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A Green Community Centre in Nairobi's Oldest Slum

This project aims to demonstrate the benefits of appropriate and more affordable green building materials through an iconic public structure

Photo of Gregor Herda
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Mathare slum has very few permanent structures, with most people living in temporary shacks made of wood and corrugated iron. These materials cope only poorly with increasingly adverse weather events such as torrential rains, most recently experienced through El Nino, and high summer temperatures, due to their poor thermal properties. In addition, they present a significant fire hazard. Introducing alternative building materials into communities is often met by social acceptance issues: concrete and brick are predominantly seen as aspirational. To overcome these barriers, it has been recognised that, rather than building demonstration homes, public structures accessible by the entire community are a much more effective vehicle for introducing alternative building materials. After conducting an assessment of green and affordable building materials options available in Nairobi, they were rated according to availability, cost, ease and duration of construction, durability, aesthetics, thermal properties and environmental impact. In our completed design for a 15x30m community centre, made out of gabions filled with local or recycled stone and a floor and roof structure made from bamboo, we have managed to match what the community had imagined with what the complex network of other stakeholders want. The structure consists of replicable units so that, with some training, the residents will be able to learn quickly how to build the hall under the guidance of an onsite engineer.


There are very few places for the majority of youths, kids, the elderly, the disabled and women’s groups to get together, discuss, learn and reimagine their neighbourhood with others who may have the same dreams and ideas as themselves -- to come up with new, creative ways of tackling the issues that matter. Therefore, not only will this community centre introduce alternative materials to the community, it will also function as a safe haven and meeting space and be a source of pride for Mathare.


The reality of climate change is at the heart of this project. Being forced to settle in precarious areas and in homes made of poor quality materials, slum residents the world over are experiencing the effects of climate change most acutely. Mathare is no exception. While its residents contributed very little to climate change, they are dealing with its effects on a yearly basis. However, we believe that demonstrating the viability and appropriateness of alternative building technologies which both mitigate against climate change and are more resistant to its increasing impacts, is a strategy with tremendous multiple benefits to both people and planet. Through an iconic public structures such as this, the slum residents can demonstrate to the building sector and policy-makers that new innovative solutions in sustainable building are out there and that business-as-usual thinking is a thing of the past. At the same time, the participatory design of this structure allowed all participants to understand the rich culture that already exists in Mathare deeply enough to design a space that is useful to and reflective of the community's needs. The structure is furthermore highly modular and adaptable to changing community priorities and will make use of both the existing skills within the community as well as locally available resources in the most efficient way. Finally, the women who participated in our focus group commented that this was the first time they had been specifically asked for their input in the design process of a community centre, leading to a much better outcome.


  • Yes, for two or more years


  • I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for at least two years


  • Yes


We are a global group of urban planners, architects, community mobilisers, and members of the Mathare community. We have been working on this project partly as individuals, partly within our organisations consisting of Cambridge University, UN-Habitat and the Rotaract Clubs Nairobi Central and Lille


Through a number of meetings with the community, the idea to improve public space in Mathare 3A first came into being in 2013, while the old community hall was identified as a possible site in early 2014. While many of our members have worked on public space and community projects before, the level of involvement and time committed to having the design reflect the aspirations of the community as accurately as possible far exceeds anything we have previously done. We believe the result speaks for itself.


Building a community centre is certainly not a novel intervention. The need for quality public space is near universal. What this project tries to do differently, is looking beyond the end goal of providing a functional public space towards utilising the process as well as the structure itself to realize additional benefits. Starting this project, we were in the fortunate position of being able to take the time to really understand the issues facing the community and see how this structure could be designed to address some of them. Upon finalizing the design, we invited community members, local and national government, NGOs and academia to discuss, at eye level, the design and implementation of the project. We hope that this process alone helped to realign perceptions and bring stakeholders closer together. Our team is also highly diverse with a wide range of complementary skills originating from a number of disciplines. In addition, our long time working in Nairobi have also allowed us to make strong institutional and personal connections which will be essential for bringing our project to fruition and making it sustainable in the long term.


Our previous experiences with setting up community centres have shown that a sound organizational structure and a thorough financial sustainability plan are essential for the long-term survival of any facility. The building of the centre will only be the first step in a long journey, and many hurdles, such as setting up a transparent and representative community organization to manage the centre, will still have to be overcome. Luckily, we now know some of the pitfalls in working in this environment and we are positive that the final result will be more than worth the struggle.


The problem of inadequate housing and lack of quality public space in informal settlements is one of the most complex issues in urban development. They range from lack of access to land, decent work, education to deeper causes of political economy. Our project therefore cannot presume to ‘solve’ any of these issues in one fell swoop, but rather to give an important impetus for change in one particular community which could have unanticipated knock-on effects on how public space is valued and how the question of building materials is approached by communities and policy-makers alike.


