When Architecture meets Service - A Journey in Working with Non-Profits

Identifiable by its brightly painted red supporting frame, the new building for Manav Seva School perches atop roofs of existing houses in Shankar Bhuvan community in Ahmedabad. When the number of students coming to this school had begun to burgeon in size, a decision had to be made – where to build a new school. Considering that the community had no space available and many people did not send their girls out of the community as is, building on the roofs of the houses here seemed the best solution to ensure that the girl students would continue to come.

Manav Seva School
Manav Seva School

Harshil Parekh, an architect and fresh graduate, was roped in to be part of this solution. How do you explain such an idea to the community and who will allow the new school to be built on top of their own house? Harshil had been deeply involved since some time in understanding participatory design – how to involve users in design processes to ensure that the results meet their needs.  Appalled by large-scale rehabilitation schemes that often shelve people into unlivable conditions, his research thesis at CEPT University had tried to penetrate the question – how does one learn about the needs of people while designing for them? He found that people are often frustrated by fake promises and refuse to speak when approached directly. Troubled by these negative responses, Harshil came upon ways to familiarise himself with communities first – by volunteering with non-profits that were working within the communities.

The Anganwadi Project (TAP) was building a preschool at the time – one of the 80 preschools run by Manav Sadhna that this Australian NGO plans to transform into a better place, one at a time. To begin with, the volunteers engaged with the children of the community through fun activities. This was important in building a relationship with the community. Through the children, the news would spread to their families, and soon people from the community would join in to help with the work or to offer tea and food. “The female volunteers were inspirational for the girls in the community,” says Harshil. “Because they had left behind their comfort zones and come from very far to work hard in such harsh conditions. I sometimes heard the women of the community remark to the boys who were loafing around that these girls are more powerful than them! To make them realise the strength of a girl.”

the Anganwadi Project, Anganwadi
BHOLU 13, the Anganwadi Project

Later in Shankar Bhuvan community, Harshil was able to apply some of these experiences while designing the Manav Seva School. Trust between the community and the NGO’s Manav Sadhna and Team Seva was once again absolutely instrumental in making the idea come to fruition. Through 3D visuals and communication in Gujarati language minus any architectural jargon, Harshil and the team were able to explain how the new school above the houses could be made. It was important to convey how the condition of the existing houses below would be improved in the process.  As it was not certain whether the existing walls of the houses had foundations that were strong enough, a new lightweight structure in steel was proposed for the upper construction. Floors and walls were proposed out of compressed panels to reduce the dead load, with the families showing immense trust in all these ideas. The school today thrives as a place where children receive value-based education, providing much-needed relief from the overcrowded quarters that the children and teachers previously had to make do with.

3D visuals and the building during construction
3D visuals and the building during construction
Inside the Manav Seva School
Inside the Manav Seva School

For Harshil, the seeds for voluntary work were sown when he was in New Zealand on an exchange programme from CEPT. While working alongside an environmental conservation group, it struck him that one hour of planting seeds could give so much to the local parks – that the plants would grow into trees long after he had left the country. Having spent much of his childhood growing up in a small room in a Pol house in Bhavnagar with his family, Harshil recounts how he has received tremendous support from people all his life – from the man who tutored him for free so he could make it to architecture school, to the friends who helped him master the English language (his research thesis eventually garnered the top awards during graduation), to the professor who sponsored his exchange programme. He remembers the words of this professor, which have guided him in all his decisions, “You don’t need to give back to me what I have given you. When I was young like you someone helped me out and I am passing it on to you, and you will pass it on to someone else. It is like a chain, keep helping others when they need it.”

Paying it forward in whatever way possible has been the young architect’s mission ever since. Many creative people will relate with the struggle to make ends meet while involving oneself in voluntary work. For Harshil, the solution to deal with this struggle was to keep earning and serving separate. He decided to devote his time before and after office hours towards voluntary work. He continues to make post occupancy observations for the Manav Seva School by keeping in touch with the families and owners there, and works with TAP on the latest Anganvadi project. His desire through this work is to ignite other students and architects to “serve others with great love” and discover for themselves the inner joy possible which is “unexplainable in words”.

discussion at the Anganwadi Project, Anganwadi
discussion at the Anganwadi Project

Photos of Manav Seva School given by Harshil Parekh, and photos of The Anganwadi Project taken from their page with permission.

Illustration for cover image: Ketu Gamit

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