Canadian Consulting Engineer

Project Katebi

In a small corner of the vast but troubled Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) the people are about to get some of the amenities the rest of us take for granted. A unique collaboration between Ryerson University’s Department of...

August 1, 2013   By Rosalind Cairncross

In a small corner of the vast but troubled Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) the people are about to get some of the amenities the rest of us take for granted. A unique collaboration between Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science, the Toronto office of Arup, the international engineering company, and Pamoja Tujenge, a charitable organization, has produced a design for an “essentially autonomous” model, off-the-grid health and educational facility. If all goes according to plan, the design team will soon get the chance to road test their ingenuity in a part of the world that does not easily respond to standard solutions.

Until recently Katebi, a village in the southern DRC, and its neighbours had practically no modern amenities. The people had little more than their traditional knowledge and skills to cope with a very difficult environment: water from the nearby lake contaminated with arsenic and E. Coli, pit latrines that are contaminating the water table, no electricity, no transportation, no healthcare other than traditional practices to serve everyday health needs let alone deal with endemic malaria and high HIV infection rates, little agriculture in soil that contains heavy metals, minimal economic activity, and education consisting of a one-room structure staffed by a volunteer — someone able to read and write. Security is a constant concern.

Some help in the form of water purification, maternal assistance and child nutrition arrived thanks to Pamoja Tujenge (let’s build together in Swahili). The Toronto-based charitable organization was founded by one of Katebi’s native sons, Mikhael Missakabo, who emigrated to Canada many years ago. Given the community’s great needs, however, “some” was still very little.

But things are slated to change. Project Katebi Clinic and Community Centre, a model environmentally sustainable facility, is designed and should start being built early next year. The centre will consist of a school and medical clinic employing “innovative, appropriate, environmentally sustainable strategies in terms of building materials and methods, as well as heating, cooling, and electrical provision.”

“Sustainability” has become at times a slippery concept. In this case, however, the design team has carefully thought through the constraints imposed by the location and circumstances. The buildings would be constructed using locally available or easily obtainable materials as far as possible. The project would produce its own electricity for lighting and cooling, its own energy for sterilization and its own potable water. It would use local skills, labour and traditional knowledge as far as possible, and would need minimum maintenance. And, above all, it would be a facility which is culturally appropriate to its users.

This is a tall order but the design team is confident that it is up to the challenge. The team consists of Professor Ian MacBurnie and M. Arch. student David Campbell from Ryerson’s Department of Architectural Science who have been working on similar projects in Ghana; Arup’s Jennifer McArthur, P. Eng. and her colleagues who have considerable experience on projects in developing countries; and Pamoja’s Missakabo and his colleagues. The Pamoja members are an essential part of the team, not only because the organization initiated the project, but also because Missakabo hails from Katebi and is the intermediary between the team in Toronto and the people of the area. He is also a key source of cultural guidance. According to Ian MacBurnie, cultural knowledge is vital: “You have to know the culture very well … otherwise you’re not really building a project that is relevant to that community.” Here the production of a relevant project starts with a different design approach and process.

The integrated design process, a collaboration between all the team members, is a feature of the project. Professor MacBurnie says: “They don’t do something and we don’t do something. [Rather] we all do something together, at the same time … it is a horizontal process.” Instead of the architects designing and then sending the design for comment, the designs are developed in the weekly team meetings over many months.

According to McArthur, the engineering functions were developed in tandem with the structural design. Instead of the architects designing the building and then asking the engineers to put in the systems to make it work, they discussed how to include the systems as they went along, sometimes breaking off into different groups (electrical, mechanical, civil, structural) to work on the specific aspects and then reconvening to discuss the proposed systems. The end product is the best possible design to date that the team can produce. At a later date, it may change. The collaborative process is thorough but not particularly speedy. It has taken the “proper gestation time” of some eight or nine months to develop the design. But the process is clearly exciting for the designers. McArthur reports that the list of volunteers at Arup at last count was 20 people long.

