Vernacular of Adaptation

By helloeverything

Nairobi is East Africa’s face to the world. One of the largest and most economically developed cities on the continent, its transformation is driven by an enormous investment in the modern tech industry and global logistics infrastructure. Its economic growth is reciprocated in a large regional migration to the metropolis, where East Africans leave historic modes of pastoral life in pursuit of new opportunities.

Nairobi’s accelerated urbanization is very unevenly distributed. It manifests in the many large informal settlements which stitch the fragmented urban developments together. The largest and oldest of the settlements (often referred to as slums) is Kibera. Kibera’s identity is an amalgam of numerous tribes, languages, and religions from the surrounding territories, primarily rural Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Climaxing in 2008, political corruption excited rampant tribal/ethnic violence across Nairobi, and in particular Kibera. Now, in 2016, emerging from its traumatic past, the region increasingly embraces a diverse identity where hybridity and adaptation transform myriad forms of tradition into a kind of organic and idiosyncratic urbanism. It is this Kibera that increasingly drives the cultural landscape of a new Nairobi, with all the friction and opportunities therein.

The Kibera Hamlets School is built as a test of how the architecture of modification, reinterpretation, and serendipitous accident can engage a community and establish platforms through which people become active agents of design at a very local scale. In continuous feedback with its context, the project strives towards something mutable and plastic, which is very difficult to contain or impose upon the vernacular of globalized adaptation—a kind of productive consumption that exemplifies a highly unique, but also generic, identity.

The “glossary” that follows describes a shifting network of people, environment, and architecture. It delineates an evolving language that mimics the evolving architecture of Kibera Hamlets. Individually, these words describe anecdotes and contingencies, rebuffing convenient generalities that coalesce to describe a complex spatial condition in Nairobi through its many small points and instances.

1_Kibera Hamlets School

Kibera Hamlets School emerged out of the collaboration of our architecture practice, helloeverything, with Madrid based architecture studio Selgascano, the photographer and co-organizer for the project Iwan Baan, and our local partners Studio 14 with sponsorship by Second Home, a London cultural venue and workspace. Originally commissioned as a pavilion for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, the project traveled over 11,000 km by sea to be reborn as a school for youth in Kibera, Kenya.


Sheng is a hybrid Swahili-English dialect prevalent in Kibera. Highly regional in terminology, it is a free agglomeration of languages, which is continuously reformulated to suit an individual’s circumstances. As a collection of highly localized dialects, Sheng is a means of neighbourhood identification and communal pride. Sheng is the common tongue of Kibera Hamlets’ construction site.

3_Matatu #8:

The informal bus service which brings you into Kibera. Kibera is the second largest slum in Africa. The #8 are small Matatu microbuses best suited to weaving through the congestion surrounding Kibera. You can take the Kibra Sacco microbuses to the Olympic Stage. Then, it is a fifteen-minute winding walk through hair salons, mPesa stalls, several schools, and Toi market to Kibera Hamlets. Olympic Stage is a modal interface from Kibera to the rest of Nairobi.


MPesa is an advanced form of phone-based money transfer/storage system ubiquitous throughout Nairobi. The system is SMS based and has recharging locations in every corner of the city. It has had positive effects on the urban fabric and social interactions. Accepted everywhere and by almost everyone, it has eliminated the need to go through Nairobi and even Kibera with physical cash


(Kenyan Port Authority) A dry port adjacent to the Nairobi airport where Kibera Hamlets sat in limbo for over one month. Uneasily classified as product or waste, the adaptive identity of the project caused standard import/export protocols to stall while officials attempted to classify the function and contents of our container. Within the KPA, the logistical challenge of an itinerant architecture shipped via container from Denmark to Kenya occupied a grey zone in customs classification, ultimately doubling the timeline to project completion.


This translates from Swahili as a “craftsman,” a skilled worker who owns his own tools. In comparison with a “labourer,” a Fundi wields a particular craft (often several). The region’s vernacular is embedded within fundi craft and its reciprocal relationship to materials. Kibera Hamlets is a cooperative extension of both a designer’s and fundi’s technique.


