by Avi Salem | CED Communications
This summer, the Kissosso neighborhood in Conakry, Guinea welcomed a distinctly different home clad entirely in bright green corrugated metal. Its interior, decorated with vibrant traditional West African fabrics and prints, stands in stark contrast to the neighboring metal and concrete shacks. Built entirely by and for the residents of the slums, it’s the first of its kind — a prototype for what Aboubacar Komara (B.A. Architecture ‘18) hopes will soon be hundreds of low-cost, sustainably built homes for some of Conakry’s most vulnerable populations.
Kaloum Bankhi, or houses of Kaloum, is a low-cost housing concept designed and developed by Komara, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. Komara was one of five winners awarded the Judith Lee Stronach Baccalaureate Prize, which supports the intellectual and creative pursuits of recent graduates by funding projects that advance the work they began during their undergraduate studies. Komara put his $25,000 prize money towards the project, which he sees as a transformative concept for an area stricken by poverty, overpopulation and a lack of proper sanitation.
“A passion for giving back to my community has always been significant to my life, and I try to connect back to it in everything I do,” explains Komara. “I thought of this as an opportunity to solve a big social issue in Guinea.”
A Migration of Architecture
Originally from Guinea, Komara moved to the United States in 2013 after winning the U.S. Department of State’s highly-competitive Visa lottery, which accepts less than one percent of Guinean applicants per year: In 2018, only 1,470 of the 322,943 applicants from Guinea were granted Visas, according to the Bureau of Consular Affairs. With the support of his family and local community, Komara transferred to UC Berkeley from community college in 2016 to pursue a degree in architecture — a field he decided to pursue seriously after his father’s passing in 2008.
“My father worked in construction as a civil engineer and he did a lot of home design, so hanging out with him all the time when I was young made me like the architecture side of his work,” he says. “After I lost my dad in high school, I decided to pursue architecture to stay connected to my dad. I’d like to continue his legacy and do things he wanted to do but never had the chance to, like building a school and a mosque in his village.”
For his proposal, Komara expanded upon his efforts first conceived as part of an advanced “Fundamentals of Architectural Design” studio. Taught by Mary-Ann Ray, the fall 2017 Joseph Esherick Visiting Professor of Practice, the studio centered around the design and development of one-room dwellings, built in such a way that they could be efficient and dynamic while adapting to habitants needs. Inspired by the studio, Komara submitted a proposal to bring sustainable and native materials, space-conscious design and modular construction to Kaloum.
Komara’s concept, titled “A Migration of Architecture,” seeks to address the challenges of building housing efficient and flexible multi-use housing to accommodate large or expanding families. Cramped living conditions often require families to sleep in shifts in order to accommodate all family members comfortably. While Komara didn’t live with that reality growing up, many of his childhood friends did. He explains that it was customary for his peers to stay out until dawn before going home to sleep in the morning.
“Young people will go out all night and hang out with their friends because they don’t have a space to sleep,” Komara says. “Parents sleep from around 9 p.m. until 5 a.m., and 5 a.m. is when people from my generation — from about 15 and up — will come home to sleep. So my interest is to create a space that would allow them to all sleep at night.”
For his one-room dwelling design, Komara began researching shotgun homes, a housing type popular in the American South. Characterized by their long and narrow layout where each room leads to an adjacent one, shotgun homes supposedly got their name from the idea that a bullet could be fired from the front door would exit through the back, leaving the house unscathed. In his research, Komara was surprised to discover that the shotgun house’s design actually originated in West Africa before making its way to Haiti and then the United States.
“When slaves were freed in the south, many African descents from Haiti immigrated to Louisiana, and with them brought the shotgun housing type,” Komara explains. “It was kind of like blacks empowering each other, saying that they could actually build and own their own architecture.”
Taking inspiration from the shotgun home, Komara designed the Kaloum Bankhi prototype to contain three adjacent rooms within a small 10-by-25 foot space. With moveable walls and beds, the space transforms from a communal living space in the day to sleeping quarters at night. The concept of “migrating” or moveable elements within the home were influenced by Komara’s own migration from Guinea to the U.S.
“I wanted to connect this idea of migration in the design to my own migration,” Komara explains. “First coming to the U.S. and learning here, then going back with new knowledge; to the migration of the shotgun homes from West Africa that are now in the South; and then the migration of architecture in the design from the moveable walls and beds.”
