Participatory Design

Participatory design is exactly as it sounds. People are invited to join in the design/build process and learn and have a say in the structure being built. It gives everyone a voice in what their future will look like. One of the main organizations that fueled this movement was Architecture for Humanity, motivating with the slogan “design like you give a damn.”

Its important to involve locals in the design build process and to foster those relationships into the future. Otherwise were just a bunch of foreigners coming in to plop down a building to say we did a good thing and helped out, just to leave without imparting knowledge of maintenance or a sense of care or ownership about the structure; the “one-and-done” approach where we gave the man a fish instead of teaching him how to fish. It allows for more of a collective understanding as people realize they have to power to reconcile this destruction that happened, the empowerment in another solution to be added to the proverbial tool belt aiding in recovery. It helps solve more of the underlying problems with disaster, the psychological rebuild and the re-appropriation of pride. Participatory architecture helps become a facet in the answer to the question: What is the social role of architecture?

We do this through methods of teaching during the build, but also through workshops held with the locals. The initial breach into the community usually happens through the children as the more precocious ones are eager to inquire about us and learn whats going on. The adults soon follow as they hear reports from the kids. One of the workshops we’re doing is construction of stools that will populate the structure once finished. It was a good introduction to the joinery techniques to be used in the structure and also to the idea that everyone was not only allowed, but invited to help.

Having a local liaison to translate and explain, especially in these workshops, is beyond important. Showing the refugees what we’re doing and having them excited and wanting to help. The foundation is planned and constructed on site after arrival without being planned for ahead of time. This is in order to use local construction materials and techniques so that construction is feasible and understood from start to finish. This part would have been extremely difficult without someone on our team who knew what the plan was and could convey it to the local workers. We have Izzy on our team, an undergraduate student who is Indonesian and is able to switch back and forth from English to Japanese to Indonesian in order to translate everything happening. The foundation and the cladding are the hardest part as the material is locally sourced and constructed. Material acquisition is actually also very difficult right now as everyone is trying to rebuild their homes and demand is high while import is slow.

We came into this project thinking that we had so much to teach everyone and they would learn so much from us and honestly so far I think we have learned more from them. They showed us up big time. We learned a new method of making sure the foundation was level across long distances with a simple clear hose filled with water. The evenness of the water level and the preciseness of their construction is something we only could have hoped for. They were laughing at us in the beginning. One local man was so active in helping us for the first day or so. Then he stopped helping. His friends told him to stop. Translated it was said that we were a mess so shouldn’t help us. When we said but we’re building it for them he said they don’t understand the urgency, they just make do with what they have. Very different from us attitude. This was the case for the foundation part because it was something that had been seen before that they were used to doing and were experts in. The Vaneer house and panel construction was something very new and different and exciting, so now there is a lot of involvement as everyone learns this new method and becomes eager to implement the new found knowledge.

The local university is also involved, Tadulako University. There are architecture, urban planning and urban design students who come to help every day and also held a symposium at their school so Hiroto Kobayashi could present what we would be doing and talk about some of his past work. The students just started classes and still every afternoon show up to see the progress and help where they can. The students bring participatory engagement to the next level in terms of empowerment. These students are able use this new knowledge that they’re learning in school and apply it in a real life situation where they’re able to act and help their own community. The energy and zeal behind that pride in place and knowledge has been an incredible driver. They are also learning so much more in the hands-on environment to enhance their conceptual knowledge and enrich their understanding of design within their community and in general. Understanding the Veneer House system as an alternative method of construction and the thought process behind it is also an invaluable lesson in thinking laterally to find a solution. We could leave now and the students would be able to complete the project on their own based on what they’ve learned so far. That’s the entire point of the Veneer House, teach once and allow the locals to propagate more structures on their own with the newfound knowledge.

The stage were in now involves climbing the scaffolding and balancing on beams as we pass up the panels to secure them to the structure. The locals are amazingly skilled at the balancing act and are beyond necessary for the progress of this structure right now. The classic way that it works is with two people balancing being handed up the panel and trying to fit it in place. Once its in place there is a fast scramble by a third person on the scaffolding to quickly secure the joinery piece in place and hammer two pins through the conjoining opening. Then there is clapping and celebrating and on to the next piece. One piece takes anywhere from 2-25 minutes depending on how straight the last panel went on and how loose the fit of negative into positive. The tolerance of construction is so small with every component that everything has to be perfectly straight or it wont fit together. Truthfully its very scary and fairly sketchy on top of the scaffolding and structure itself. Once a full triangular bay is assembled with panels, its strong enough to climb up the outside so people have been lending a hand in constructing by using the structure itself as added scaffolding.

Of of the most incredible aspects of participatory engagement in this latter part has been the way everyone is able to communicate so seamlessly without common language. Its the exact opposite from the beginning when we needed Izzy to help translate. The parts were held up and the name of each part taught to everyone. “mambo” is the circular joinery piece, “pin” or “wedge” is the pin that secures the mambo into the panel opening. There are few enough parts that everyone understands the flow and construction after only an hour of demonstration. Communication was by pointing, acting out the action or a single demonstration. Now communication isn’t even necessary as everyone understands the workflow and is ready with the next piece of the puzzle without having to be asked. Perhaps in the next evolution of the design if the foundation and cladding can become part of the Vaneer System, there would be no reason for the initial stall and language barrier issue. The entire thing could be a kit of parts constructed exactly as seamless as the panel system.

Hopefully participatory architecture doesn’t go the way of the green building movement as a part of fad-architecture. Or maybe like some sustainable techniques it will simply become the responsible way of designing, becoming more integrated as a standard instead of a fad.

Morgan MarzoComment