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Kuk Project - Leaving Before Completion

Finishing a building is normally one of the more obvious aims of any construction project, but what happens when other factors get in the way and completion is no longer a certainty? Over the past year or so we've found that not only can this be a good thing, it can in fact be the making of a project.

This year, rain seems to have been the constant theme. From a wet Cambodia we're now battling rains in rural Cameroon and delays have become part of daily life rather than a rare inconvenience. The remoteness of our location here brings certain challenges too. Almost all of our materials have been sourced from within a few miles of our site - sand is dug from a river just a few hundred yards away; stones are broken from a small quarry on the hill; timber is felled and sawn in a wooded area beyond the next field; bricks have been moulded from the excess earth removed when levelling site. All this sounds easy, but with roads barely passable by anything but a motorbike, every bit of this has to be trekked laboriously day-on-day from its source up to site, and Kuk is anything but flat!

In the past week site has seen many exciting changes with the masonry walls underway and door frames ready in waiting. The physical effort which has gone into getting this far has been admirable but with only two weeks till we leave Cameroon we know already that we won't finish.

Knowing you won't quite reach completion is a strange place to find yourself in and in many contexts would be a source of worry or concern. Yet, in some of our projects over the past few years we've found this has been a hugely positive, albeit unintended, outcome. So much so that it could be a good plan to deliberately leave before completion. 

We rarely work with skilled contractors, preferring instead to engage the community around us and giving employment to many of the poorest or those struggling for work or an education. In the vast majority of cases, the people we employ have little or no previous construction experience. Our project teams are also increasingly made up, in majority part or in full, of women. Since most of the nations we work in still view women as lower class citizens or have distinct roles carved out for them, the idea of working in construction is not simply new, it's unheard of. 

In Kuk, we are building an agricultural training centre which has been designed to fit precise brick sizes and patterns, has a roof aimed at exploiting the valley's prevailing winds, and a floor level which needed to be hollowed out of the hillside and raised high enough to avoid flooding during the wet season. It is a simple building but it has some ambition and complexity too, and demands a well-crafted finish. Without many local skilled hands, each stage needs to be taught, understood and then mastered. The first few days of masonry on this build saw walls go up and at times come back down again as mistakes were corrected and time taken to help the novice bricklayer improve with every course. Most exciting of all is seeing the care and pleasure which goes into mastering a new skill. Many of the women in particular are not only proving to be the fastest learners but are clearly developing a passion for the task in hand, eager to continue their section of wall the following day.

Yet teaching can only get you part of the way. At some point problems need to be solved alone and solutions found through trial, error and perseverance. No matter how much of a backseat we take, it is not until we are gone that the full extent of learning can be assessed. Our aim as experienced designers, architects and builders is first and foremost to work with a community till the point where we are no longer needed. Be it learning new skills, improving local understanding of good design, or developing new leaders and teams, there is little point if reliance on our input is never decreasing. 

Earlier this year we built a house for Hellen Nyambura Kamau on the outskirts of Nakuru, Kenya. With a similar approach to our work in Kuk, we left a team of 13 women and 5 men, most of whom had never built before, to complete the final week of work on the build alone. They had to organise themselves, complete an agreed list of work, and manage the final finances for the project, all within a one week deadline. A week later, without fault, we received photos of a beautifully completed house and a well-compiled financial report on top. In this case, our leaving an incomplete building was one of the best things that could have happened and with new confidence that group have gone on to form a cooperative company with the aim of building for local clients.

Hellen's House, nr. Nakuru, Kenya

So we will be leaving an unfinished building here in Kuk with at least another week of work required to meet completion, but we are excited to see what happens after and confident that our exceptional local team will be armed with the skills and knowledge to deliver.