Milinda Pathiraja is passionate about the enormous potential for architecture to make a difference in rebuilding Sri Lanka in the aftermath of civil war. His work including the Global LafargeHolcim Awards winning Community Library in rural Ambepussa illustrates his focus on a form of architecture that not only produces spaces and constructed artifacts – but that also builds capacities and human capital. At TEDx Colombo, Milinda Pathiraja explained how his work creates a design format that embeds the training of unskilled labor into the construction of their projects, well before the first shovel of earth is moved.
More than 80% of the construction workforce in Sri Lanka is untrained – and there is a strong connection between low levels of worker skill and poor quality structures. Workers don’t have the opportunity to be trained and budgets can’t be stretched to up-skill workers before the project begins. The solution is to design a structure so that training can be part of the construction process, and the design itself has plenty of tolerance (margin for error) that accommodates the skills and equipment of the labor force.
Training by doing: building social capital through on-site learning
Former soldiers of the Sri Lankan army built a Community Library in Ambepussa designed by Robust Architecture Workshop (RAW) and won principals Ganga Ratnayake and Milinda Pathiraja a Global LafargeHolcim Awards prize. The project re-trained a labor force geared for combat with building skills that would equip them in the transition to post-military life. Since no funds were available for training before building started, the construction process itself needed to allow workers to learn basic skills, which then developed complexity over the course of the project. Building systems such as joints, components, and fabrication processes were designed with latitude for variances. For example, the roof cladding is not aligned flush to the ceiling or to the roof trusses – enabling small differences in measurements, building elements or angles to be accommodated.
In addition to the focus on labor skills, the sustainable design for a tropical location also incorporates common sense. A narrow building footprint allows cross-ventilation, existing trees were accommodated so that the building is shaded from the heat of the sun, the thermal mass of rammed earth is used to reduce temperatures inside the building, and the entire structure is elevated to ensure the natural drainage paths on a steep slope are not obstructed.
The project proved that the onsite training methodology works – and that architecture can contribute to the creation of social capital through the processes it uses, not only the structure that is created. The workers went on to construct a series of war widow houses using the skills they had developed during the Community library project.
Awards prize money invested into next project
RAW used the proven strategy of on-site training combined with a robust design for the new Boralukanda Primary School Library in the remote farming village of Dewahuwa in central Sri Lanka. The project was entirely funded by prize money received from the studio’s success in the LafargeHolcim Awards competition. The simple structure includes rammed earth walls and a ferro-cement vaulted roof – with plenty of tolerance built into the design. This ensured construction was within the capacity of the volunteer workforce drawn from the parents of the school children during their non-farming days, and the slow process of construction. The library was completed in late 2018.
The design process for RAW incorporates an assessment of the labor force’s level of training and experience. For the construction of a brick house in Kottawa, masons with many years experience had to be trained in techniques for exposed brickwork since they had only built walls that were finished with render. The design progressed to more complex techniques on the façade as the building progressed and skills were enhanced. Temporary accommodation for tourists on a tea planation was designed with prefabricated components so that the structure could be carried to the site by hand and completed dismantled after use. Since no suitable prefabricated components are produced in Sri Lanka, RAW created a design that enabled the components to be made in a small backyard factory close to the remote site at the tea plantation.
Architecture beyond technology
By engaging in the social process, architecture can take on an influential role in social policy. Milinda Pathiraja shows how the function of sustainability is not only something to measure in terms of environmental performance but also in terms of economic costs and returns. “It is vital that architecture looks beyond the technological, so that the social dimension is also an integral part of the design,” he says.
The LafargeHolcim Awards winning project of RAW as praised by the LafargeHolcim Awards jury for “Capacity building that focuses as much on the process as on the physical artifact”. Milinda Pathiraja presented “Can architecture build people’s lives” at the TEDx Colombo event “I, You, We” in October 2018.