from The Sydney Morning Herald
For the AIDS orphans of a Malawi border town, local clay and sand are the building blocks of a sustainable future, Steve Meacham writes.
Construction workers in southern Malawi have a traditional way of building homes. They'll dig a big pit, shape bricks by hand, cover them with wood - and set fire to the primitive kiln.
It's simple and it works but unfortunately, says a Sydney architect, Sam Crawford, it's also environmentally unsound.
"The kilns use a huge amount of timber, so they have to cut a lot of trees down. And it is really unnecessary," he says. "Timber and firewood are scarce resources in Malawi. Deforestation and soil are major problems throughout the region."
That's why Crawford, a board member of the Australian volunteer group Architects Without Frontiers, was keen to use another brick-making technology in his design for an educational youth centre in Thyolo, an AIDS-afflicted town near the border with Mozambique.
The centre's three pavilions, serving about 1100 children, will instead be built using bricks made from clay and sand that is readily available near the site and dried in the sun.
The locals were reluctant at first, even when Crawford told them research showed sun-dried blocks were more durable than wood-fired bricks. But they came around when they realised their centre would not only save trees but be a monument to sustainability.
"One of the directors over there said he was very excited about the building being not just an education facility, but an education in the way it is built," Crawford says.
The Malawi project is one of 12 being developed in 10 countries by Architects Without Frontiers. Based on the highly regarded Medecins Sans Frontieres, the non-profit organisation was set up by Dr Esther Charlesworth in 1998 and now has about 120 members. Three of the latest schemes - including Crawford's Malawi centre - feature in a new exhibition, Without Frontiers, which opens in August at Customs House. Many - like the biodegradable waste pits being built in Nepal - have a green dimension.
Crawford joined Architects Without Frontiers last year, having already committed himself to helping the photographer Claude Ho develop the educational youth centre in Thyolo.
Ho had spent three months in Malawi documenting the medical work being done by Medecins Sans Frontieres and thought something should be done to relieve the grim existence of children orphaned by AIDS.
Crawford, 35, a father of four, had flown to Malawi and been shocked. "I've travelled the world a lot, but it was my first time in sub-Saharan Africa. I had never seen poverty like it."
About 23 per cent of Thyolo's adult population have AIDS, leaving vast numbers of children without fathers (in Malawi "orphans" may still have mothers). "Where an orphan once would have gone to live with relatives, now those relatives don't exist any more," Crawford says. "They're often left destitute."
One journalist asked Crawford why poor children should get an architect-designed building when what they really needed was food or money. His answer? "Poor people need art and poetry just as much as rich people. Not that what we are doing is poetry, but we are providing them with something more than just the basics. Architecture has as much to offer poor people as it does to rich people."
Yet from the beginning Crawford's team realised "that a building designed for a small community based organisation in a very small rural town … should not draw attention to itself. Cutting-edge design produced by someone from an alien culture seeking to bolster his or her reputation is not called for".
Instead "we're not going to use any technology that is not available in town. Local materials save on transport costs and emissions. We're not importing anything, except for the tin roofing. That's a key thing that is often missed when people talk about the environment."
At first Crawford wanted to use thatch for the roof. "But the tradition of making good quality thatch has been lost, and the locals weren't keen for us to use thatch because that is associated with the rich tourist resorts on Lake Malawi." Instead, they have agreed to use thatch as the insulating material beneath the tin roof.
So far, about $145,000 has been raised towards the project, which will eventually cost up to $200,000 - "about a tenth of what it would cost in Australia", according to Crawford.
The centre will include the region's best library, training rooms and a youth club. Nothing fancy, says Crawford. "Just somewhere the orphans can go at the weekend to escape their misery and play table tennis."
Without Frontiers shows at Customs House, Circular Quay, from Thursday to September 23. www.architectswithoutfrontiers.com.au.
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