What building houses in Kenya has to do with agile product development

By Daniel Rahal

Adequate housing is a human right and a big part of making sure that this right is upheld for refugees is meeting the unique architectural and engineering challenges faced on the ground, as the talk of Phillippe Monteil shows. An agile framework might help with that.

To build houses funding is needed. However, building a home out of banknotes and coins turns out to be rather impractical. Apart from that, trying to blindly apply the principles of European architecture in Kenya will not lead to useful results, as Phillippe Monteil experienced firsthand. How was he then able to overcome the challenges faced to house some of the 500’000 refugees that are present in Kenya? And what does this have to do with agile product development?


Phillippe Monteil closed his talk with the statement that he does not see himself as an architect, but a fellow builder. One of the reasons why was the fact that an architect usually plans his work in his office, delivers his plans and is pretty much done for his part. When building houses for refugees in Kakuma, Kenya, any planning done before arrival would prove to have been completely irrelevant. Calculation of load bearing capacities and the choice of ideal material suddenly become irrelevant when power drills must be replaced with hand tools and the material choice is limited to what is at hand. Clearly, this is a case of an environment of high uncertainty. And as most mechanical engineering students at ETH will hopefully remember from their first year of studies, agile product development is a tool to develop products in the environment of high uncertainty. I will try to show how some principles of agile development were applied in this case, even if that did not happen on purpose.

Understanding the demands of the customer

Even though he may not have realized it, the first lesson Phillippe Monteil learned is one of the key principles of agile development. Any successful project must be built around and understand the demands of the customer, in this case the refugees. As Phillippe Monteil described, some refugees might demand stone houses to meet their demand for perceived protection, which might stem from their past experiences with war.


Prioritize features

As with any other product, the possibilities of adding features seem to be endless. However, for a successful project the prioritization of features is the key to success. This is even more true for housing, as concentrating on the wrong features or missing some important ones can lead to daily inconveniences or even danger for its inhabitants. A European architect who tries to build earthquake proof buildings will quickly realize his mistake when the next sandstorm hits.


Release customer experience

The true test of any great product idea comes with customer interaction. Keeping a product in the hands of designers for too long might lead to catastrophic results, as the tale of Juicero and many other failed products tell. It was therefore essential to involve the refugees frequently in the design process, to find out, for instance, that a certain design will fail due to the difference in perceived privacy in their culture.



Having developed many different house designs, when asked, Phillippe Monteil stated that he would still not choose an existing design but that he would keep working towards a better one. Clearly, as agile product development states, iteration is key. I hope to set an example with this blog to show that some seemingly unrelated skills, such as ones a mechanical engineer might possess, would be very helpful in the field of international development. And just as I have done here for the field of product development, many connections to other fields could be made. This shows why it is important for everyone to engage in international development causes, as one might never know which knowledge becomes handy in this environment.