Giving back in business
A fresh perspective from Africa
Katheryn L. Zeeb
This summer, I had the privilege of traveling to Naro Moru, Kenya to participate in a community service project with Denver-based non-profit Edge of Seven and the Kenyan NGO ACCESS. As a board member for Edge of Seven and a designer for Hord Coplan Macht, I’ve been fortunate over the years to have had opportunities to bring my passion for design and building to communities in Nepal and Kenya that have a basic need for improved infrastructure.
Working in small, remote communities and exchanging knowledge and skills with others has given me a valuable perspective on what is necessary in life. In our industry, design often gets tangled up in excess and ornamentation. It is refreshing to work within a strict framework that allows function and budget to drive your decisions. In a country like Kenya, a modest budget of $25,000 can support the construction of an entire building. In this country, in architecture as well as other industries and professions, we often get mired down in the details of our jobs or our own egos. We tend to forget to enjoy what we are passionate about; we also tend to forget the importance of making time for service and making genuine connections with others in our communities.
My colleague, Tim Reinen, also traveled to the community in Kenya to assist with the construction of the Women’s Resource Center. Together, we were fortunate to have the support of our firm to cover travel expenses, help collect supplies and donate over 150 hours of our time to design the 2,400 square foot building, including four classrooms and an open air market for the local women to sell their products.
Prior to our departure, we established a relationship with ACCESS, a local non-governmental organization (NGO), who served as our connection to the community. We also worked alongside a Kenyan builder to help us clarify local building methods, proper materials and types of skilled labor available. During the design process, we identified the needs of the community to best understand how they planned to utilize the space and the desired outcome for the project.
We put the program into place, established a budget and construction timeline and responded to continual feedback from community members and building professionals. We focused on integrating our design with the local building vernacular. This process helped us to establish and deepen a trusting and transparent relationship with the community and forge a symbiotic working relationship. The relationship also allowed for innovation and information sharing on both sides about alternative building methods and techniques for improved durability and structural connections.
Upon completion, the Women’s Resource Center will provide education to women of all ages, including computer courses, local trades, and business development skills. It will also serve as a center point of the community, and allow for resource sharing among local NGOs.
From our perspective, supporting this initiative has been a true win-win. With the support of our firm, we have contributed to bringing a much-needed resource to women and community members in Naro Moru. At the same time, we received countless benefits to apply to the workplace and to life outside of the office, including a powerful reminder about the importance of shared learning, community and connection.