Architecture in Action: Engineering Ministries International
Architects are often called, or called upon, to serve as “citizen architects,” a role that engages our unique problem-solving skills and knowledge to fill a need or address a community issue. For those who are interested in exploring international service opportunities, Engineering Ministries International (eMi) is an excellent avenue to pursue.
eMi is dedicated to “mobilizing architects, engineers, and surveyors to use their skills to serve others and design a world of hope.” As a faith-based organization, eMi’s community partners and their projects address diverse agricultural, church, educational, healthcare, infrastructure, and residential needs on five continents.
As architects at LS3P, we have both participated in eMi volunteer trips (Megan worked in Haiti on a vocational school in 2012 and in Kazakhstan on a housing project in 2013, and Emily worked in Nicaragua this March.) The projects and locations were very different, but the process is similar for every trip.
Becoming part of the team:
For the clients, partnership with eMi includes an application for technical assistance, proof of ownership, and funding for the construction of the project. eMi staff members work with potential clients to screen the project for feasibility and organize a volunteer team to implement the work.
For us as designers, becoming part of the team and joining the trip entails screening interviews, the opportunity to fundraise, and gathering our necessary resources. Designers bring their own trace paper, markers, scales, and technology. Depending on the situation, internet may be limited or non-existent, so bringing design guides is also helpful.
As with every project we do, each client is unique and comes with a unique set of challenges and constraints. Often, budget is a major factor. In Nicaragua, our client was a local church in a high-poverty area with little funding to build facilities. The church had used temporary structures for camps in the past, and wanted to create a more permanent space for a camp and Bible institute. The master plan included an auditorium, dining hall, administration building, cabins, a pool and pool house, and a baseball and soccer fields. To maximize the site and budget, the baseball field and soccer fields share a footprint, and the auditorium doubles as the basketball court. To attract young people to the site, the church’s first priorities are the cabins and the pool; it’s an unusual client request, but every client is unique!
In Haiti, the client was a vocational school, Heart for Home, started within the community of Port Salut to support young adults aging out of the orphanage system. This school provides training for careers and life in the community. During the first year, students live on campus in houses of 6-8 students; in their second and third years, they will move to live with families in the community. Through these years, the students learn valuable skills and build relationships which are essential to success outside the school. Most encouraging was the story of the Ricot, the founder of Heart for Home. Ricot grew up in Haiti and was orphaned at a young age. He was adopted by a Canadian family, around age 12. After graduating university, Ricot moved back to Haiti to begin Heart for Home to help others also find a place of belonging as he did as a young boy.
The process and the challenges:
The week-long intensive charette begins with a client meeting to kick off the week. The team leads a visioning session, gathers programming information, and gets a feel for what the client wants for their site. This process often requires translation between the client and the designers. Designers must take special care to ensure that nothing get lost in translation as the team seeks to understand the client’s goals and priorities. We use visual images, models, and diagrams to illustrate concepts which are difficult to portray verbally.
After the meeting with the client, the team gets to work gathering information, sketching out concepts for discussion, and conducting an internal team pin-up / charrette before the intermediate presentation to the client. The translation of measurements between the imperial and metric systems can pose challenges; technology, such as conversion calculators or automatic conversions in Revit / Sketchup, helps to bridge the gap of the different systems.
Construction systems, materials, and climate conditions vary greatly from one project to the next; designers may find themselves immersed in new building typologies which maximize airflow with open or partial walls, or use local materials suited to the resources and skills of the labor force.
Time is the other great challenge when the team’s goal is to complete concept design in a week. It is a race against the clock with a huge amount of work and multiple presentations to complete. In our normal jobs, we often spread this process out over several weeks or sometimes months. Typically, we have to balance tasks across multiple projects which allows our minds to ebb and flow between streams of thought, often sharing creative solutions between projects. When working on a single project with eMi, our design thinking is filled with focus, collective energy, and lots of collaboration. As a team, we literally eat, sleep, and work on solutions day and night.
What happens next:
At the end of the week, the team presents the concept design to the client. The team compiles this work into an info packet to give to the client; each team member is responsible for writing up information on the work that was completed throughout the week for this booklet. The client can use this tool to fundraise and promote the project. In Nicaragua as well as many other places with volatile economies, financing for construction is not possible and the ministries must have the money in hand before they are able to begin construction. In the meantime, eMi’s full time staff can begin working on the construction documents for the future work. For us, as team members, we can look for future trips and ways to stay involved with eMi or similar organizations, using our design talents to help others around the world.
Through our experiences working cross-culturally, we’ve been exposed to diverse thinking and communities. This has stretched our ideas of what might be possible when we work together to improve lives and the world in which we live. Design is one avenue through which we can positively influence the people and places that cross our paths. Whether reconstructing houses, providing clean water solutions, or developing centers of community engagement, the work of a designer is to see the possibility and help people leverage their resources to make that happen. We’ve learned that that we can make a difference by using our architectural skills and knowledge outside of a typical workplace environment. There is a huge need for professional design services around the world and that we can help to fill that gap.