A few weeks after graduation, Komara traveled back to Conakry and immediately got to work. His first order of business? Connecting with faculty and a group of architecture students from the Institut Superieur d'Architecture de Urbanise (ISAU) with whom he shared his ideas and conducted preliminary research with. The cohort of 15 second through fifth-year students, selected through an examination process, helped conduct interviews in Kaloum and tour the prospective site for the build with Komara.
“In many of these compounds, 15 families were sharing a space of 20-by-30 meters with an average home size being 3-by-5 meters. Sanitary conditions were really bad with families having access to only one bathroom,” Komara says. “All of this proved and validated the assumptions that I initially had, but it also allowed us to update our design.”
The cramped living spaces the group witnessed helped inform meaningful changes in Komara’s original design, like implementing Murphy beds and swinging doors between the house’s three main spaces instead of sliding beds and doors. Komara then spent the following weeks preparing for the build -- set to begin on July 26 and last two weeks -- and convincing locals that his idea was not as outlandish as many believed it to be. Still, he was faced with pushback from community members and builders about the plausibility of the build and his intentions behind it.
“When I told people we were going to build the house in two weeks, no one believed me, including the carpenters and contractors,” he explains. “Trust was a big issue at first, but as time went by people began liking the project, telling me they had never seen anything like this before. As we made progress, people got more excited and wanted to do more to meet the deadline.”
Despite beginning construction in the middle of Conakry’s wettest season, they finished the build on August 15 -- just a little over two weeks -- and worked through rainy conditions to finish the project on time. Learning iteratively throughout the build process took up some of the team’s time, Komara explains, but the quick turnaround during the rainy season confirmed that the project could be completed in even less time during normal conditions.
Something Komara couldn’t anticipate until the build began was managing the community’s expectations and doubts during the process. He faced resistance at many levels -- from contractors to city officials to locals -- but stayed true to his vision. He even chose a site near a main road so that the house’s construction was visible to passersby, which initially brought many questions but eventually led to optimism as the project got nearer to completion.
“I think I learned more about managing people than anything else, because for many of these contractors this was their first big build and my first build, too,” he says. “The process was just as much a learning experience as a learning curve -- we started slowly, but learned quickly from each other by seeing each other’s limits and what we were capable of as a team.”
A Promising Future
In the month since the Kaloum Bankhi prototype was finished, Komara’s become somewhat of a local celebrity in Kissosso. Once news of his modular home made it to the local news, friends from far and wide were contacting him to congratulate him on a successful build. The biggest reaction, however, has been from his mother who he explains has been one of his strongest supporters.
“My mom was a big part of the project, from bringing us food every day to being at the site all the time,” he says. “She was also skeptical at first, but she believed in me and motivated me. For her to see the home being built and then coming to love it, calling up people to come see it and then inviting everyone there for the inauguration was really nice.”
Seeing people’s perceptions change over the course of three months made Komara realize how significant his work really was, and convinces him more than ever to see his project through on a larger scale. He will be using the Kaloum Bankhi prototype as an example for various touring agencies, government bodies, schools and members of the community. His ultimate goal is to make Kaloum Bankhi a self-sustaining business model that’s not dependent on other entities. He’d even like to create a connection between architecture students at CED and ISAU in Conakry.
“It’s my hope to have students and faculty from CED doing research in this communities,” Komara explains. “People here need help: they’re suffering, but there are so many different ways of finding solutions to these problems. I personally think the more we collaborate, the more solutions we can come up with.
Although he’s back in Berkeley for the meantime, Komara plans to go travel to Senegal in October to work alongside local communities and determine if there’s a desire for building a modular housing concept there as well. After that, he’ll be co-teaching a design-build studio at ISAU in Conakry while simultaneously seeking a site and designing an architectural plan for a middle school -- one that specifically incorporates design classes within its curriculum.
“The need for schools in Guinea makes it a good place to explore a new type of school,” Komara explains with a smile. “It would be both affordable and welcoming to kids, but would also allow them to learn in different ways and be more creative than ever before. The development of any country depends on the education of its youth. And I think I’m just happy when I see something built: I don’t really care about the money; I’d rather make an impact.”
You can view more images, follow Aboubacar’s progress and support his project through his Instagram: @kaloumbanki
Read about Kaloum Bankhi's recent partnership with Oakland-based nonprofit Youth Spirit Artworks here.