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Designing a difference

12th February 2010

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What better way to put your degree to use than helping improve the lives of those less advantaged than yourself? This is exactly what a trio of Cardiff University architecture graduates have done, by creating Orkidstudio, a not-for-profit group which uses innovative architecture to provide humanitarian aid. orkid tudio

It focuses on helping to improve the lives of children in under-privileged area's across the world, the graduates hope to make a lasting and sustainable difference to the areas they visit. The inspirational group began in 2008, as 21-year-old James Mitchell, sought something meaningful to do during his summer holidays.

Alongside two Cardiff University friends, Su Mei Tan and Julissa Kiyenje, Mitchell originally began Orkidstudio (derived from Orphan Kids) as a single project in Uganda in 2008. The project involved building a sustainable kitchen and communal area for New Hope Orphanage in the Mukono District.

James commented on the unique mission: "Before our project, the existing kitchen was a small shack made from wooden poles and scrap sheets of corrugated iron, with only one open fire where they cooked three meals a day for around 300 children! We provided three wood-burning stoves, secure storage for food, and the only year-round supply of clean running water for miles. We were welcomed very warmly, and within a very short time felt more like locals than visitors. The orphanage put on a wonderful ceremony at the end of the project, with the kids doing a number of musical and dance performances. They even wrote and recorded a song for us, and gave us some very brightly coloured traditional Ugandan clothing to wear for the event!"

After the huge success in helping the children there, whose parents had mostly either been killed in conflict or by HIV/AIDS, the trio decided to make Orkidstudio an organisation, with bi-annual projects.

For 2010, they have organised The Alalay Project, which will take place on two sites near La Paz in Bolivia. The design aid organisation will be aiding The Alalay Foundation, a Christian organisation which helps over 1,200 local street children learn to cope by themselves.

Commenting on the next project, James said: "The focus is to encourage the children to lead an autonomous lifestyle, and take responsibility for their own futures. This may seem a harsh thing to tell children as young as five or six years old, but the tragic fact is that after the children turn 16 they leave the orphanages and must find their own way. By giving these children valuable skills, their chances of surviving and leading good lives significantly improve. Therefore, one of the main tasks here will be to design and build a wood-workshop for the teaching and production of various timber products."

The group's main aim is to improve the lives of children, and they always seek advice from the local kids as to what they need. By incorporating artwork from the children, they hope to create "a sense of ownership and pride" amongst the community.

James said: "In Uganda, we tiled the work surfaces in clay tiles, and each child had their own tile which they wrote their name, drew a picture and wrote a message on. Their excitement at seeing and finding their tile in the new kitchen was one of the best moments of the project."

The young organisation hopes they can inspire others to use their skills to help those in need, and they see Orkidstudio as being a group who gathers people from different creative backgrounds together to seek one goal.

This is evidenced by James' work as an artist, which can be seen at, Su Mei's background in jewellery, and Julissa's first-hand experiences of the imbalances in life, having been raised in East Africa.

James has high hopes for Orkidstudio, and hopes that by combining their creative skills, the trio can make a lasting difference.
He said: "Architecture is concerned mostly with rich clients and insanely-budgeted buildings. Although there is nothing necessarily wrong with this, we believe that it should be about more than that. We think architecture and art has the ability to inspire, unite and affect individuals in such a profound and powerful way. On one level, we build to provide shelter or improve facilities that in turn will benefit and develop a community or group of people. But on another level, we build to bring these people together and create a sense of pride and belief. In many ways, that is far more lasting and powerful than what we build."

Comprised of only three members, the group is relatively small and close-knit, which they hope to maintain while expanding the organisation's scope. In the future, they are currently developing plans for a project in India for 2012, as well as another project which they hope will be successful, entitled Global Splatter. It hopes to provide responsive architecture solutions to areas affected by natural disaster or conflict, where many buildings are often destroyed.

The forward-thinking young design group have a large number of fundraising events planned for the coming year, which can be seen on their website at

James attributes much of the group's success to the great support they have received, particularly from Scotland and Malaysia. To help Orkidstudio continue their work aiding the lives of children in desperate need, visit

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