Supporting communities through sustainable architecture

WEbuilding: Supporting communities through sustainable architecture

Life is filled with unexpected synergies. A few weeks ago I came across a story of architect Diébédo Francis Kéré and a school he built in Burkina Faso. I was drawn to his work not only for its beauty, but also the purpose it served. Hailing from South Africa, I’ve always been confronted with and troubled by the poor states of schools across our continent. I felt inspired by his pursuits and thought, I’d like to interview someone like him one day. Two days later I found a message in my inbox. It wasn’t from Kéré off course, but indeed another Berlin based architecture practice – an NGO in fact – called WEbuilding.

Together with their team of volunteers, the WE Building founders Laura Gómez Agudelo and Ivan Rališ, have a surprisingly similar objective; that is to build schools in impoverished communities and doing it through sustainable practices. They invited me to spend a morning at the vibrant Sari-Sari space they share with Nowhere Kitchen in Neukölln, to learn more about their work and to talk about the beautiful school they just finished in Ghana. This is their story.

Tell is a little about WEbuilding and how it all started.

Laura: “While I was at the university I discovered one can actually practice architecture in an NGO environment and help people in need. I was fascinated by the idea and as soon as I graduated I left to Ghana, where I worked at a small NGO doing the site management for the construction of a youth center.”

“A few years after, while already living in Berlin, I got in contact with that same NGO and they told me that they bought a plot, and that the community was planning to build a school.”

“We initially got involved only to design the architecture project, but very soon we figured we could try to find financing in order to build it. That required us to register an official non profit in Germany to be allowed to apply for any and that’s how WEbuilding was born.”

What is the drive behind the NGO, why do you do it and what keeps you going?

Laura: “I have no other option. Ever since that first volunteering job in Ghana it became my passion. Over the years I’ve gotten “distracted” with some other work, but somehow I always come back to this “architecture to help people” world. There is nothing more interesting that I could do and I feel extremely grateful to live in an environment that allows me to do it. Currently I work 28 hours a week in my paying job, and I devote the rest of the time to work in WEbuilding.”

Tell us about the first school in Damang, Ghana. Why did you decide to build it sustainably and how did you manage that?

Laura: “Even though our primary goal is the social part, and that meant building a school for the children in  Damang, there is always a decision on which materials and construction techniques to use. After a few months of living in Ghana, I realized local construction in the rural areas (which is made out of natural materials) doesn’t seem to be liked by the locals. We found that it’s a pity that a country where once foreign people came to learn about earth construction mostly turned its back on its own tradition. We thought we could use some more modern ideas and still be able to use natural and sustainable materials so that the maintenance is easier and the quality of the construction remains as high as it would be by using the “normal” materials.”

“We managed to build it, both sustainable and unsustainable parts, only with the support of a lot of people who volunteered their time and expertise to get it done. Although we had very experienced local contractors doing most of the construction work, in order to build everything exactly as we planned, we needed to do a lot of supervising of our own. While we were running things from a distance via Whatsapp and endless emails, our colleague Masa temporarily moved from Leipzig and spent six months in Damang overseeing the construction. Various other volunteers, mostly architects, spent around a month each on-site and helped out with whatever was needed.  Most of us gathered for the school opening last September and it felt great to share that moment together.”

What does sustainability mean to you as architects and how do you apply the thinking to your process?

Ivan: “Sustainability is the buzzword nowadays, which is great, but in our field it should be taken with some moderation and adjusted to the project and the location. The most important thing is to find out which “sustainable” materials are available locally and then try to use that and not force something just for the sake of it.”

“We try to find some middle ground here and combine, as we did in the Damang project, using concrete, earth blocks and wood together. Sometimes being too sustainable could actually be unsustainable.”

Is building in a sustainable way harder than using other conventional methods? What makes it so?

Ivan: “Building sustainable requires a much higher level of knowledge from everyone in the design chain, especially the builders. It’s easy to say “let’s build this from rammed earth and old car tires” but if there is no one on site that actually has the know-how then it just doesn’t work. Taken all this into account, sustainable often means it is not cheap.”

“In our case we were lucky to meet Samuel, while doing our first “material scouting” trip back in 2015, and his fairly advanced compressed earth blocks that he does with a custom-made hydraulic machine. We immediately knew we had our main material and it is the one that gives the recognisable look to the classrooms.”