The process of architectural design can often be taken as a top-down endeavor. However, we have always tried to work against that assumption. Following several months of extensive case study research, a weeklong participatory design session was held in January 2015 (see our video). The activities that took place throughout the week were conducted with different demographic groups, and included six workshop exercises designed to gather different types of feedback to support the design process. At first, participants indicated their opinions about other community centers from across the world by using happy/sad stickers on large posters. The second exercise elicited feedback on potential risks for the existing and new community hall. A third exercise assessed the existing and desired skills which the community could contribute to constructing and managing the hall. A particularly insightful fourth exercise engaged the different demographic groups in reporting on their daily schedules, indicating when and how they hoped to use the facility. Following this, participants wrote and drew their aspirations for the design of the hall on blank pieces of paper. The final exercise involved working in small groups to visualize the layout of the hall in three dimensions. The groups arranged mock-up walls and furniture inside a basic model of a two-story building. All this data was eventually analysed and fed into the design and envisioned uses for individual spaces.


If our project is successful, we will kick our entire team into high gear to make sure that a clear and realistic timeline for the next steps is agreed upon and any yet outstanding hurdles are addressed. The first and most immediate achievement on our horizon is to create a safe, iconic and really useable meeting space for everybody to get together, discuss, learn and reimagine their neighbourhood with others who may have the same dreams and ideas as themselves -- to come up with new, creative ways of tackling the issues that matter. Eventually, however, we hope to provide an impetus for a discussion in Nairobi about how we build the city and communities, both physically and figuratively.

How does your idea connect to the broader system of the city where you plan to implement?

The Draft Integrated Urban Development Master Plan for Nairobi (NIUPLAN) calls to ‘strategically distribute necessary social services according to the current and anticipated population growth areas, specifically in Nairobi East’. The City County also plans to upgrade over 60 public spaces across the city. Our project therefore aligns very well with on-going public programmes and could very well be embedded into a wider programmatic framework to redevelop or construct other community centres. Especially the use of appropriate, low-impact building technologies could help introduce these technologies into these neighbourhoods by way of an accessible public good and thus help to strengthen communities through higher quality construction. Discussions with the Nairobi City Council, the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development as well as local universities have already been started to make sure that our project will receive the full institutional support it needs.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Chioma Ume

Hi Gregor and team!

Below is some feedback from our experts. We'd love to hear your responses!

How do environmental factors of the specific site integrate with this proposed design? For example wind capture, shading variances, water capture, waste management, power generation/backup power, etc.? Have you considered egress options? (I'd recommend 2 exits for the larger assembly at a minimum).

May you tell us a bit more about your plans for capacity-building in greater detail as well as lessons learned from MASS Design's work?
It would be great to understand more details about what you are planning? What will you do and how will those programmed activities be funded/supported? Are there other donors/co-benefits to consider, for example, community health outreach programs?

What a beautiful building plan! I wonder, could you share more information about how you think this aspirational structure will result in uptake of alternative building materials? Also, what role (other than demonstrative) will the structure play in the community? How will it be used? maintained? governed? accessible?

Photo of Gregor Herda

Dear Chioma,

many thanks for these questions. Here are our responses (1/2):

- Solar gain: the flexibility of the building allows us to adapt the facade to different circumstances. For example, to fill the gabions with smaller stones, and therefore, to have less solar gain into the building on the walls that receive direct sunlight, or if we need more light, to arrange the bamboos closer together on the first floor.

- Site: We did not consider any specific environmental issues about the site, since the exact location of the building was still under discussion at the time the design process began, and may still require additional discussions with the community and the local authority once funding is secured. We are very familiar, however, with the environment of Mathare 3A, which represents a very small scale already.

- Wind: The influence of the wind on the building was incorporated in the roof structure, through extra bracing.

- Exits: Due to the modular design, an extra exit could be added to the main hall, if is needed.

- Water capture, waste management, power generation/backup power were not considered in the design, although the possibility of solar panels was discussed, and could be developed if illegal connections can be absolutely ruled and the proper use and maintenance of the system can be guaranteed. The context always has to be taken into account.

Most of the services offered in the centre would be covered by usage fees. Our institutional connections have also allowed another project in Kibera to avail of, for instance, a free internet connection as well as IT equipment. We would like to establish similar partnerships with the public and private sector for this project. We have also undertaken some preliminary surveys of how much residents would be willing to pay, for instance, for childcare (about KShs 30 per child per day) or the use of cyber cafés all of which allows us to gauge the demand and ability to pay for the services we offer. All of this will eventually feed into a full financial sustainability assessment to be undertaken before construction begins.

