St. Jerome’s Children’s Centre_Orkistudio

Orkistudio: Architecture As A Tool For Social Change And Empowerment

St. Jerome’s Children’s Centre_Orkistudio

St. Jerome’s Children’s Centre_Orkistudio

Orkidstudio is a small, simple firm that was started in 2008. What makes them stand out from millions of other firms worldwide is their approach to architecture: their focus is to benefit communities worldwide, and they operate with the sole belief that design and construction can be a powerful tool for affecting social change and empowerment.

Late last year, they completed a project in Nakuru, Kenya; the St. Jerome’s Children’s Centre. It is a home for orphaned and underprivileged kids, serving the community in the rural outskirts of Nakuru area. Construction of the project was started in early November and lasted a total of eight weeks from start to finish. So what makes St. Jerome’s Centre so special? A lot of children’s centres have been built before, right? What made this specific project stand out?

First, Orkidstudio focused on the process of design and construction rather than just the final product. They involved the community entirely in the design and construction of the building. How did they do this? Involvement of the community meant having to have a hands on approach to the project, where the role of the architect is no longer that of project manager but rather one where he is immersed in the project in its entirety, building with the builders and sharing his skills and knowledge with them on site. They had to use simple detailing which the builders from the local community could understand, and to explore methods of building which make economic and environmental sense.

St. Jerome’s Children’s Centre_Orkistudio

St. Jerome’s Children’s Centre_Orkistudio

One of these methods involved the use of earthbags to build the walls. The earthbags utilized the large quantities of soil generated from the excavations carried out in the digging of foundations, sanitation and rainwater storage. The local soil, which has around 20% clay content, was packed into everyday grain bags and laid like oversized bricks to create deep, durable walls which also effectively absorb heat from the sun, helping regulate temperatures during the cooler nights. The earthbags were also used as a response to the fact that the local area is widely populated with stone and concrete houses, many of which are typically left incomplete as their owners struggle to fund the materials to complete each phase. The new technology was cheaper, more efficient and made use of the locally available materials.

St. Jerome’s Children’s Centre_Orkistudio

St. Jerome’s Children’s Centre_Orkistudio

The design of the sleeping areas for the children was also unique in that it challenged the typology of the typical African orphanage where children sleep en mass in large dormitories. The project limits each room to just four children providing ample space and natural light, and is characterized by a range of different social spaces from open communal areas to quiet nooks and crannies offering space to study, read or simply relax.

Interestingly, in the St. Jerome’s Centre, there is not a single instance of the use of glass, yet the entire building is awash in light all day. The structure has been linked to the outside environment through the use of wooden slits on the walls and doors of the front façade.

St. Jerome’s Children’s Centre_Orkistudio

St. Jerome’s Children’s Centre_Orkistudio

Orkidstudio also employed a participatory design approach to construction, in that the members of the community were the ones who practically built the children’s centre. Including a small group of architecture students from the UK who aided in construction, the site often had as many as seventy people present each day for the eight-week period during which the project was constructed. This included local women who worked alongside men, doing the same jobs they did for equal wage. This set a rare precedent for employment in the area. The skills gained by the construction team have greatly helped them economically, with many of them having since been approached in commissions to build more earthbag homes and help pass on these skills to others.

St. Jerome’s Children’s Centre_Orkistudio

St. Jerome’s Children’s Centre_Orkistudio

Recycled material was also used in construction, with the timber cladding being made from pillar cores, a by-product of veneer processing and a material which is often discarded as waste. Additionally, a rainwater harvesting system and an integrated community tap were set up, providing a source of clean running water.

Orkidstudio, in their ingenuity and simplicity of design, teach us a valuable lesson on architecture. Architecture is not just about creating pretty buildings. Good architecture is that which, apart from providing shelter, also implements programs that create opportunities for enterprise and learning. The users of our creations should gain more than just a shell for living in; there should be lasting benefits: an empowered community, skills learnt and new knowledge gained from the project. Architecture is a tool for relieving poverty, transforming lives, and promoting sustainable urban and social development.

Photography by Odysseas Mourtzouchos
Written by Harrison Maroa,
Student, UoN