Architecture grad uses skills for humanitarian project

Architecture grad in Jordan.

BY BRENNA ZANGHI republished from UB Now

“I believe a material-heavy approach to architecture works well in disaster relief architecture because you’re usually working in a foreign land with very little resources and/or technology available to you”
Lemma Al-Ghanem, UB grad BA and Master's of Architecture

Release date: October 25, 2018

Shortly after earning her Master of Architecture degree this past spring from UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, Lemma Al-Ghanem headed to Jordan to join a humanitarian organization in its effort to build a sustainable classroom in the village of Azraq.

Al-Ghanem, whose family is originally from Syria, took part in WORKSHOP 1+1=11, part of the “100 Schools for Refugee Children” project sponsored by Emergency Architecture and Human Rights (EAHR). EAHR is an NGO, with headquarters in Copenhagen, Rome and Santiago, Chile, that builds for those facing humanitarian emergencies, cultural conflicts, inequality and human right issues.

Using low-cost, local materials and community expertise, WORKSHOP 1+1=11 seeks to increase the school attendance of Syrian refugee children in Azraq village, located outside the Azraq refugee camp, the second-largest refugee camp in Jordan. 

Al-Ghanem, who also received a BS in architecture from UB, was one of 20 candidates selected for the workshop. She took part in all phases of construction, as well as EAHR lectures on humanitarian architecture and debates. 

The building process relied heavily on local labor and construction methods. For instance, the design of the school draws from traditional Syrian rural architecture, and it was built with compressed earthen bricks. Syrian refugees from the nearby Zaatari camp comprised the majority of the construction team, supplemented by local Jordanians and foreign volunteers. 

In addition to helping with the construction, Al-Ghanem served as an Arabic-English translator for EAHR leaders and local residents. “Being able to speak Arabic helped me connect with many of the skilled workers on site and off,” she says. “I have made friendships and learned a lot about the hardships they went through in Syria and Jordan, which has only fueled my desire to be part of the solution through design.”

Al-Ghanem says her graduate research experience with the Department of Architecture’s Material Culture Research Group gave her a strong foundation for the low-tech, on-the-ground, problem-solving approach to design that is being implemented in Jordan. In fact, the brick system that was used for the Azraq school was very similar to a concrete compression project she explored under architecture professor Christopher Romano.

“I believe a material-heavy approach to architecture works well in disaster relief architecture because you’re usually working in a foreign land with very little resources and/or technology available to you,” she explains. “I am very grateful I have had the ability to focus on material building while in school. The work I did in Jordan only further emphasized that this approach to architecture is not only a valid one, but one that works best when you’re directly on the ground building in those types of conditions.”

Al-Ghanem has since returned to UB to complete her Graduate Certificate in Historic Preservation from the architecture school. Looking ahead, she says the experience in Jordan affirmed her interest in a career in humanitarian architecture.

“I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I was given to help out in Jordan. EAHR is doing amazing and extremely uplifting work,” she says. “The experience is one I will carry with me for the rest of my life. It has taught me so much and validated the importance of the type of work I want to do.

“It has given me experience in being able to blend my love for humanitarian work, as well as a material-heavy approach to architecture.”

global goals.

Sustainable Development Goals:

9. Industry , innovation, & infrastructure:  Creating resilient infrastructure that promotes sustainable and constructive industrialization

11. Sustainable cities & communities: Developing safe, resilient and sustainable places to live