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This page provides an in-depth look at the strategic decisions behind Nairobi House and the TIAA Pig Marketing Campaign. To see me take on the role of architect, designer, writer or artist, please check out some of my other projects!

Nairobi House

How might we design crisis housing for specific needs?

The Problem
Currently, designs for Crisis Housing (housing used in refugee camps or disaster relief zones) have little consideration for the climatic context. For example, Ikea’s Home for a Refugee is a generic shelter with no regard for the unique challenges of crises around the world. At Yale’s Center for Ecosystems in Architecture (CEA), I was tasked to design a climate-specific crisis housing unit for Nairobi, Kenya. The project was commissioned by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and UN-Habitat.

The design should address Nairobi’s hot-humid climate as well as provide for basic human needs. Notably, 60% of residents in Nairobi lack access to reliable sources of potable water.

The Approach
I began by asking the question: how might we design crisis housing for specific needs? To answer that question, I used the tools from my architectural training to break down specific components of any given context. To know what to design, I need to first analyse both climatic conditions (temperature, sunlight, humidity and water) and socioeconomic conditions (materials, industry, economics and behaviors). 

To apply this process to Nairobi, I first analyzed data from its weather stations. Nairobi is an equatorial city, which means that solar and climate conditions are relatively consistent year-round. During the day, temperature is high, and humidity is low. At night, temperature is low, and humidity is near 100%. This condition lets me use the diurnal swing (the climatic variation between day and night) as Nairobi House’s primary design consideration.

Next, I researched how I can harness the diurnal swing to generate drinking water without using electricity in academic journals. From a research paper titled: “Harvesting Water from Air: Using Anhydrous Salt with Sunlight”, I discovered an applicable water harvesting device. The concept is simple: salt-saturated fabric absorbs water when exposed to humid air. The moisture is subsequently evaporated by solar irradiation. Nairobi House takes the concept of this device and scales it up to 200sqft of salt beds placed in a water harvesting “attic”. The attic is a space that can be opened and closed, with a glass roof like that of a greenhouse.

At night, the attic space is left open so salt beds can be saturated with moisture from the humid air. The attic is closed during the day, creating a greenhouse effect that increases the temperature of the salt beds to 80°C. At this temperature, moisture evaporates and is collected for drinking. The roof can also collect rainwater.

So far, the design has addressed only the climate side of the equation. But how will people use this use this space? How will they build it? To answer these questions, I researched behavior in refugee camps and discovered that many people operate small businesses from their homes. In response to this, I made sure that the shelter can easily convert to a functioning storefront—a move that simultaneously augments ventilation for cooling during the daytime.

Lastly, throughout the design process, I held the intuition that the shelter should be constructed through low-tech traditional methods such as building with whole bamboo culms. However, after diving deeper into the economics of bamboo farming in Kenya, I realized that bamboo was a high-value product. Using it for construction would not be economically feasible, as farmers could earn more simply selling the culms. This prompted me to alter the design and instead, propose the use of bamboo-composite panels for construction. Like plywood, bamboo composite panels can be created from lower grade culms or scraps. Additionally, these panels would have to be manufactured locally and could augment the existing bamboo economy. Composite panels have the added benefit of being extremely suitable for modular design, allowing the construction of the shelter to effectively scale.
The Result
A modular design made from renewable, local materials that is suitable for the unique challenges of Nairobi’s climate. The house uses solar irradiation to harvest 8 liters of clean drinking water per day from the humid air at night. Large doors create an open configuration during daytime that amplifies windspeed for comfort cooling and enhances entrepreneurial microbusinesses. The project was displayed on the UN Plaza in Manhattan for two months during the summer of 2018.

The TIAA Pig Campaign

How might we encourage the under-35 segment to see the benefits of managing their financial well-being?

The Problem
TIAA was founded over 90 years ago, with the mission of helping people employed in academic, medical, cultural, governmental and research organizations to plan for retirement and life’s other goals. In the early 2000s, the company’s performance had fallen behind other financial service firms. The aging of TIAA’s customer base had made the acquisition of new clients, especially those at the beginning of their careers, a high priority. How might we encourage the under-35 segment to see the benefits of managing their financial well-being? Furthermore, when up against industry giants such as Fidelity, TIAA had low brand recognition. How can TIAA increase overall awareness? What channels would be most effective?

The Approach
Firstly, to understand the under-35 segment, we should conduct a consumer decision-making analysis.

Need Recognition: Younger customers were not thinking of retirement, and many lacked financial knowledge. They also had more pressing financial demands, such as student loan debt, credit cards, and housing. Retirement seemed far away compared to their day-to-day challenges.

Information Gathering: The under-35 segment relied heavily on word-of-mouth from peers. They often use social media to inform decisions. A push marketing strategy (as opposed to a pull) is necessary to attract new customers.

Evaluation of Alternatives: Younger customers, when compared to their older peers, strongly favored defaults. They often preferred to take the path of least resistance. They were less likely to use diverse sources of information and tended to prioritise conversations online.

Post-choice evaluations: The under-35 segment value trust, performance, expertise, empowerment and education. The key to keeping customers is to meet their needs in a way that is familiar to them.

Secondly, I recognized that one of the main challenges of TIAA was that their product was abstract and therefore, difficult to communicate. Furthermore, the typical imagery used to convey financial wellness (happy families in nice homes, young couples smiling with investment managers) are undistinctive and would not help TIAA stand out.

To come up with a new, innovative idea, I took inspiration from MIT Media Lab Professor David Rose’s book Enchanted Objects. By imbuing an everyday object with simple technology, I can create a physical avatar for financial wellbeing.

The Result
I imagined a TIAA Campaign built around theTIAA Pig, a piggy bank “enchanted” with simple IoT technology to display low fidelity information from the customer’s account. The campaign revolves around the following three key strategies to engage the under-35 segment.

Give them something to do: The TIAA Pig employs a display that shows financial information when a coin is inserted. Passively, the display shows the owner of the account’s name as well as hearts to represent the total number of TIAA products owned. In this way, users are incentivised to “care” for their piggy bank through the adoption of more TIAA investment products. This strategy has the added benefit of turning financial instruments into viable gifts—perfect for the graduation of a loved one. Lastly, signups are encouraged as TIAA takes the first step on behalf of the customer by offering a $100 deposit in new customer accounts.

Easy Tools: TIAA should follow the current trend and develop easy surveys to create personalized financial plan. New customers would receive a starter kit that includes the TIAA Pig as well as a layman’s guide to various financial products. The TIAA Pig displays an easy to understand summary of financial health for casual monitoring.

Harness the Power of Social: The TIAA Pig serves as an easy to recognize icon that greatly increases brand awareness. It provides a consistent image that can be appropriated in multiple forms of media, both online and off. The TIAA Pig also can utilise strategies such as a social media campaign that creates an association between the piggy bank and personal wellness. For example, celebrity life guru Gwyneth Paltrow would be able to post the piggy bank with her other wellness products on Instagram.

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