoCAD so that we can continue our work. Beyond our initial trials, our trip has been amazing. We’ve had a few meetings to cement the final Zion Home design and we are slated to break ground next week. We’ve also had a chance to visit the site, which is enormous and very promising. Pictures below. It will need to be cleared of quite a few bushes and trees before the foundation is poured.
In the meantime, we will be working to update our drawing set to reflect the edits that have been made since our arrival, sourcing materials, and working on designs for the Peace Home. Although we are a bit overwhelmed with the project’s numerous moving parts, we are excited at how quickly everything is coming together and we are so grateful to be working with such amazing people.