top of page

Glass Half Full | Felix Holland, LOCALWORKS

'Localworks' is an award-winning multi-disciplinary design and build collaborative, based in Uganda, that specialises in the design and realisation of ecological architecture in East Africa. The collaborative was set up by a number of building consultancy firms – including Studio FH Architects, Aquila Gallery and Equatorsun – who offer integrated services under one roof. Motivated in equal parts by idealism, pragmatism and professionalism, they are committed to advancing green architecture in theory and in practice. Their approach is rooted in the principles of sustainable architecture, with a focus on site-sensitive contextual design and socioeconomic, environmental and technological appropriateness.

We interviewed Felix Holland, one of LOCALWORKS’s founders and directors, to know the inside story of his journey and to understand how the organisation strives to make the glass half full.

How was Localworks conceived?

I am an Architect, brought up in Germany and was always very interested in green Architecture. I ended up moving to Uganda. Initially I worked on projects that were commercial in nature, for eight years. I started Studio FH Architects in 2013. My idea at that time was to specifically work in the field of Green and Sustainable Architecture.

With Commercial Projects, I really learnt the art of project delivery. I mixed professionalism with my idealism to practice architecture in a more environment-friendly way. I was also very inspired by a very good friend of mine, an Australian Architect, Ross Langdon. We ended up working together for a while. He set an example that we can really do what we believe in. Over the years we managed to build a great multi-disciplinary team of like-minded professionals and eventually in 2019, we started Localworks. So essentially, Studio FH became a member of Localworks, rather Localworks became the roof under which we work.

Mustardseed Junior School © LOCALWORKS

Can you take us through one of your projects and the process involved?

I am going to talk about Mustardseed Junior School, because I feel it is a good example of how we want to work. Our journey started in the village, our first projects were in very remote places. Uganda is a beautiful country. It has some of the most serene landscapes to work with.

We like to develop our projects out of the site/location, with regards to the immediate nature the culture, the materials that one can find, while considering the climate.

We spend a lot of time on site, trying to be sensitive while looking for the right answer. Materials play an important role. We try to understand what materials are available and how to work with them. Our first project was built out of fired clay bricks, partially because of the location of site and availability of the specific material and resources. Over the years, we moved towards earth construction, learning its different types, from compressed earth blocks to rammed earth and moving into earth bag construction. The Mustardseed Junior School is constructed entirely out of earth bag technology.

Earth bag technology at Mustardseed Junior School © LOCALWORKS

The project started with the Client, an NGO that approached us, wanting to start a school in a village from scratch, to teach using the local curriculum while wanting to enrich it with innovative forms of education, incorporating creativity, art, music and active learning. We really try to understand what the client wants to do, then we visit the site and try to understand what the site has to offer.

The idea is to treat child education as a real journey of the school. The classroom for the young are at the lowest level in the school and the children slowly move uphill, from kindergarten to the upper primary years.

Architecturally speaking, we wanted this journey to be expressed through movement into a new classroom every year, each with its own character, different from the other, physically as well as its aesthetics; where you can experience how you grow.

In Uganda, we have only dry and wet seasons. Throughout the year, you can be both indoors and outdoors, and the boundary between the two can be blurred. So we designed every classroom to have a dedicated indoor space, and also a dedicated outdoor space, obviously shaded by trees but without a roof over your head, keeping the experience close to nature.

For indoors, we started with a concept where the roof would be independent of the walls, hovering above and thereby maximising cross ventilation. We designed roofs with large overhangs to protect the buildings from direct sunlight but allow for maximum cross-ventilation, thereby creating a very comfortable indoor climate. At this stage, we started looking for what could be the right material for this project and the client was very interested in a carbon-neutral construction. They were very ambitious, and we knew we could achieve this only if we use the materials directly from the site. As we had already made various experimental earth-based constructions, we were interested in utilising earth bags. It is a simple technology; you do not need complicated shuttering. It is easy to sculpt, and one doesn’t have to be very particular about the kind of earth that will be mixed to fill the bags.

