Opinion article about sustainable architecture in construir.pt newspaper

website link (in portuguese)

Manica Community Centre – process for a sustainable architecture

The construction of the Manica Community Center was a project that took place in the city of Manica in central Mozambique, 25 kilometers from the border with Zimbabwe.

It was developed due to extraordinary characteristics and possibilities of a daily relationship between architect and client during 21 months.

The process was conventional during the first 5 months, through several stages and previous meetings between all the partners (architects, consultants, financiers, client) and site visits.

In the remaining 16 months the process was not conventional because there was contact and daily proximity to the customer (Manica community) and a detailed knowledge of their cultural specificity. It was a fundamental knowledge and study but being also an object of study. All architects, engineers and designers should free themselves from the abstractions that their craft requires and contact with the social dimension where the project is inserted.

This was possible because we lived permanently in Manica during this period.

The integration of the community in the process allowed a better understanding of their expectations and needs, avoiding blockages along the way turning the project feasible and without unforeseens beyond the “expected” in a difficult context. A project of this type included a complex management between the various areas of knowledge and the relationship between different entities that were located in different countries (South Africa, USA, France, Mozambique, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany) and the fundamental transmission and decoding to the community of the various process steps.

Despite the several constraints (budgetary, technical or legal), the real needs of the local community should always be integrated and the solutions presented should not impose external models disconnected from the local context. The “design” of the building is a process that studies the relation of the community with the site and climate. It becomes more complete when the client, in this case the local association, actively participates in the project.

This participation existed from our first visits to the site through “training workshops” which explained the size and scale of the volumes, the realization of the first drawings and the understanding of the program in the real context.

The established strategy was differentiated from the remaining Community Centers for the African program, through the investment firstly made in the training of local workers and the use and improvement of local technologies, avoiding the importation of materials.

Always following the idea of “teaching to fish and not to offer the fish”, so that the Community Center was a “sustainable” building. From the construction process, the technologies used and their subsequent experience.

The word “sustainable” is often used in various types of projects … even if only as a qualifying adjective in order to obtain a higher commercial value for the project.

But there is an official UN definition for “sustainable development” and we can translate it into architecture as a non-overlapping balance between economic, social, cultural and environmental aspects in order to “sustain” human survival. As a consequence there is added value and positive impact (ideally measurable) in all of these aspects after the construction of the building. Or as José Forjaz says: “sustainable architecture is the dignified and balanced relationship between human being and nature through the built”.

In the case of the Community Center of Manica, these aspects were: job creation and local (economic) technical training; Integration of the local community in the design process, production of blocks of land and construction of the (social) building; The valorization of cultural aspects and the local (cultural) imaginary. The use of natural materials that do not jeopardize their use by future generations, natural bioclimatics, the use of renewable energy resources and the preservation of existing forest (380 trees) by replacing “fired” bricks bt CEB (Compressed earth blocks and earth plasters) and reforestation with 90 new trees (environmental).

The construction of this building incorporated local knowledge by solving issues that are currently global. Through the understanding of the social and cultural potentialities of this context, the building has become both local and universal.