Despite the popular notion of Ethiopia as a barren desert wasteland, the eastern African country also contains rugged inland mountains that make transportation of building materials extremely difficult, thus complicating humanitarian aid work in one of the poorest places on earth. Since 1999, Fred Friedmeyer III has been working on solutions to both of these issues, building prefabricated structures of his own design to house nurses, teachers, and agriculturalists living among the Gumuz, one of Ethiopia’s approximately 80 rural tribes and ethnic groups.
The San Diego–born, Cal Poly–trained architect and former construction contractor oversees his family’s 8,000-acre buffalo ranch in Alberta, Canada, for half of each year and spends the other half in Ethiopia, where he has built five of his modular dwellings to date. Each unit is composed of four units around a central open room, all enclosed by a large overhanging roof, with standard four-by-eight dimensions practically eliminating the need to cut the plywood panels used for sheathing and partitions. Materials are indigenous or easily sourced in Ethiopia, including louvered windows and the steel tubing used to create customized roof trusses. All welding is done in the city and then the parts are trucked out and bolted together on site. Since the hunter-gatherer Gumuz live in traditional thatch-roofed tukulas, Friedmeyer’s houses are also designed so they can easily be moved if their Western occupants relocate—in fact, the whole structure can be picked up and shifted. Alternately, the trusses can be jacked up and the bedroom/office modules removed such that the interiors can be converted to churches or serve the community in other capacities.
After transporting materials into the bush on the interdenominational Society for International Missions’ five-ton flatbed truck and trailer, a crew of four can have the structures, including plumbing and electrical, completed in three weeks at a cost of $25,000 to $30,000. Although this is about half the cost and a third the time necessary to build one of the area’s more common masonry structures, Friedmeyer is constantly refining his designs and streamlining the construction, hoping to increase productivity beyond his current pace of erecting one unit during each of his annual Ethiopian stays.
Resembling in form and function ancestors such as Jean Prouvé’s prefab Tropical House, Friedmeyer’s simple designs harmonize, as much as possible, with Ethiopia’s challenging natural environment. Solar panels and tubing harness the plentiful sunlight’s energy for radios, computers, and hot water while large roofs catch mountain breezes and heat chimneys dissipate interior warmth; when it’s 120 degrees in the African sun, the passively cooled houses are still comfortable. Despite their simplistic beauty, Friedmeyer’s designs are really manifestations of the functional, egalitarian tenets of modernism.
"The practical side, the cost, durability, speed, and adaptability are what I concentrate on," notes the modest but gregarious designer when asked what inspires his designs. In a country with an average annual per-capita income of $110 and a legacy of warfare, drought, famine, and political instability, Friedmeyer views his work as facilitating basic but vitally important necessities to an all-but-ignored indigenous population. "Fifty percent of Gumuz children survive to be two years old," he explains, a note of urgency piercing his otherwise placid demeanor. "They don’t even give a child a name until it can walk and talk. In that situation, helping them to have a steady diet, medical care, and some education is about the most important thing you can do."