As I stood at the baggage claim in the Philadelphia airport patiently waiting for my luggage to be unloaded from the international flight I had just endured from Cairo, I paused to ponder the events that had brought me, exhausted, to this place. I had just returned home from an eleven day trip to Egypt, land of the pharaohs, home of the sphinx. I had not been there to sightsee, although what architect could not in a similar situation? My reason for traveling ten hours to and from Cairo was to aid a team of professional volunteers in the design of a multi storied addition to an existing church facility. The reality of being home started to swirl around me as the baggage carousel finally came to life. However, I could not help but ask myself just how I came to be part of this incredible experience.
It all started more than five years before when I received an email from a friend forwarding me an urgent need from Engineering Ministries International (eMi) for an architect to aid them with a project in Africa. I had never even heard of eMi. As such, I began my typical process of researching the organization and need before I would commit. I found that eMi had been established in 1982, and was a non-profit humanitarian aid organization that mobilizes architects, designers, engineers and surveyors from the western world to design projects that serve the poor in developing countries. Not only did they have offices in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom but they also had field offices in Central America, India and Africa. I immediately realized what a wonderful opportunity this organization offered. Not only for young budding professionals about to start their careers, but also for “old timers” like me who were seeking to give a little back and use our experience to help others.
That initial project never came to fruition for me, but a year later one did. It was the design of a small church in Barcenas, Guatemala. A project based out of eMi’s Central America office. It was on this trip that I got my feet wet with eMi and realized I could do this for the rest of my life. It was also on this trip that I met and became friends with one of the eMi staff members who would later head the Cairo project I had just returned from.
Still waiting for my bags to arrive, I started the process of mentally sorting all the events I had experienced on this latest trip with eMi to Cairo. Unlike some of my other trips with eMi, this one had been planned months in advance. It was originally scheduled to occur in February of 2011, however with the January 28th revolution and the media hype surrounding it, the project was pushed back to March. I arrived in Cairo March 18th to an airport empty of all tourists, only to find the Egyptian people as friendly and welcoming as advertized. This welcome, to a country which had so recently encountered such upheaval, laid the groundwork for one of my most favorite experiences to date. I was met at the airport by some of the eMi team; the project leader and two staff interns, fresh from college. For this trip the project team was to consist of: one staff intern, an interior designer who was fluent in Google Sketch Up; the project leader, the staff member who I had worked with in Guatemala; a civil engineer intern from New England, who just happened to be in town and could help for a few days; and me, an architect who specializes in church facilities.
As with all eMi projects, we hit the ground running. The hope of each project is that the design of all the pertinent elements be accomplished during the trip while everyone is together and ideas and solutions can be made as a team. This also gives the team the ability to work with the client to make sure their need is being met above all else. For if their needs are not being met with the designs and services we are providing, then these trips become a waste of time and expertise. For this particular project the need was to design an addition to an existing church facility on three adjacent vacant lots. For me this was just like the master planning process I provide for one of my typical clients. The only difference here was that due to the program need, building type and site constraints the solution was a five story structure with two levels of parking below.
In working on an eMi project, the clients want the western approach to problem solving; however it is imperative that the professionals come with an open mind to the problems and cultural difference that are involved with any eMi project. The worst thing that can happen on an eMi trip is for the professionals to come to the table with preconceived notions of solutions to fit the need. The one issue that I had to struggle with most was the fact that it does not rain in Cairo! I found it amusing how much I automatically design for particular criteria without even realizing it. On a number of occasions I had to catch myself because I was adding design elements to the project based on the need to protect the building and its interior from rain, rain that never happens. All I can say is that if it ever really starts raining in Cairo these Egyptians will be in serious trouble. Another cultural issue that I had to work out was that in Egypt the leaders of an organization such as a church are given a respect that results in the need for their offices to be on the upper most level of the structure. This is something that in the States is not functionally desired in churches. So what I found was that culture trumps function. However there are always exceptions to this rule. In this case it was the design of the church’s new sanctuary. Culturally the Christian churches in Egypt hold to the traditional center isle, single entrance approach. In this situation the site and number of seat required would have led to a complete disassociation of the sanctuary to its supporting spaces, as well as the pulpit from the congregant sitting in the rear of the sanctuary. I introduced to the church leaders the idea of placing the pulpit at the center of the “side wall” with the pews curving around it. This created a solution that not only positioned the pulpit ten rows from the back row, but also provide the sanctuary three equally important entrances, one at each end and one in the back. It was the Pastor who immediately saw the benefits that this configuration gave to the overall church facility and the congregation. With that revelation the process of designing the remaining aspects of the building went quickly.
As I finally pulled my bag from the moving beltway I was comforted by the thought that through the week the design team had worked hard to meet the needs of this ministry. We had met numerous times with the leaders of the church and its congregation. Any cultural differences seemed to vanish in an understanding of the ministry needs, and subsequent design solutions. Together we had designed for them a hope for the future. We created a functional facility solution that would meet their needs for years to come. The final result of the trip was not only the presentation packet of schematic design materials the church is now using for fund raising purposes, but the everlasting relationships and professional experience that for me will be truly hard to beat on my next trip with eMi.
If you are interested in learning more about the opportunities with eMi visit www.emiworld.org
John W.G. Rosecrans, AIA is the Owner and President of DIMENSIONAL DYNAMICS, Architects and Planners, Inc. located at 455 Old Baltimore Pike, Chadds Ford, PA 19317. phone: 610.388.0755 fax 610.388.2761 email: email@example.com webpage: www.dimdyn.com