Introducing: Colectivo Mel

 Colectivo Mel is an architecture duo based in Porto. Aiming to contribute to the environment and culture of diverse places, Mel focuses on conscious and responsible solutions in analyzing their surroundings. Ana Baptista and Hugo Dourado, the faces behind Colectivo Mel, will participate as mentors during our upcoming Summer School program.

Colectivo Mel, started to develop social projects in Guinea Bissau in 2014. In Africa their designs are strongly influenced by the environment and vernacular architecture of the particular community. Using the same semantics, the design is reduced on three basic elements which are the cover, border and body. Adapting native techniques, the design merges into the landscape and adjusts to the environmental conditions by using natural and indigenous materials.

Beyond construction and design, what binds their projects is also the concept of personalization and social participation. Mel’s approach aims to be a catalyst for real and reciprocal work- between technicians and users. Trying to find a way to include the inhabitants of the community, they figured out that this is not always an easy task.

We’ve met Ana and Hugo in their office in Porto to talk about the difficulties and chances of their participatory projects.

Your Portfolio is a collection of a many different projects. What do they have in common?

Yes, we worked in very different projects. The ones we did here in Portugal were rehabilitation projects- refurbishments. It was really nice because we knew the owners and basically we made the spaces for them. Then we were in Guinea Bissau where we did the kindergartens, an urban park and eco-tourism houses. All of these projects had different building processes and approaches. We did the kindergartens in cooperation with a local constructor. The idea was to build a space where kids can learn by themselves, in case there isn’t a teacher. We wanted the building to be a space where kids can be stimulated and find surprises which help them to learn.

Overall I think it’s really important to know for whom you're making the spaces.

At the same time we worked on eco houses project in a different small village of Guinea Bissau. The approach was participatory, hand in hand with the local community. We were always on the road, going back and forth between those places, that’s why we called us a wandering office. Overall I think it’s really important to know for whom you’re making the spaces. That’s the general characteristic of our work. It’s really personal.

With an Human development Index of 0,42 and a life expectancy of 55.2, Guinea-Bissau is one of the least developed countries in the world. Why did you decided to start projects in this particular location?

We went to Guinea-Bissau on holidays to visit some friends. Over there we’ve got in touch, through people we knew, with local NGOs. Normally they are not in charge of building but they were starting to develop infrastructure projects.

The NGOs got in contact with us to get our opinion on the projects they did and if we could launch construction plans. That’s how all started in 2014 and we came back in 2016.  It wasn’t foreseeable but we are glad it happened.

Regarding your kindergarten project, your first intention has been to include the whole community. Why didn’t i work out?

We wanted them to be part of the process, all together, side by side.

At the beginning when we did the drawings we imagined the project to be participatory, hand in hand with the local community. We thought that the NGOs would like this to happen.But when we were discussing our plans with the financiers, they had concerns regarding the time it would take to finish the project. We found together with the NGO a local constructor.

So we did work with him, but the community wasn’t there, neither the professors, nor the school director, nor the children.
In final the community didn’t know much about the construction. We wanted them to be part of the process, all together, side by side. We wanted them to think that they’re a part of this building and feeling connected to their work.
But it didn’t happen that way.

Tell us more about a project where you successfully included the local community.

It was another project in collaboration with the NGOs and parallel to the kindergartens, the Eco Tourism project. The NGOs and the local community started to choose a place to develop three eco-tourism houses in Elalab, Guiné-Bissau. It was really difficult to get there, about 5 hours by boat. After we did the drawings, we asked the community how they build usually. They were fantastic!

They let us in their houses, showing us the construction, materials and techniques of the buildings. They have a typical structure of their houses within the community. Basically they only use a specific kind of earth they have in their region and the wood of the mangroves. They only construct with this because it’s the only thing they have. We wanted the new houses to be like the ones they have.

How was the new model different to the native houses?

The native house consists out of two spaces; the inner space, which is very closed and only for sleep and the outer space. The limits are with mangroves in verticals and covered by a thatch cover. In addition they have a space that’s neither interior or exterior. That’s the place where they live usually. Back to the time, where we weren’t thinking of working here, we thought the interior is too dark and warm and the exterior is horrible hot. The most incredible place we have seen were the spaces in-between. It’s a perfect space.  So basically we adapted the same house but we introduced a bathroom. Since the purpose was eco-tourism, we had to adapt some standards to make it more comfortable. Usually they don’t have a bathroom, instead they use a public space. Furthermore, we added solar panels to guarantee electricity.

it was really important to show them a model

Then we expanded the size of the space between interior and exterior. We also changed the ceiling of the houses. Instead of flat ceilings we introduced vault ones, to open the indoor space. Because the locals neither knew how to build it nor to read construction plans, it was really important to show them a model. We worked a lot on how we could construct the vault ceilings with their material. They were incredible. We build two groups who worked on different roof solutions. And they figured out a way how to do it. Unfortunately one of the roofs fell down, because they didn’t respect the time to dry the earth.

Which vernacular techniques did you use and how did your design adjust to the environmental conditions of the area?

The design was created in Porto but based on the vernacular construction of their houses. We had to adjust our drawing because of the techniques they used. In that way the community was involved into the design as well, because they explained us how to do certain things we didn’t know how to do. The whole building is made out of earth. They make layers with their hands of one meter and then they let it dry. After that they add another layer and so on. It’s incredibly beautiful because of their handprints. Usually they even the walls, but we wanted to keep them that way. After that we painted the walls with a paint made out of crashed oysters from the ocean.

From the beginning we knew that it wouldn’t be a problem if we make it the way they did

In terms of the environmental conditions, we didn’t have to find solutions because the vernacular architecture of this community solved them already perfectly. The temperature isn’t the main problem. But they have four months of extreme rain and the houses are made out of earth, so they need to cover them really good. The traditional cover is made out of thatch and last up to 30 years. From the beginning we knew that it wouldn’t be a problem if we make it the way they did. They have a space in the roof for ventilation, so it doesn’t get to hot but at the same time water doesn’t come in.  Normally they make the fundament 30cm above the ground, so the water can’t harm the building.So we were safe in this part. We had a limit of the mangrove, the interior out of earth and the cover with the ventilation and the basis. All this together is a building that works.

Tell us about the challenges of the participatory process.

Everything wasn’t simple or easy. One of the major difficulties was that they don’t know how to read plans, because they never learned to do so. We had situations where we drew doors of 2, 5 meters and they built them with 1,60m. Another example is the process to build the windows. It is different to how we imagine it in Europe. Over there, they do it after building the wall. Basically they are using a bicycle spoke to cut the window out of the wall. When we did the plans, we didn’t have these informations. You can’t plan to put a window at one meter high into the wall which is handmade. With the layers of the wall, you must respect the lines of the construction. Its handmade, it’s not standard. After all our job was adaptation.

We learned a lot of them. Another problem was the time management. They were constructors, but they had a life as well. They had to go fishing and work on the field. They were very connected with nature and contributed their routine to it. It is not like in Europe where you have a 40h week from Monday to Friday. They have different traditions and times. Sometimes we came to the construction and nobody was there, because somebody died and they had three days of celebration- so we waited for them. We had to respect their culture and times.

After all our job was adaptation. We learned a lot of them.

You can meet Colectivo Mel during our Summer School program 2017. Join us and get to know more about sustainable- theoretical and practical- techniques.

Pictures by Colectivo Mel

http://www.colectivomel.com/

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