Roof as an element that is independent of the walls © LOCALWORKS

The next challenge was to identify people who could build this type of a school. There is no one in Uganda who has experience in Earth Construction. This question really coincided with our idea to start Localworks and to become a design and build group. We presented the new idea to the client when we had already finished the design and said we would like to build this school ourselves. We were very lucky that the client agreed and gave us this opportunity. It became our first project as Localworks.

One further interesting approach came from our landscape architect, Chloe Humphreys, who is extremely keen on finding more sustainable ways of integrating projects into sites. She went very far in this particular project, in many aspects. We set ourselves the target of leaving a site after construction that has a much higher biodiversity than before. We wanted to leave a site which can completely heal overtime, because the soil was completely depleted from decades of farming. We ended up planting close to 3000 trees, only indigenous species. We built bioswales and setup a sustainable firewood production in one part of the site.

There was an area where we created a playing field, and we had to cut quite a lot of eucalyptus trees, we used that eucalyptus for the roof structure. So, we tried to maintain this kind of reuse cycle in our design thinking. The school is now ready, it was completed early this year, but due to the pandemic, it is not being used by children. But we are hoping it will soon open up.

Mustardseed Junior School © LOCALWORKS

How do you implement your design vision on-ground?

One key aspect is that because we have built up a certain profile in Uganda as green architects, we attract clients who have that particular interest. It is about the details of design and the technology or material that we are proposing.

We always go through a process. We include the client very closely in the early design stage. There is no discussion or decision that the client is not aware of. They understand a certain solution. The client shares the concerns, like who will build using this particular material, the client sees us and joins us with material experiments. We always try out mock-ups and see how it works. We really make sure that the client is a part of it.

What is very important about this type of a process is that you need time, and you have to be brave enough to fail, to be open and transparent with the client if a certain idea doesn’t work.

How does you project and your platform make the glass half full?

I am totally convinced that we can make a difference, you can make a difference, I can make a difference. I don’t believe in quantity; I believe in quality.

We are trying to be a for-profit organization, but for us profit is a means to an end and not the purpose of why we exist. We want to show that there is no contradiction between running a successful, profitable organisation and doing work based on a holistic idea and a mission-driven approach trying to help making this world a better place.

Mustardseed Junior School © LOCALWORKS

In our philosophy we like to believe that the answers are more local. I don’t want to dismiss any global answers as well, but in our view we want to be finding our answers locally. Another aspect is that if we have the choice, we want to adopt the low-tech, simple and obvious, rather than the high-tech, complicated, post-design solutions.

I am always a bit sceptical of the mainstream sustainable architecture fashion that has now taken over the world because many times I feel that there is a lot of technology being used to solve problems that were generated by the same people. Sometimes, there are some very straightforward early answers that you can give, to avoid many of these complications. Overall, I would say that in my view the glass is half full because we have lots of opportunities as architects to directly influence how our world looks.

What message would you like to share for our readers?

We should never forget that 40% of the global carbon emissions are generated by the construction sector. Even though we all know that the role of the architect is being taken over by other professions sometimes, we still sit at the centre of many early decisions, through project development, construction. I think that all of us should take our roles seriously, as architects and as architecture students. We really can make a difference.

Mustardseed Junior School © LOCALWORKS

It is high time that we find more harmonious ways of co-existing with nature. Architects have a great role to play in this aspect.

Not only harmonious, but also for healing, because a lot of destruction has already taken place. The whole world now really sees this more personally through the pandemic; what this destructive way of living almost against nature means, where it takes us in the longer run. A last point that I would like to share particularly for architecture students is that I am a great believer in hard work and less of a believer in genius designers. I am a firm believer that the combination of a very strong set of values and ideas, knowing what is good and what is wrong is the starting point. Then the rest is very hard work. Architecture is a profession, not a job. Someone who is willing to go on that journey is committing himself/herself to a lifetime of learning and working, which I think is the most rewarding path one can take.


Recent Posts

See All
Post: Blog2 Post
bottom of page