Sarah Greenlees; Architectural Assistant at Arkitrek

I am a recent architecture graduate from Scotland. I’ve been working with Arkitrek in Sabah, Borneo for just over a year and a half. We strive to conserve natural resources in our work and with our work. We have community involvement in a large number of our projects and a sizable percentage of our practice is running design build workshops.


How did you at first get involved with designing for children/students?

I would never had said that we particularly design ‘for’ children- its not a focus of our work. Having said that we currently have two kindergarten projects. But I am more interested in getting broad spectrum involvement in our projects- be it from a group of children, a group of students or adults or a community- in whatever project brief we are developing.


How do you involve children in a design process?

At the moment we are running a year long project with an international school in Brunei. The brief is a training facility for 3-5 year old orang utans at a rehabilitation center in Sabah. We are running a series of workshops in Sabah and in Brunei whereby the kids come up with and develop the designs in response to questions that we pose.


Before starting on a project, how do you plan the process?

After each workshop we have spent quite a lot of time analysising the process. From that we have come up with a rough itinerary that varies the energy levels and keeps the activities changing. It also takes account of the fact that at times people need some individual time within the group process to make their own personal response to the project. Of course, each programme is hugely dependant on time scale, brief and participants.


When working with the users, how does it influence the process?

Although we would be interested in running our design build programmes with the community as well as kids or students, so far we have not had the opportunity. However, a number of our other projects are built by the local community. These projects usually involve a number of buildings. So we generally get the community builders to build the first building and then we pick areas where we could improve the environmental performance. For example on the island of Mantanani, Sabah, buildings are built from sawn timber and plywood transported from the mainland, instead of from the bountiful supply of driftwood that litters the beaches. Our brief was a camp so the first building- the manager’s house was built local style. Then we got them to use driftwood for the next buildings, but they insisted on making it look like processed timber and adding thick layers of varnish. However, they still recognized the logic of using the driftwood and now each piece on the beach is marked with an initial to assert ownership by someone in the village. With our latest building- the result of the first Arkitrek Camp we used un-sawn, natural driftwood which is twisted and gnarled and beautiful. The whole time the chief of the island thought we were ‘glia’ (crazy) but by the end he liked it.


What is your optimal result when designing?

That the communities learn the value of their natural resources and start to think of ways to preserve them. That Camp participants expand their knowledge and get the sense of accomplishment of building their own building from start to finish.


How do you plan the process to comply the aim?

By giving ownership to user groups and the workshop participants.

By making sure we have enough time to do construction but at the same time to still be able to review the work as we go. During the workshops there is a moment when we have to rein the designs into what is feasible to build. Despite this, we have still dragged driftwood logs weighting several tons and requiring up to 20 people to shift.


Do you try to create a sense of ownership for the users? If Yes: How?  If No: Why not?

To quote from our recently written manifesto:

“Giving ownership of their project to either the client, building users or wider community will enable environmental stewardship. Without ownership a marine conservation building will lie dormant. With ownership a building has a chance of fulfilling its role.
Giving ownership to students is a way to help them feel passionate about their learning and the principles of Arkitrek. It also fosters greater ideas.”



How?!- A lot of our projects are requested by the community, so there is automatically a sense of necessity there. We listen to the community and the builders that are building it. We engage architecture students wherever we can to run construction and to do design. They need to take ownership of the projects and we believe this is beneficial to their education and career development. In the case of the Arkitrek Camps, participants do everything from site surveys, client interviews, brief development, concept development through to construction.


If you ever feel like you get stuck during a project, or in a process, where do you turn? (colleagues, inspiration from the internet, internet communities, friends, experts etc)

In workshops we vary the exercise. We give the session a break, we do some physical activity. We use a great exercise called ‘What if?’ to get everyone to think creatively.


If you have worked with children/students and/or teachers how did they take part in the process?

We don’t treat anyone as any different. We provide guidance and are flexible in our exercises to respond to energy and inspiration levels. With kids we like to build lots of models- more than drawing. It s a very direct way of communicating and is more absorbing than drawings/ sketches which are by their nature very abstract and require a higher level of skill.


“We have found that, just as Sir Ken Robins argues in his famous talks about the education paradigm, kids are being taught out of creativity.”


- So when you work with people who you feel have unlearned their

imagination, how do you go about re-opening that side of them?


When working with projects that concern a big part of the community, how do you get them involved?

Usually members of the community are the contractors so they are instantly involved. We listen to their opinions. We let them build as they would normally and then we discuss with them things that we’d like to do differently.


Please tell us about one (or more) methods of your personal favorites, when it comes to opening up the process and creating new ideas?

We use a variety of facilitation techniques- World Café is a standard on where question are discussed in rotating groups so that no ideas are owned by one sole person, but by the group as a whole.


My favorite method though is ‘What if?’ There is only one rule in ‘What If?’- No idea is a bad idea. From that starting point every statement brainstormed begins with ‘What if… the building floated?; What if… the floor was made of cheese?; What if… everything was covered in fur? etc. It makes people think of the ridiculous and out of the ridiculous comes great ideas. A recent example of this was when the kids from the international school thought of using rubber spacers at joints in a climbing frame to simulate the flex of tree braches in the orang utan training facility. This was in response to one of their friends comments: ‘What if everything was made from jelly’


Please tell us about a good experience while working in collaboration with users.

The client of the orang utan project was wary when she asked us to design a training facility and we asked if we could get a group of school kids to do it. By the end of 4 days though, when she saw the ideas they came up with she was really impressed. This in itself gave the kids such a visible sense of accomplishment and pride.


What does that mean to you?

It was a special thing to be a part of. A lot of these kids are considering a studying architecture or engineering at university and this gave them a lot of confidence. Others though aren’t thinking of this type of a career and felt that they had no artistic skills- their surprise at the response their work and ideas received was great to see.

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