When asked if they were interested in designing a building for children orphaned by AIDS in Malawi, east Africa. Sam Crawford Architects saw an opportunity to utilize the skills they've gained in fifteen years of practice - to benefit people who could not normally afford their services. They had no idea at that time how all consuming, how challenging and yet they agreed, to help the small locally run NGO, FOCHTA, raise the $125,000 needed to build it.
Frustrated by the difficulties of email communication with the FOCHTA staff in Malawi (electricity supply is intermittent), Sam of Sam Crawford Architects bought a ticket and travelled there with FOCHTA patron and co-founder Claude Ho in early 2006.
In taking on the project they struggled with a number of questions; how could they, with their experience designing houses for well-off Sydneysiders, contribute anything of value to the design of a Vocational Training Centre for children orphaned by AIDS – in a foreign continent and context? Wouldn't it be better to employ a local architect? Why impose western ideas on Africans? The brief was simple yet daunting. It basically called for a Malawian building - but with an Australian sensibility.
FOCHTA, a locally run NGO, gives several hundred children a means to escape the poverty cycle; a future of being able to support themselves, and their families. Not by putting them in an institution, but by providing them with counselling, school fees and uniforms, a pair of shoes, a decent school lunch, and grain to take home to their hungry siblings. It allows them to stay in their village, retain their dignity - and get an education - a chance in life.
The architects developed a set of design principles; Use locally available sustainably resourced materials. Assemble them with the best local technology. Ensure that the community feel a sense of ownership of the building, and make it robust enough for them help build it. The design they came up with, together with structural engineer Jamie Shelton and Bonnie Constance of Northrop, was an interpretation of the Malawi vernacular.
The brief changed over the years from a youth drop-in center to a formal educational institution with offices, teaching and recreation rooms, and toilets - linked by covered outdoor spaces - unified under large pitched roofs - surrounding a small shaded courtyard.
As one of the locals said, they hoped that it might be more than youth education building - rather - a building that educates youth - about sustainability, about climate responsive materials, and about their place in the community.