New Talent 2017: Orkidstudio’s Dedication to Social Impact and Architecture

Orkidstudio’s small Nairobi-based team is equal parts contractor, designer, and educator, and treats each project as an opportunity to innovate and empower.

Based primarily in Nairobi, Orkidstudio not only designs buildings but also closely manages construction sites to maximize social impact. Seen here: The construction team gathers in front of the Sachibondu Hospital in Zambia, which is expected to be completed this month. The building complex replaces an overwhelmed and dilapidated healthcare center and is expected to serve upwards of 30,000 people. Courtesy Orkidstudio

Even though they work at diverse scales, the five emerging practices that we have selected this year as Metropolis’s New Talent 2017 share some fundamental characteristics. They are all open to influences from other places and professions, engage with new technologies and materials, and collaborate with others at the cutting edge of their field. Whether they’re creating architectural installations in London, lighting designs in Vancouver, start-up offices in New York, a hospital in Zambia, or Shaker-inspired objects in Oregon, these practitioners have what it takes to move architecture and design forward.

Orkidstudio is much more than an architecture practice. The small Nairobi-based team is equal parts contractor, designer, and educator, and treats each project as an opportunity to innovate and empower. In this way, it goes to great lengths to procure the right materials, develop new construction methods, and train and equip local laborers with valuable skills, all while securing financing itself.

Founded in 2008, Orkidstudio was the brainchild of three students at the Welsh School of Architecture: James Mitchell, Julissa Kiyenje, and Su Mei Tan. Just out of their freshman year, they had already been looking for an alternative model for practice and found it after traveling to Uganda to help build a community kitchen. Upon graduating, Mitchell began lecturing at the Mackintosh School of Architecture and relocated the studio from Cardiff, Wales, to Glasgow, where I first encountered their work. Mostly I was skeptical of an altruistic approach that appeared to mirror the dramatic surge in poverty tourism, in which Western architecture students got their hands dirty in impoverished communities in African nations such as Kenya and Rwanda. But I also had complete respect for the quality of their designs for small schools, healthcare facilities, and community centers, not to mention the quantity of output and the level of dedication coming from what were incredibly young people.

Workers use compressed stabilized earth blocks to construct the curved roofs, Sachibondu Hospital’s key architectural feature. Courtesy Chevy Thom

Orkidstudio is also a far better and more nuanced critic of its own work than any third party could ever be. As Mitchell explains, the group quickly grew aware of the pitfalls of social design, namely the disconnect between realization and actual use. “Projects we revisited were often found poorly maintained; workers we’d engaged on-site were still living in terrible conditions and hadn’t been boosted in any lasting way by their engagement with us. We became increasingly frustrated and skeptical about our impact socially and with the volunteers joining us as well.”

This critical self-awareness prompted a second relocation in 2016 to Nairobi, where the studio is now led by Mitchell, design director Carolina Larrazábal, project director Andrew Perkins, and program director Nick Moon. The move reflected a meaningful commitment to the ethos at the heart of Orkidstudio and one that sets the studio apart from the type of practice it had begun to distance itself from. “Working from Glasgow, or anywhere other than close to the communities we’re trying to serve, was never going to work,” Mitchell says. “We needed to be immersed.”

Workers build the Nakuru Children’s Home in Kenya (2014). One of Orkidstudio’s goals is to employ local women in construction roles, says design director Carolina Larrazábal. “Basic development theory tells us that if you create economic opportunity for a woman, she’ll be more likely to spend it on the family rather than on herself. We’ve been able to see this directly in our local workforces: We see an increase in their children going to school, and there are new roofs on their houses.” Courtesy Peter Dibidin

Moreover, the move has transformed the practice. Even though it has so far worked within a limited number of typologies, the studio has found that being on the ground in Nairobi pushed it to develop a highly varied, site-specific, and extendable design method. Any project type, Mitchell explains, can become the catalyst for social impact, rather than the other way around, where an overarching altruistic impulse prefigures the architecture. “If our exclusive focus was on social impact at the cost of all else, we would probably develop a single construction method which was fast, efficient, and cheap to build.”

In 2013, Orkidstudio built a large activity center for the Mutende Children’s Village in Zambia. Designed to be flexible, the building can be used as classrooms and offices. Courtesy Orkidstudio

Each project is uniquely rooted to its place, employing vernacular methods of construction and local material to produce very contemporary buildings. At the Sachibondu Hospital in Zambia, 82 percent of the material was sourced from within a 10-kilometer radius, engendering a resourcefulness unheard of in most architecture offices. The vaulted roofs are made from compressed stabilized earth blocks, and the doors and windows incorporate reclaimed hardwoods. The Nakuru Children’s Home in Kenya (2014) uses local soil packed into everyday grain bags and laid like oversize bricks to create deep, durable walls that absorb heat during the day and release it back into the building during the cooler nights. The project also features timber cladding made from a by-product of veneer processing that is often discarded as waste.

The architects are also active outside Africa. In 2015, they completed a community center in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, with the help of Khmer women laborers. Courtesy Orkidstudio

But just as important to the studio is altering the composition of its own office. The staff has grown from three to 14 in less than 12 months, with slightly more than half being Kenyan or East African, a point the team takes pride in. It is also on track to achieving gender parity by 2020, and already the studio employs many women in construction positions, mostly from low-income backgrounds, with limited education and no previous experience. Hiring women laborers increases the prospects of the entire community, says Larrazábal. “This is a global issue, with women making up less than 10 percent of the sector’s workforce, far less than any other industry. Yet we have seen what can happen if a woman is given the chance.”

After nearly a decade honing its practice, Orkidstudio is now proudly and resolutely a Kenyan company. Through this total commitment to a place and its people, the group is redefining the role and agency of the architect within the context of humanitarian architecture and setting a standard for others to follow.

You can find all our New Talent 2017 profiles here!

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