The design of the centre is now essentially complete and has produced a facility with some unique features that clearly reflect the local culture. The approach to the complex leads to a landscaped waiting area, the “mango porch.” MacBurnie explains that women, who are expected to be most of the users, often walk many miles to come to such a clinic for treatment. The area around the building has been landscaped with trees for shade. When someone comes, she will be given a number and can rest under a tree as is common in the African countryside until she is called. This is a far cry from the conventional waiting room of a Canadian doctor’s office.

Beyond the outer waiting area, the entrance to the central block leads to the clinic and school areas and contains the shared functions of both. The walls are covered in the beautiful woven fabrics produced by local weavers. The classrooms are situated on one side of the central block with rooms for the healthcare functions located on the opposite side. The central block joins (and separates) the two functions and houses storage for each, a kitchen, a workshop, a refrigerated room, housing for an autoclave, as well as units for residential use. Toilets are located at the farthest end of the central block. The design is interspersed with proposed areas of expansion for the future. As for the present, the influence of local needs is clear in the design.

Where African women go, very often go a child or two. The design must therefore accommodate the needs of both – the mother’s for privacy if she’s going for medical reasons, the child’s for a safe place to wait for her. Safety and security are important for other reasons too. According to Missakabo, who travels to the area regularly, Katebi is relatively safe although the DRC as a whole is considered risky. Apart from the kinds of criminal risks that are common in many third world countries, the poor access to medical services and the high rate of HIV infection make medicines a high-value commodity. These realities have influenced the design. An outer wall around the compound will form the first circle of security. The intermediate common areas will form the next circle. Valuable medicines will be stored in the centre of the building under lock and key.

The constraints of sustainability presented a challenge to McArthur and her colleagues. They wanted the functional systems to use local construction materials and skills as far as possible, but they still need some technology from outside. They want to use the best available sustainable technologies, not only in terms of cost and efficiency, but also in terms of ease of maintenance and use so that there will be minimal need for the local people to get extra training. Choices have been made, but the experience on the
ground will tell if they remain or change.

The walls will be adobe mud brick baked in the sun, a building technique well known to local people, or concrete with mud brick infill. To satisfy the demands of durability and safety, concrete elements including the foundation pad will clearly have to come from outside the village.

Building a roof which is light and easily repairable with local skills was another challenge for the engineers. The proposed design features a re-bar structure lifted above the classroom to allow for ventilation It will be covered with a mesh of locally available rope. The team chose re-bar instead of wooden crossbeams to avoid using lumber from the already deforested area. The waterproof element will probably be tarp.

Solar panels will provide electricity for lighting and cooling. Cooling is important for some of the medicines and for the proposed mortuary. The use of LEDs will minimize running and replacement costs for the lighting. An array of parabolic reflectors located in the courtyard of the clinic will heat water for sterilizing medical instruments in the autoclave.

One key goal is to provide potable water and since the quality of the local water supply is poor, the design calls for a rainwater collection system. Between two sets of classrooms a gently sloped, hard-scraped area will collect rainwater and send it to cisterns below. Water from the local lake will continue to be used for bathing and washing. Composting toilets will be used, designed with positive airflow to eliminate odour.

Constructing a building that closely resembles its final drawings is a challenge at the best of times. Here, since the security risks in the DRC are greater than either the architects or the engineers can assume, the construction phase will probably take place without personal supervision from either. A suitable local person, provided with very clear drawings and instructions from Toronto, will oversee the building of the project.

The building phase, explains David Campbell, will be an incremental process. A modular unit will be built to test the design, adjustments will be made as necessary and then the module will be replicated. Funds will be released when photographs and reports show the successful completion of each section.

Those funds are now the main element separating “design” and “build” but Pamoja Tujenge is working on it. They expect to receive a permit very soon and to start construction at the end of the rainy season next March. When the project is done the people of Katebi can expect clean drinking water, a good school building for their children’s education, a facility for basic medical services. All in a safe, secure and culturally welcoming environment.cce

Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng. is contributing editor of Canadian Consulting Engineer magazine and is based in Toronto.


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