Building the SUDU

September 28, 2010, 10:53 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Confronted with the restrictions of minimal financing and insufficient material – or no money, no material, and no time – it is clear that the repercussions do not simply impact construction methodology, but indeed the culture of design itself.  In Ethiopia, ‘design’ itself becomes problematized, challenged by a necessary mode of improvisation, through which the complicated chain of resource constraints is negotiated.  Upon more careful inspection of this Ethiopian culture of design, one recognizes not only improvisation, but the complex social nature of this improvisation.  On the scaffolding, this makes itself evident in highly complex physical manoeuvers requiring the participation of more than one person.  It might be said that the typical Ethiopian has a radically different sense of spatio-perception, based perhaps, on the average population density and their socio-economic inter-dependency.  This problem-solving functions as a form of cultural development, a form of collaboration rooted in socio-economic inter-dependency.

As an aside, I have been told that it is common practice for a poor family to share one day’s excess of food with a community, rather than saving it for the family unit for later.  Indeed, a Westerner would typically recoil if his neighbor were to reach over his should at the dinner table, take food from the plate with his hand and share in his neighbor’s meal.  But this mutual recognition of interposed space-boundaries would seem to be a broadly cultural phenomena.  Bodies and their space boundaries overlap in humorous and surprising ways, enabling uncannily many tasks which could not be achieved by one person.


To contextualize such abstracted speculation, let us examine the first stage of construction of the SUDU vault:

The first set of drawings for the guide-work for the SUDU vault were produced in the office – in principle, a simple, light-weight wooden truss structure to accurately describe the geometry at the terminal edges of the funicular barrel vault.  Again, because the timbrel vaulting technique employs plaster on the first layer  of masonry and the masonry units are consequently applied in cantilever until each arch is closed, only a non-structural guide-work is required to accurately describe the geometry for the masons at the end wall of the structure.  Between the two guides on each end, string is pulled taught to describe the surface.

However, here, the design process is shaped by a totally difference set of constraints, such as the availability and cost of milled lumber.  Material availability – cost of material – skilled labor set availability.  These are very significant factors of constraint in construction, which – in the West, particularly in academic design – very often come after architectural idea and design development.  The hermetic office-design on paper, which cannot modify itself within external constraints in the field, is most often the project that fails to meet the criteria of local economic and environmental sustainability; and in Ethiopia, which more often than not cannot be built outside of the context of high-end corporate architecture.  The small but growing corporate constituency of Addis Ababa evidently favors the international symbolic influence of concrete frames, steel and glass facades.  Our goal however is not to build unsustainably for corporations; but to develop low-cost housing for an exploding population, the resources for which are extremely limited.

Design moved next to the workshop – where we met with our builders.  The workshop was a ragged tangle of cheap stock and old tools – with a wood-shop on one side and a metal fabrication shop on the other.  Then we sat down with wood and metal workers to discuss our options – our design table consisting of a stack of lumber on the floor.

When I observed and participated in this highly social exchange, I realized for the first time this profound difference in design methodology in Ethiopia.  It can’t be properly described, but it was as though the debate that ensued through language was only a linguistic or intellectual equivalent to the balancing of two laborers on a thin eucalyptis beam, 7 meters above the ground.  The act of debate was – with sensitivity and directness – both linguistically and physically socially mutualistic.  The answer:

Was to fabricate the guide-work for our vault in welded steel – with angle and flat stock readily available, relatively cheap, with the presence of skill necessary to accurately describe the material for our catenary surface, and the efficiency of labor in the rapid time of fabrication possible through this method.  An intelligent solution, which no doubt saved us time, material and money.

The transition from design space to construction was eased by the full scale catenary templating, which we had brought along to the shop (see header image).  Since there had been a long role of paper cheaply and readily available, we had traced the catenary geometry – established by a chain between the points of springing on two opposite surfaces of the ring beam – directly onto paper.  With boundary condition geometry thus established, the depth of the vault per our calculations only had be controlled by the length of the chain.  This full scale template of our vault curvature was rolled out on the metal shop floor, at which point the fabrication debate with steel over paper continued almost without difference from the design debate with pen over paper.

From design paper to construction paper, the development of the construction document was entirely by-passed.  Established plans – such as what stock pieces to use, where to position them, how to treat the joint – were modified in real-time by the feedback of an empirical process.  It occurred to me, with some irony, that our workshop crew worked as effectively and efficiently on the shop floor as a well-trained architect in a CAD space.  And strangely, with similarity of method.  I had to note my own long-held complex between the terrains of architectural design and constructional practice, and acknowledge that here, that discrete boundary did not exist as I have known it.


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