During a session we held specifically with active women’s groups, the specific need was raised for a basic maternal health facility in the vicinity, due to the large number of births in Mathare as well as the long distances to the nearest maternity ward. Should we be able to gather the necessary permits, one half of the ground floor has been designed specifically with this use in mind drawing on the expertise from one of our earliest partner organisations, the Women and Health Alliance International (WAHA). In either case, all parts of the centre, especially the community hall on the ground floor, can also be used by any of the outreach programs in the area to organize events and make use of the centre’s facilities. 

Any new idea will require a combination of various push and pull mechanisms to take hold and lead to changes in behavior, especially when market dynamics are at play. The same holds true for the uptake of new building technologies. While we therefore do not assume a direct causation between our project and the uptake of alternative materials, multiple examples have shown that publically accessible structures are much more effective in increasing the acceptance of these technologies than residential ones. In addition, we believe that both the highly participatory process of designing as well as the final ambitious product utilizing local materials (recycled stone, bamboo and timber) will mean that the centre will not be perceived as an alien intervention but rather a source of pride for the community for generations to come. 

In terms of uses, the centre currently envisions a community hall and medical facility on the ground floor, the latter consisting of a waiting area, consultation rooms, operation room, a pharmacy, patients rooms and toilets. The upper floor will consist of a library, an office for the management of the centre, a kitchen, a radio station, a classroom and a daycare. All of these uses were democratically proposed by the almost 100 members of the community from all demographic backgrounds who attended our workshops in January.

Photo of Gregor Herda


We envision the centre to be governed by a network of Mathare 3A’s existing CBOs to make sure as many people as possible are on-board and have a stake in the project. This network would itself be registered as a CBO with a two-tier organizational structure consisting of an elected seven member Executive Committee and the Centre Management, consisting of a manager and support staff. In addition, our core team members will be part of a Technical Advisory Committee to advise the CBO on organizational, technical, financial, legal, planning and architectural issues without having an actual vote in decision-making. A constitution for this CBO has already been drafted and shared with members of various CBOs currently active which we would be happy to send on to you for further reference. Previous experience in other projects has shown that getting the right people in charge who understand the importance of transparency and reliability especially in terms of financial accountability and maintenance of partnerships is crucial to make sure that the managing organization is perceived as working towards the good of the community both by other organisations as well as the community itself. 

Photo of Chioma Ume

Hi Gregor, thank you so much for these detailed answers. Successful Amplify projects are given funding and design support for 18 months. How do you and your team envision using Amplify support? 

Photo of Gregor Herda

Dear Chioma,

many thanks for this follow-on question. In terms of funding, we obviously want to use it to build the centre, equip it as much as possible and give it the best possible chance of succeeding in the long run. We already have a very clear idea of the material, transport and labour costs involved (the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), for instance, will be providing the bamboo at the necessary diameters and lengths at very competitive prices, in addition to the steel cages for the gabions). Other costs such as for planning permits and service connections are also known. Everything will finally be costed by a professional quantity surveyor who has been involved with the project.

The construction process will also require the on-site participation of an engineer as well as building material specialists able to supervise and train the community members, who we plan to actively integrate in the building process, in the construction techniques and proper long-term maintenance of the materials, which is especially important for bamboo.

The urban context is a complicated one with multiple often antagonistic agendas needing reconciliation from a variety of stakeholders. While we believe to have covered our bases from as many angles as possible, we are obviously not immune to human error or unanticipated circumstances and may still run into issues along the way. We are therefore very much looking forward to benefiting from the experience, design guidance and technical assistance Amplify will be able to provide us and are more than willing to work with the entire team to make sure the centre will be as much of a success as we think it can be.

Photo of Chioma Ume

Dear Gregor,
Thanks, this is very helpful! I asked in part because up to 8 winners will share $800,000 in design support and funding from Amplify - so even if yours is a winning idea, there wont be enough for the construction of a building - do you have any other partners that have expressed interest in funding the development of a building? What avenues have you been exploring?

Photo of Gregor Herda

Dear Chioma,

we are in fact quite optimistic about being able to construct the centre with 1/8th of $800,000: according to our preliminary calculations, materials and transport will amount to not even $30,000 (that's also partly why we opted for these materials) which leaves a healthy margin for professional and unskilled labour, service connections, permits, equipment and the rest. But even if we are coming short, we have in the past reached out to both the City as well as local embassies and corporate foundations, who we are confident would also jump on board to provide co-funding once they see the level of support we are receiving from Amplify. Also, in May, we ran an all-out IndieGogo campaign raising about 4500 USD in total, but most importantly, building up a large base of supporters from all over the world which I am sure we could mobilise for an even more impressive second campaign, since more people would then be convinced that things are moving towards the realisation of the project.

Please do let me know if you have any more questions and Merry Christmas in the meantime :)


Photo of Chioma Ume

Thanks Gregor - have a Merry Christmas too! 

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