“These blocks are nothing new, they have been around in the 1950s in South America, but if there was not a “Samuel” doing them, one hour away from the school site, we would probably have to use something else.”

What was your biggest challenge in getting the first school built? How did you overcome this?

Laura: “It was a long process with a lot of challenges, but it always comes down to money. Getting the project funded was  by far the hardest. With most other things it is in your power to accomplish the goals – be it from the whole administrative puzzle of registering a non-profit organisation in Germany, or carrying out the whole project management over WhatsApp.”

“But when it comes down to money applications, the only thing you can do is be stubborn and persistent and keep at it until you get a bit lucky. Took us around two years to finally manage it.”

School in Damang. Images © WEbuilding

Going through the process of building the school in Ghana, were there any surprises or things that happened that was totally unexpected? Even good surprises count here. If any.

Ivan: “Every day was a surprise! One day water well dries out,  the other cement mixer brakes, then morning work starts, and we find a bunch of little kids’ footprints in our freshly poured concrete slab and so on. And apparently a 10 mm steel bar is called a 12 mm in Ghana. First we though we were cheated, then we realised it is a common practice of naming things.”

“The most pleasant surprise was to actually walk in those classrooms and realise we’ve all actually managed to pull it off. We were around only at the beginning of the construction, we followed it through photos and daily conversations. But to actually open the door and see that it turned out even better than we thought, was pretty amazing.”

What are you working on next and what are the biggest challenges you now face with this next project?

Laura: “We have a few ongoing projects. Another school in Koforidua, Ghana, where the projects are already done, and we’re applying for funding. A youth center in Douala, Cameroon, two potential school projects for indigenous communities in Colombia and the project that’s taking most of our time at the moment – Humbi Farm in Mozambique. The local NGO wants to make their existing children center more self sustainable by complementing it with a large permaculture farm, together with various buildings – greenhouse, workshops and basic volunteer accommodation.”

“Beside architecture projects, we are also trying to start a regular program for children workshops, and try to bring closer the culture of the countries we’re working in – currently Ghana, to the kids in Berlin.”

“The biggest challenge right now is trying to make our WEbuilding team bigger and incorporate more volunteers, since in order to do all those projects we definitely need more help.”

In your opinion, where is the biggest deficiency in architectural practices in the drive towards sustainability?

Ivan: “Sustainable architecture is mostly related to organic materials. There are big challenges that come from that. As an architect, designing buildings that use materials like earth or straw requires a lot of knowledge that you normally don’t get at a university. You have to investigate on your own, take various courses, do workshops, or if you don’t have that knowledge or time to learn it yourself, collaborate with people that know more than you. Once it comes down to construction, you actually need people on-site that know what they are doing and how to build with such materials. Or you need someone to teach everyone involved how to do it. All that should be taken into account  even before starting the design.”

“And after all that, comes the hardest part, that doesn’t even have anything to do with architecture – maintenance! I would say maintaining public buildings is a big problem almost everywhere in the world – there is always a budget to build things, but rarely do you see budgets mentioning maintenance. So, now when your building is not completely made out of concrete that will stay there no matter what for generations, but rather out of earth or bamboo, you need local people with the knowledge and resources to take care of it year after year.”

© Image: WEbuilding

How would you propose to solve this if at all solvable?

Ivan: “Little steps. Building more projects like we did, which use slightly more alternative methods of construction. But these sustainable alternatives shouldn’t be significantly more expensive, otherwise they will never catch on. Sustainable architecture here in Europe is a different thing, economically based on long term savings in heating and cooling. In tropical countries a different approach is needed.”

“What we see as crucial in this process is communication and open sharing of information with anyone interested in doing similar projects. Maybe even creating a “library” of some sorts – including advice, average prices, contacts etc. If we did some mistakes, there is no need for someone else to do them all over again. I suppose lots of architects do projects like these, once or twice in their career and then continue with their other work, and a lot of that knowledge and networking gets forgotten.

And finally, just for fun – Where are your favourite spots in Berlin for:

Breakfast or coffee: “Croissanterie in Pannierstrasse for breakfast or coffee at coffee corner in Kottbuserdamm.”

Spending a hot summers day: “In our rubber boat hanging out in the canal.”

Spending a cold winters day: “At home.”