Printers are in short supply in Kibera, as are digital cameras. It becomes one man’s business to serve as Kibera’s paparazzo and sell printed copies of his exploits on demand: such a man is cleverly called “photoman.”

8_Material culture

A material culture is an ecology of skills and materials, people and things. An adaptive design emerges in the relation to this ecology. Although generalizable and to some degree transferrable, each locale is different. Projects emerge in the ecological opportunities and accidents of Kenyan scaffolding, masonry techniques, power and water access, iron sheet construction, fundi expertise, etc.


Mabati is a Swahili word for corrugated metal sheets. These are the cheapest and longest lasting spatial barriers you can buy in Kibera. An iconic material of Kiberan life, the Mabati’s resilience, reuse, crumpling, and oxidation compose an environmental narrative of collective architecture.


NYS is the acronym for the now defunct National Youth Stewardship program, whose mass embezzlement left thousands of Kenyan youth without income and resources to work towards the social betterment of their community. The opportunity of community organization and employment for Kibera Hamlets emerged in the void of the NYS. The NYS scandal is an acute example of the consequences of national corruption on a community’s well-being.

11_Rule-based Construction

Kibera Hamlets foregrounds the use of digital tools to design and coordinate manual construction. The processes and methods of the digital inform the construction process resulting in a messy hybrid of computation and hand craft. Digital rules, reciprocate rules of organization and interaction in the field.


In the process of traversing two dramatically different contexts, Kibera Hamlets required a design strategy capable of responding to dramatically different sets of skills, concerns, and unknowns. Architecture constructed in sites like Kibera must be robust to respond to unclear site boundaries and elevational grades. Tolerance is the generation and absorption error in spatial assemblages. The control of tolerance within Kibera Hamlets is the intelligent control of contingent unknowns in context, communication, and logistics. What aspects of the design are forgiving to unknown circumstances? Which are not? Calculated Tolerance allows for vernacular of adaptation to appear. It is design through embraced uncertainty.


Kibera’s ceaseless spatial collisions cause everything to inflect, if just slightly; straight lines are hard to come by in Kibera. For both trained and untrained participants, true orthogonality in the field is extremely difficult to achieve. Kibera Hamlets was built through a continuous exchange on the degrees of exactitude.

“The digital model has a straight line there, but in the field it is warped. Is that a problem?”

In some cases, yes, it is: in many others, no.


In a building environment where most locally sourced materials are also locally produced, everything is customized for a task. Affordable manual craftsmanship lowers the barrier to building with differentiated parts because construction “norms” are so flexible. Customization in this form is difficult to scale, though highly effective for individual buildings.

15_Swivel / Fixed

Couplers connect two elements. The swivel coupler is a generic construction element, capable of a wide range of variation through its rotation. Kibera Hamlets makes use of its versatility to produce non-standard wholes from standard parts.


Colour is both a method for organizing construction, as well as a generator of atmosphere and spatial affect. Colour demonstrates a construction sequence all participants can quickly understand. Using many versions of a common element, colour is a primary way a construction hierarchy is embedded into the pieces themselves. Simultaneously, the gradient of colour produces a playful environment for learning and interaction.

17_Programmatic Hybridity

At night, Kibera is very dark. Introducing simple artificial lighting allows the space to be multifunctional across different times of the day. In environments where access is quite limited, a building is challenged to provide as many programs to as wide a range of users as possible.


Throughout Kibera, women prepare Chapati bread. For 30 cents you can add egg and vegetables to your chapati for quite the luxurious breakfast. Hence it carries a posh moniker—the Rolex.

helloeverything is an international design studio founded in 2013 by Austin Smith, Julian Ocampo, and Sixto Cordero. Their work emerges from the opportunities of the standard to proliferate the spatial agency of the people, objects, and relations which constitute contemporary life. Through design they expand and challenge the functions of the everyday, innovating through convention to achieve a nonstandard operative praxis. (