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Engineers on a mission to help others

30 June 2023

Christians in the construction industry are offering their skills around the world, reports Pat Ashworth


A design trip undertaken by EMI Uganda

A design trip undertaken by EMI Uganda

IT HAS, for many years, been easy for Christian professionals in fields such as medicine and education to find organisations to help them to apply their skills and their faith outside their day-to-day work.

In the past 40 years, architects, engineers, surveyors, and construction workers have had a global network, too: Engineering Ministries International (EMI). It works in 36 countries, completed more than 100 projects last year, and describes its mission as to “see people restored by God in a world restored through design”.

EMI organises the design of schools, orphanages, hospitals, ministry centres, and water and electrical systems. It can call on experts in every field of construction, who, in response to an EMI call-out, form a team for each individual project. But it is surprisingly little known — something that its UK executive director, Stephen Douglas, and its trustees are keen to change.

Mr Douglas, a Belfast architect, set up a practice with two fellow graduates in 1986. A Christian since his teens, he had found the big mission agencies to be a strong part of church culture in Northern Ireland, but he hadn’t come across EMI. He remembers, as a young architect, doing a pro bono project — plans for a children’s and mothers’ hospital in Malawi — completely on his own, and “doing the best I could, with very little experience and feeling very isolated and vulnerable”.

He became aware of EMI through a chance reconnection on social media with a with a former home church member, now married to an engineer and working in Uganda. A project trip as a volunteer last September took him to a rural part of South Africa, to work out a master plan for a proposed Christian secondary school, in the town of Piet Retief, which would also teach business skills and agriculture to prepare children for the workplace. It would incorporate 20 hectares of agricultural land, and house both pupils and teachers.

He found himself on a team with civil and electrical engineers, a young graduate master planner from the United States, and a South African architectural intern. The ten intensive days with the South African EMI office produced an initial masterplan, resulting in a report to the client, with costings. A local architect is likely then to be employed to take the detailed design forward, while EMI continues to advise where needed.

EMIThe masterplan for the Alpha & Omega Agri-Tech Secondary School project developed by EMI

“It was probably the most invigorating ten days I’d had a in a long while, as a Christian,” he says. “It seemed obvious that a working architect with a faith and a desire to see mission work well and to use professional skills all slotted together like a jigsaw.”

He reflects, too, on a change of culture in the past 20 years that has meant more and more development of local offices around the world — the latest in Mexico — born out of the realisation that, “instead of doing things for” the countries that they work with, “we should be doing them with”. “It means we are working together on these developments rather than coming from afar and disappearing to afar.”

The Ugandan office has just celebrated its 20th birthday. A sample of projects that EMI has undertaken encompasses a paediatric ward for a hospital in Burundi with a particular problem that a hundred patients are hospitalised every day, making the spread of communicable diseases impossible to control; a water-distribution-concept design in Cambodia; a children’s home in Guatemala; and a self-sustaining garden-home orphanage on a beautiful peninsula in Myanmar.

Mr Douglas was approaching retirement when he became executive director in February. “The responses we get to a call-out include a mixture of people from my generation who are coming to the end of their careers, and thinking what they might do in some of their spare time, and a whole lot of young graduates and students exploring what their faith means in a professional setting,” he observes.

“I had been working my whole life with Christian partners and directors; so we had a ministry mind in how we did our work in the secular world: it was part of our worship, and how we did it we saw as part of an expression of what God has called us to. This is a step even further, in that everyone involved has a Christian faith; so it’s as much about mentoring and developing Christian people as it is about mentoring and developing professional careers.

“It’s the understanding that somebody who goes through a training and a calling and gifting ability have been made like that by a Creator God who has a purpose for them. So part of the organisation is to help construction professionals think through what God has in store for them.

“That gives me a real buzz, because there’s a whole world out there that needs good design. Construction standards in low- and middle-income countries are often still under development and not necessarily well-implemented. You find many substandard buildings and things that don’t really work. One of the joys of this work is the quality of design achieved by interdisciplinary and international teams, resulting in money for construction projects being spent on facilities that will last and serve the ministries well.”

MEG COLLIN, who is currently working in Uganda, is a trustee for EMI UK. She first heard about EMI in her third year of studying architecture at university. After graduation, she felt convinced of a calling to serve in a development context. She did an internship with EMI, returning to the UK to finish her architectural training. She is now based in Uganda, splitting her time between a charitable architectural foundation and EMI.

EMIMeg Collin carries out a site visit in Uganda

The organisation is involved with a wide network of NGOs and churches. “We don’t generally advertise our work: it almost all comes in through word of mouth,” she says. “After the application has come in, someone from the office will go and meet the organisation and explore criteria, like how prepared are they to carry out the project; do they own the land; do they have some idea of fund-raising plans; will this be really beneficial for someone who actually engages with the project; how are they serving the poor?

“There just aren’t many architectural practices; so they’re continuously trying to build them up and to train people. The idea is that we train ourselves out of a job.”

She has been moved to see how the fulfilment of someone’s long-cherished dream of building something like a vocational school, really matters. “It’s good to be part of. I’m seeing God at work in so many ways in it.”

Teams meet every morning for half an hour to read the Bible, sing together, and pray.

Construction is acknowledged to be a difficult area to work in, with a poor life/work balance, quite commercial, and so not very conducive to creating help for people in need. “It can be quite an antagonising industry, with its law and contract. I think that’s something I found very difficult.”

She did her undergraduate training in Sheffield, postgraduate in Newcastle, and final part in Bath. She has been able to pass her enthusiasm on to others: two of her closest friends have now been on project trips, and one became an intern. “When people find out about us, they’re generally very excited.”

A great deal of EMI’s work, she points out, is early-stage design work: business setting, master planning, trying not to undercut the local market, engaging with the vision as a whole. It’s all about design, sustainability, buildability, and affordability — “so, trying not to make it too complicated” — and creating spaces for communities.

DESIGNS are contextual. Mrs Collin was secretly delighted when her secular day job in Uganda brought her into contact with the country’s Ministry for Education. In response to a question seeking a recommendation of schools that she and her colleagues should visit, she was told: “You have to go to Amazima primary school.”

The building, designed by EMI to have large, sliding bamboo-screen doors, opening up the classroom interiors to the landscape outdoors — for temperature control that didn’t feel too hot and didn’t overheat — went on to be lauded.

Mr Douglas says: “In my practice, we worked on the principles of firmness — a building standing up; commodity — having the right spaces to do the job; and delight — which is that you could create wonderful environments that just lift the spirits; environments that are better to live in and work in and share God’s love in.

“So, to see that rolled out in the poorest circumstances, where local ministries are envisioned to improve the situation of the community around them, and help them achieve that, and for them to have a smile on their face at the end of the day, and say, ‘This is wonderful’ — that’s what the Kingdom is all about.

“I’m looking over the next few years for a gush rather than a trickle of people getting involved. And, for that, we need prayer support, some finances, and young professionals who know about the Christian organisations they can get involved with.”


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