Week two of the Change the World novena takes us to the Democratic Republic of Congo to explore the concept as space as a basic human resource and the leadership role architects can play in making sure everyone has access to a supportive built environment.

 L'Ecole de Centre de Emmanuel: View of Courtyard
Leslie Nepveux is a young architectural designer.  Her story begins not unlike that of most young architects.  She worked hard to earn her degree in architecture from Oklahoma State University, graduated in 2005, got a job, and got laid off five years later.  Like many of us, Leslie was also searching for deeper meaning in her career and not so much finding it in a traditional work setting. A casualty of a bad economy and the old experience conundrum (no one wants to hire you without it, but if they don’t hire you, you won’t get it), Leslie took the bold step of deciding that she wasn’t going to wait around for the career-defining experiences she wanted to come to her.  She ignored all of the conventional wisdom and wrote her own set of rules.  Then she went to Africa. 

She wanted the work she did to make a difference, and she knew something about the needs in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from her parents, who had served as missionaries there.  So, she emailed a contact of her father’s who is based in DRC and asked if they’d like to have an architect on the team.  If you’re thinking, “of course, they said yes, and it was probably like volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, only in Africa,”  you would be wrong.  What Leslie brought to the table was something only an architect could: vision. 

The local community non-denominational church in Kinshasa, DRC serves the region through a series of sister churches. They had identified two pressing needs related to the built environment; an addition to the three room school in Kinshasa and a prototype clinic/school building that could be constructed in more rural areas.  Because the area is so impoverished, waiting to raise the funds to hire a local architect would only delay the much-needed work.  Leslie’s offer to volunteer her time couldn’t have been better timed.  After sending out letters to friends and family to raise funds to pay for her flight and lodging, she set off on a two-week trip to Africa to meet with the Building Committee, explore the site and collect information from members of the community and conduct traffic studies and site observations.  She also took the time to learn about local construction methods (buildings are made of bricks formed on site utilizing excavation soils). 

Leslie’s skills are in management and production, but she had to pull together a planning and design team to respond to the project.  She assembled a team that included interior designers, structural engineers, and architecture professors and conducted a twelve person brainstorming session to generate big ideas.  What emerged was a concept that emphasizes the community’s needs for flexibility and leverages the functional and physical location of the school as hub of the community.  Multi-function classrooms also serve as office or meeting space when necessary.  An open outdoor courtyard space can be used for gatherings or performances.  Throughout the design process, she kept in touch with her clients in Kinshasa electronically, making tweaks to the design (the courtyard shape went from “L” to “U”), while also making sure that her construction details were simple and allowed interchangeable local materials.  For example, while the design calls for the classroom walls to be constructed of stone with a rebar foundation, that locally made adobe can be substituted, to make use of the excess soils on site as needed.  Leslie is currently in the process of helping her clients obtain a more complete cost estimate, which will then lead to fundraising efforts in order to begin construction. 

Leslie has volunteered all of her time to the projects in Africa and supported herself over the past two years doing contract work.  Like many who have had to cope with losing a job, she has also struggled with balancing earning  a living with being able to devote herself full time to doing the work in Africa.  When I asked her what the most significant things she has taken away from her self-directed internship, she had these insights:

It’s more about the concept than the design.  Especially in a third world country, materials and methods can be very fluid and dependent on availability of resources.  It’s important to stay flexible and that means that the concept driving design has to be that much more powerful and relevant in order to survive through construction.

Engaging the community is important.  Without their buy-in, the best efforts can be derailed, or your work will not have it's intended effect of helping people.
 You can (and should) work with an architect.  Leslie hopes that her work has helped to increase awareness of the value that architects bring to a project.  “Communities need to know that they are capable of hiring architects,” she says. Outreach efforts certainly help.  In addition to her experiences in the DRC, Leslie went with an engineering team in October of 2011 to Ghanna for a two week master planning charrette.
Leslie has recently been named a Design Fellow at the Building Community Workshop, a non-profit community design center doing work she loves, partly due to her self-sought experiences, which gave her the specific skills and expertise she wanted to cultivate.  Leslie’s message to her piers is very profound, “ As bad as the economy has been for employment, it has helped us grow and realize other areas of our life where we can practice architecture.  Being diverse is important and we get one-dimensional from our training.”  Seven years out of college, she has worked internationally, made a difference in several impoverished communities, learned about vernacular building techniques, managed a schedule, budget and design team, worked with clients and user groups.  She gave herself the career path she wanted, instead of hoping that opportunities would come along if she just took a job “for the experience.”

More than once during our interview, Leslie said, “I wish I could do more.”  If you’d like to help her design vision become a reality, you can make a donation to the Congo Projects

Leslie Nepveux is a 2005 graduate of Oklahoma State University. She is currently a Design Fellow at the Building Community Workshop and only a few exams away from completing the ARE. You can see more of her recent work in Africa at cargocollective.com/congocollective