• Students and adviser Wendy McClure stand along waterfront in Panama

Constructing Global Outreach in Panama

Interested in seeing what else happened while the Global Architecture Brigade was in Panama? Check out the team's photos in this slideshow.



College of Art and Architecture
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Panorama image of city in Panama

Building on an Architecture Degree with Service

Written by Becca Johnson

The University of Idaho trains its students to be leaders and make a global impact.

This spring, eight architecture students and professor Wendy McClure traveled to a remote farmstead near El Cope, Panama, to help one community.

"Although the university's architecture program has completed dozens of outreach projects with community partners in the intermountain west during the past 25 years, our brigade to Panama launched an exciting new chapter in this legacy of outreach by venturing into a partnership with an impoverished community in the third world," says McClure.

Last fall, graduate student Tyler Macy founded the University of Idaho chapter of Global Architecture Brigades. GAB supports ventures in Panama and Honduras though student service-learning projects, and specifically design-build projects, for architecture participants.

GAB and its Panamanian partner organization, Patronato de Nutricion, assigned the university's chapter a priority design-build project on the farmstead Granja de Loma Bonita.

After arriving in the country, Idaho brigadiers hiked to the farm carrying packs on steep terrain, slept in tents and lived in relatively primitive conditions for six days. This didn't stop them from accomplishing a great deal during their stay.

Three elderly people, who also are siblings, manage the farm and participate in the Panama government’s program to promote better nutrition in rural areas and organic farming practices.

"Though skilled farmers, they cannot keep up with needed repairs to facilities. They lack places to store and dry crops and must sleep in separate huts under leaking roofs," says McClure.

During daylight hours, the team repaired leaking roofs, built a solar greenhouse dryer out of materials found on site, hoe rice paddies and built a new iguana cage. At night, the team worked by headlamps supplemented by a small generator to design a new community meeting room and living quarters for local farmers.

“Our aim for this trip was to not only help out a community in need, but also to learn about their way of life and design appropriate architecture for the rural area using traditional methods and locally available materials,” Macy says.

The construction required the team to use creative thinking to scrounge for local materials, such as bamboo and green rough-cut lumber, and to employ primitive tools, such as hand saws, machetes and twine, to accomplish the simplest of construction tasks.

“Taking part in and actually seeing your design built is an amazing feeling that most architecture students do not experience,” says Macy. “This design/build experience is very valuable in our field of study, and to do so in a culturally different and economically restrictive environment makes it all the more challenging and worthwhile.”

A second brigade of University of Idaho students will return to Panama this August to construct new housing, crop storage and community structures.

"The approaching rainy season makes their lives even more challenging," says McClure. "Our spring brigade’s primary purpose was to gather site information and input from community partners in support of upcoming design and construction. Given the pressing need for shelter from the elements, participants became quickly engaged in making emergency repairs to address the most basic needs as communicated by the farmers through a translator."

"This experience was transformative for all of them. They worked effectively as a team and accomplished significant tasks using a minimal amount of available technology and resources," McClure says.

“When you commit to helping someone, you are a lot more likely to get out of your comfort range of skills to get a job done,” says Molly Marineau, sophomore architecture student. “Volunteering is a really good way to learn skills from meeting new people and new cultures to making adobe. Service work also makes trusted connections between people, which I believe is important in a quickly globalizing world.”

The project received support from the school, friends, family and local businesses such as Moscow Building Supply, Wheatberries and Moscow Food Co-op. However, most of the money for the spring break trip was raised by McClure and the individual students.

“Our students were stellar ambassadors of the university,” McClure says. “They exhibited an unusual degree of commitment under extremely difficult circumstances. As their faculty adviser and co-worker, it was truly a privilege to be part of their team.”