Monthly Archives: February 2010

As you can see, construction for the Blue House project is progressing quickly! Above is the dormitory building (designed to house 44 orphans!) being fitted with trusses. This is a photo of the kitchen building complete with blue roof! There are two other auxiliary buildings including a shower and laundry building and toilet building. Construction is getting close to adding finishes and other detail work.

This introduction is an excerpt from Poul’s writings titled, “The Birth and Development of MSAADA Architects.” The document has yet to be finished and published but is a compelling memoir of MSAADA’s history that is worthy of sharing.


When I first began recording the history of MSAADA Architects, I didn’t know what would result from my efforts. I am still not fully clear about that! A memoir? A reference or text book? A documentary film? All of these have been suggested by different people.

For years, family members, fellow MSAADA staff, friends, and professional colleagues have recommended that I record some of the many interesting and meaningful experiences I have been blessed to have had in my life.

Yet it wasn’t until MSAADA’s 25th Anniversary that the congratulatory messages we received inspired me to begin documenting our organization’s history together with parts of my own personal life’s journey as an architect and as a practicing Christian.

While the 25th Anniversary letters, greetings, and recollections seemed to be as good a beginning as any for conveying MSAADA’s history, I hope what I have recorded here will also appear as a story that emphasizes and bears witness about what we have been blessed to see God accomplish through our work.

I have often wondered how differently my life would have turned out if I had received the offer for a job in London that I so greatly wanted before I had signed up to go to Nigeria as a missionary/builder – or if in late 1968 and early 1969, my family and friends had not continued to remind me about the need for a missionary/builder in Nigeria, a title which (at that time) was one of the last I had imagined would be in my future.

Nevertheless, this title has stayed with me for over 40 years and I have become proud of carrying it. In fact, I am frequently asked if I see myself primarily as an “architect” or as a “missionary.” I can only reply that after being labeled a “missionary/architect” for so long I have difficulties separating the two.

It is clear that while working in Herning/Ikast, Denmark I sensed there was more to life than what I was experiencing at that time, both professionally and personally. Thus in the spring of 1969, through God directing my life, I accepted the call to go to Nigeria as a missionary with three very close friends: Gert Lausten plus Lilly and Thure Krarup.

The extent to which I would continue to be involved with completing building projects in the Developing World (mostly for churches and missions) after my initial time in Nigeria was something I could not in my wildest fantasy have imagined. I became involved with something that has given me experiences far beyond what most persons experience in a lifetime. So I certainly have been blessed with what I believe is desirable for a meaningful life: namely that it should be experienced and not just lived!

Leaving Denmark for what was supposed to be a rather short time in Nigeria also has meant that since that time instead of mostly using the gifts which God has so graciously given me for my own benefit and purpose, I have been led into understanding how rich, meaningful and satisfactory a life of service can be.

This was a significant change from what I was getting used to in the late 1960s based on the educational background and the professional experience I had obtained by that time. Staying on as an architect in Denmark or resuming my career as an architect in the Western World after leaving Tanzania would have likely been much more opportune monetarily, though.

The lack of higher financial earning potential for what I have been doing for most of my professional life, however, has been balanced countless times by the nonmonetary compensation I have received from my professional activities since I left Denmark for Nigeria, then Tanzania, and ultimately the United States.

I first went to Nigeria just after the progressive “Sixties,” when it was generally accepted that we from the Western World had a responsibility to help the poorer part of the world to become better off.

Today there are often very opposing views on this topic. While there are many who still believe Western nations have an inbuilt responsibility to assist parts of the world that are much less developed financially and otherwise, there are also very sensible voices who suggest that Africa and other parts of the Developing World neither need nor may even want to be “saved” by us.

Unfortunately, there are many examples of programs or projects in the Developing World that are carried out through assistance from the Western World with good intentions but that, nevertheless, have left aid recipients no better off and, at times, worse off. This happens most often when assistance is based on the donor’s priorities more than the actual needs of those on the receiving end. While it is unfortunate that such situations occur, they do not justify ending assistance to the Developing World!

Instead, I believe the truth and best solutions will be found by balancing these opposing views and that we can accomplish the most if we all work together towards creating a better world for everyone.

This will have to include improving the standard of living for the Developing World, even if that might mean we in the Western World have to accept some sacrifices, financially and otherwise. The present situation where the gap between the rich and the poor is widening throughout the world is neither socially just nor economically sustainable!

When I first went to Nigeria some of us from the Western World believed it was only a matter of time before the situation would change so the gap between the rich and poor nations would be narrowed. Regrettably, this vision has not yet become a reality.

A conversation I had in the late 1990s with the Director of the Department for Missions and Development in the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, Dr. Christa Held, underscores this point! During my last visit to the LWF office before Christa’s retirement, she and I spent an evening reflecting on the nearly 20 years we had known each other and worked together on church-sponsored development projects.

Although Christa and I could agree that we both had chosen correctly by being involved primarily with church-sponsored development projects (as opposed to projects done by governments) not nearly as much sustainable development had happened in Africa and on the Indian subcontinent as we had expected earlier.
What neither of us anticipated, however, is what I now see as a growing trend: instead of the World being divided into poor and rich countries (which has been the case until recently), in the future there will probably be more extremely rich people and extremely poor persons within all countries.