Finding inspiration: “I’m very practical and I don’t look for inspiration.”

A night out with friends: “Späti inside Hasenheide.”

You can find out more about WEbuilding and how to get involved through their website. Or follow them on Instagram @webuilding to see what they are up to next.

Belgian Bloggers’ Brussels Apartment

A visit to Matthieu and Bénédicte, the creators of the Belgian design blog Auguste&Claire

My next story on creatives features the young Franco-Belgian couple and authors of the french interior and design blog Auguste&Claire. The creative duo Matthieu and Bénédicte live in the vibrant district of Saint-Gilles. Early spring, I visited them in their beautifully renovated Belgium apartment, to learn more about their blog and about what keeps them occupied in the dynamic city of Brussels.

Brussels through a window

Brussels Apartment

Their home is a beautifully renovated multi-story structure with large windows and high ceilings. Matthieu – an independent architect at pl.rigaux – did a great job at renovating and restoring the space, with careful consideration of the historic character and sensitivity to the original features of the building.

Bénédicte and Matthieu sought items that would compliment the character of their new space. So they started revamping some ikea pieces and vintage or second-hand finds. Soon they moved on to designing and building pieces of their own. Their blog; Auguste&Claire followed as a means to share these creations. Here they could show others how possible it is to make your own quality, personalised furniture & decorative elements, that’s not only cost-effective but durable and timeless. The TARVA dresser hack is one of my favourites. These days the blog also includes their discoveries on design, photography, architecture as well as other daily inspirations.

Brussels Living room

The couple, who met in Barcelona when Bénédicte was doing an internship and Matthieu an Erasmus exchange, makes a fine team. With his architectural understanding of both structure and shape as well as the integrity of raw materials, Matthieu manages to create DIY pieces that transcends your usual DIY feel. Bénédicte, who runs her own marketing & communications consultancy, translates Matthieu’s creations into beautifully styled and easy to follow content for the blog.

As independent business owners I was curious about their approach to doing their own thing and about the obstacles they faced. Apart from the initial administrative barriers, financial security was their foremost concern although both were optimistic and not at all troubled by the notion. Bénédicte pointed to the importance of having a clear vision and sticking to your goal and to make sure that you build up a solid network of support and leads before you go solo.

It’s apparent that these two aren’t ones to follow standard conventions. There’s a saying in Belgium; “de belg heeft een baksteen in de maag”. Meaning, all Belgians have a brick in their stomach. The maxim bears witness to the inexplicable need for every young Belgian to buy a piece of land and build their own house. It’s therefore rather unique for Bénédicte and Matthieu to have settled in the city. But walking down the lively streets of St Saint-Gilles, you get an instant sense of diversity and creativity of the place so it’s with little wonder why the two decided to live here.

I asked Matthieu and Bénédicte what attracted them most about Brussels in general. They unanimously agreed to the city’s cultural diversity. When they’re not out exploring the many vintage and antique markets for forgotten treasures, the cosmopolitain community and it’s rich artistic and creative offerings keep them more than inspired and entertained.

You can read more about the pair and their favourite things to do in the city in the Top Five Tips sections below. This is a new feature to the blog so keep a look out for some cool city tips, advice and inspiration in my future creative domains blog posts. For more DIY, home and design stories, go check out their blog: Auguste&Claire

Top tips from Matthieu and Bénédicte

#1 One piece of advice you could give to someone who’d like to be their own boss:
To envision the life that he/she most want and write down how it would look like. It always helps to clarify our main goals and make them happen!

#2 Your favourite inspirational quote or motto:
Creativity is contagious. Pass it on. (Einstein)

#3 If you could go back in time and meet one famous person, who would you want to meet and why:
We would love to enjoy a coffee with Jacques Brel, Belgian singer and songwriter, and talk about his multiple passions and lifestyle.

#4 What is your ultimate travel destination? One place you’ve been to or would love to go explore?
We’#5 re th5 of bout visiting Japan, probably the nr…t on the list!

