Line Ramstad is a Norwegian Landscape Architect, with an additional bachelor Degree in Anthropology and Geography. After 5 years of work practice in private Norwegian architect office, Agraff as, she founded Tyin Barnehjem together with two architect students. The goal was to explore possibilities for use of architecture in development work. By chance they met a Norwegian who ran an orphanage for Karen children on the Thai/Burma border. Design and construction of new dormitories for his orphanage became a case for their study.
The orphanage is situated in a village named Noh Bo on the Thai side of the border. It’s a migrant village with mainly paperless Karen refugees who has fled the Burmese army’s constant attacks and eventually decided to cross the river to Thailand.
Since paid work is rare, “the whole village” signed up for the Norwegian project and progress escalated rapidly. The dormitories, later known as “The Butterfly Houses”, were designed and constructed in half a year. The orphanage had also got better-suited outdoor areas that additionally will prevent the site from further erosion. In cooperation with NTNU, the team also arranged a workshop for the university’s architect students, resulting in a library for Safe Haven Orphanage. When this was accomplished, the two students decided to move on. Line decided to stay.
Phillipa, Peter and Pah Me had all been day labor on the dormitory and library projects. They invited Line to accompany them and together they started out as construction workers for other NGOs in the area.
The most used terminology in between them, as well as from others, was: Gyaw Gyaw – slowly, take it easy, step by step.
After a year on the border, Line went back to Norway as planned, but instead of going back to normal Norwegian life, she quit her job, sold her apartment and made Gyaw Gyaw a registered organization. She also signed the first sponsor programs, sponsors that have faithfully followed the team ever since.
With sponsors on board, the team was finally in a position to build projects based on their own philosophy: Sustainable architecture with a basis on local knowledge and materials, with a strong focus on function and climate adaptation. With both locals and a foreigner in the team, Gyaw Gyaw could also introduce new techniques and alternative use of existing materials. As long as it was done small steps at a time, and in close cooperation and a mutual understanding with the village representatives and future users.
One of the biggest steps was the introduction of adobe as building materials. This is locally produced sun dried earthen blocks. In comparison with concrete, the most used alternative to traditional timber and bamboo construction, it is both cheaper and more ecologically, economically and culturally sustainable. Thick adobe walls also keep inside temperatures more stable and in combination with natural ventilation the results are comfortable good spaces, perfect for learning.
Since the beginning, Gyaw Gyaw has collaborated with all aspects of the society where they live and work. The church, the monastery, military and refugees have all been their cooperation partners, and the village in general now embraces them and promotes their work. This opens doors to new projects and gives them the opportunity to spread their knowledge, philosophy and democratic examples, to an increasing number of new areas.
Line, Phillipa, Peter and Pah Me are still going strong. On the team are another 7 proud Karen colleagues and a Norwegian one. In every project they also hire local workers who get income for their families, contribute to a common knowledge exchange and secure ownership to the building for future maintenance. Gyaw Gyaw has also done two cooperating projects with Agora architects situated in Mae Sot, and they have designed and built two projects with BGET (Border Green Energy Team), that are also locally based. A recent collaboration with local CBO Solbakken is also initiated. With a similar sustainable approach, they provide electricity and water access/clean drinking water to the projects, and complement the work of Gyaw Gyaw in a beneficial way for both the organizations and the projects.
With an exception of a two weeks workshop every year, Gyaw Gyaw don’t take international interns or volunteers,
After all these years, Line is better integrated in the community and her colleagues are more used to a different cultural understanding, but the cross-cultural combination is still a winning concept. The local knowledge and ties are priceless when it comes to local affiliation and culturally determined use of the buildings, while the western architectural knowledge can question the established truths, suggest small changes and show architectural examples from other places in the world.
Gyaw Gyaw, slowly, step by step, project by project, the team is gaining knowledge, acceptance and confidence, the projects are simplified and strengthened and the democratic aspect is steadily becoming a bigger part of their job. It’s an everlasting development, both internally and in cooperation with the society around them, but the road has only just begun.