An example of this contrast struck me a couple years ago when I was on a short layover in Moscow after visiting Novosibirsk, Siberia for a church-sponsored project. While taking a stroll in Moscow, I was haunted by how the main reason I had not stayed at a hotel in Novosibirsk was because the cost of a hotel room for one day equaled what the local Lutheran pastor earned in a month. I compared this with being in Moscow, which I had read somewhere has more millionaires per square mile than any other city in the world!

Such extremes should give us in the Western World reason for great concern. We often talk about the need to eliminate international terrorism and other threats, which in many cases have their roots in the fact that the differences between the “haves” and “have nots” – between and within countries – have grown too big.

At the time of my trip to Novosibirsk, news sources in the United State were reporting on the World Food Crisis. Whereas higher food prices were an inconvenience for most people in the Western World, they could be a matter of life and death for a large part of the World’s population of poor persons. This was a crisis that should urgently have been given top priority worldwide. Instead it was soon forgotten in our Western part of the World, like so many other crises that have far less of an effect on us than on “those” in the Developing World.

My reflections in Moscow were, of course, also influenced by an evaluation of what effect MSAADA’s services have had – albeit in a very small way — on the many persons served through the facilities we have designed and helped get built. I further wondered what the changed economic situation in the World today will have on such efforts and what we in MSAADA might be doing in the future to continue serving to the best of our abilities!

While much has changed since 1980 when I co-founded MSAADA as a nonprofit architectural service organization with two silent partners, Art Vikse and David Simonson, our practice remains unique. I often have been asked if I know of any other organizations in the field of architecture just like ours and the answer is always the same: “No, I don’t!”

There are other not-for-profit architectural organizations – such as Architecture for Humanity or Architects Without Borders — but they usually cover most or all of their own expenses through grants. While that can also result in good projects being implemented, there is the risk that many of the projects they serve on never get beyond the planning and design stage.

That might more often than not be because they unlike MSAADA do not have an in-built commitment to see a project through to its construction completion. And while we do charge fees for the projects MSAADA serves on, we also have a system which allow us to do preliminary planning and design on a given project with the risk of only getting paid, if the project actually obtain funding!

In this way we take a risk with the project holder and there is something very worthwhile in being able to know that we actually earn our fees, as opposed to just being paid irrespective of whether a project materializes. And while our fees are low compared to U.S. standards (and thus staff salaries reflect this, too) this gives us at least a feeling of some solidarity with those we serve.

There are also other Christian-based A/E service organizations, such as Engineering Ministries International (eMi), which serve mostly or fully on a volunteer basis. Some shortcomings of this approach that we at MSAADA have noticed on some projects we have taken over from these nonprofits are that they state very large values for the services they offer, yet these values are probably only true if the volunteers were paid U.S. wages. These amounts do not — by a long stretch — reflect actual monetary values for the projects on which the volunteers have served. For much of what they proposed might be relevant on a U.S. project, but might not be what is most economical or feasible for those projects when it comes to building them, later, in the Developing World.

For example, a number of times MSAADA has seen the space allocation for certain functions was much more generous than required in the Developing World or the structural systems were overdesigned due to a lack of knowledge about what was actually needed to ensure stability. Both of these situations would increase construction costs significantly.

So instead of sending as many people abroad on a project team as eMi does, it would seem better if this nonprofit, for example, concentrated on sending people who already had some knowledge about the countries and cultures where eMi-supported projects are located. If that objective is not met, the program seems to be geared more toward providing building industry professionals from the U.S. with a cross-cultural experience than in meeting the needs of specific projects.

Unfortunately I have seen too many examples of projects that are well-designed by such other nonprofit service organizations that have never reached the ultimate objective for the project holder: which is to see a new facility built in order to serve those who are to use it to obtain better educational or medical services, to have a better place to live, or to have a better facility for worship.

There are, of course, for-profit architectural and engineering firms in the Western World that might want to work on projects in the Developing World. Since making a profit is usually among their main objectives, we have often seen that they must either give up working on such projects rather quickly or provide an inferior product, which allows them to then still carry a profit.

MSAADA started out by establishing offices in three countries in Africa plus an associated office in India. Later, we also had a fourth office on the African Continent for some time. Today, we have changed that so we no longer have any MSAADA offices overseas. Instead we are collaborating with associate offices in the countries where we initially had our own offices and partnering with local architects and engineers in most of the other countries where we serve today.

While MSAADA continues to provide a full range of design and construction management services as needed, we are frequently asked only to complete the concept design and design development phases that draw upon our extensive experience. At that point, local architects and engineers take over to complete “the nuts and bolts” tasks.

In recent years, we have also become involved in teaching upcoming architects and engineers in the United States to help them to obtain a better understanding of the kind of services MSAADA provides for church-sponsored building projects. We are also helping to facilitate the sharing of knowledge between future architects and engineers in training in the United States with fellow students in the Developing World.

We see these as very important first steps towards a future in which architects and engineers in other parts of the World are fully able to do worthwhile projects without our assistance from the Western World. Instead we can have a healthy global competition where the best will be assigned to a given project anywhere in the World, irrespective of where he or she was born or lives.

Thus I hope that sharing much of what we at MSAADA have learned throughout the past 30-plus years will be beneficial for building industry professionals both in the Western World and in the Developing World.

Recorded in 2012, in Minneapolis, MN, USA,

Poul Bertelsen