Name some of your favourite spots in Brussels for:

Breakfast/coffee: Eating ‘pasteis de nata’ at Forcado Pastelaria

Spending a hot summers day: In the pool of the JAM Hotel

Spending a cold winters day: Early tour at the flea market in Les Marolles and a coffee at PinPon, an old fire station converted into a restaurant

Finding inspiration: Looking at the budgies building strange nests at the Duden Park

A night out with friends: A glass of wine at the evening market in front of Saint-Gilles town hall (every Monday)

Pssst. Remember to follow us on intagram to see the latest posts, features and stories! 🙂

Coffee & cozy at FreiRaum cafe

Coffee & cozy at FreiRaum cafe

Without the anticipation of Christmas and thrill of Sylvester, Berlin can be pretty grey and gloomy in January. So if you need some motivation to leave the house, head over to FreiRaum on Katzbachstraße. With their two wood burning stoves and logs to last all winter you’ll be hard pressed to find a cafe more cozy. Owners Oguz and his wife Nihal, have done an amazing job at creating an atmosphere so inviting that you just won’t want to leave.

But if you can’t be coaxed on looks alone, come for their amazing coffee and delectable edibles. Everything is home-made and freshly baked by Nihal and Oguz, whom you’re certain to meet on your visit. Originally from Turkey, Oguz moved to Berlin 6 years ago. He studied economy and was a diving instructor before practising gastronomy here in Berlin. Nihal, who grew up in Berlin, is an art therapist, and initially used the space as her studio.

The idea for FreiRaum came about when Nihal fell pregant. The family found an apartment above her studio, and because she was about to stop working they decided the turn it into a coffee shop. Oguz and Nihal did the interiors themselves, with an effort to maintain an eco friendly approach.

Freiraum Cafe in Berlin

FreiRaum Cafe in Berlin

Eight months later the resulting design was simple and understated with a focus on earthy colours and natural materials like bare clay walls and wood panelling. Coupled with old wooden floors, wild flowers and woolly throws, the space is reminiscent of a mountain cabin in Scandinavia.

It’s down-to-earth aura is even more enhanced by the child friendly elements like tiny chairs and wooden horse. It’s no surprise that the owners themselves have two kids, Eftalya, now two and a half and her 15 year old brother, Tanyel.

I simply love hanging out here. For Oguz and Nihal it’s become a true Kiezcafe. A place where families gather, wonderful exchanges occur and friendships begin. Do come and have a look for yourself, on Katzbachstraße 24, Kreuzberg.

Family-run Finca in Majorca

Family Finca in Majorca

The name Majorca has passed my awareness several times, but for some reason I always associated it with images of drunk beach goers and partying teens so akin to the neighbouring Ibiza. But boy was I wrong. Soon this Spanish island would blow my socks off, both by it’s spectacular landscapes, and delicious food.


Sa Rota finca in Majorca
Sa Rota finca in Majorca

Towards the end of April I desperately needed an escape from Berlin. It was a looooong winter. After a quick google flights search, I discovered very well priced flights to Majorca and booked it right away. But since I’m not much of a beach person I set upon a hopeful search for a farm stay, if there was such a thing…

Eventually I found Sa Rota, a farm in the middle of the island and set about my Spanish trip with great expectations.

Sa Rota finca in Majorca


The self catering unit we stayed in was perfectly equipped, complete with pebbled courtyard to enjoy home cooked breakfasts on sunny mornings, as well as a private deck with spectacular views over the valley and its breathtaking sunsets.

The interiors are unpretentious and stylishly decorated, with well chosen pieces that support the integrity of the old building. The shuttered windows and terracotta tiles are unmistakably Spanish while the bare stone walls add to the old age charm.

Sa Rota finca in Majorca

Sa Rota finca in Majorca
Sa Rota finca in Majorca

Wether your planning a romantic weekend or a week long stay, I can highly recommend Sa Rota. The peaceful atmosphere is perfect for lazy days like reading in a hammock or bathing in the pool. And should you wish to explore, the location makes it easy to get to every corner of the island in under 2 hours.

Sa Rota finca in Majorca

Sa Rota finca in Majorca
Sa Rota finca in Majorca

The warm welcome we received from the owners of this 18th century Spanish farmhouse, was surpassed only by the magnificent beauty of the place and it’s surrounds. Nestled against the hilltops, the finca offers everything you might wish from agritourism; from lemon trees bursting with fruit to bees buzzing around massive lavender bushes and the sound of cow bells and bleating sheep from the neighbouring farmlands.

Text & images © Barbara Cilliers

Psssst. Remeber to follow us on instagram to stay up to date with the latest stories and features! 🙂