March of 2017 will mark one full year since Sarah Yusuf moved to Canada from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It wasn’t specifically a career that brought her here, but shortly after the move, Yusuf joined Urban Systems Ltd. as a Community Planner, building on several years of diverse experience in urban design and architecture.
Her journey to this point has been an exciting one, and allowed for experimentation in a variety of areas of practice, but through it all, the spirit of collaboration has been what has sustained Yusuf’s unbridled enthusiasm for her work. From her personal studies to professional aspirations, Yusuf sees tremendous value in groups from different backgrounds coming together to find solutions, which has helped inspire some of the most memorable points in her early but notable career.
"It Was Something I Could See Myself Doing"
The decision to pursue a career in urban design and architecture wasn’t one of wistful planning, nor the answer to the childhood statement “When I grow up, I’m going to be…” As a high school student in Ethiopia, Yusuf needed to choose between two areas of focus: Natural Sciences or Social Sciences. Being more technically minded, she chose Natural Sciences, and after a freshmen year of broad study, set her ambitious sights on the field of architecture.
“I have always been interested in how different elements go together to make a complete picture,” states Yusuf, “So architecture was something I could see myself doing.” After graduation, Yusuf, along with four of her female classmates, came together to start their own freelance practice, which afforded her the chance to gain valuable experience, but on her own terms.
However, after three years of freelancing, Yusuf was ready to continue building on what she had learned, focusing on obtaining her master’s degree. She spent two years abroad, one year in TU Berlin and another at Shanghai Tongji University, participating in their Art and Design Dual Degree Program, where she received a Master of Architecture (MArch).
"There Was No Structure, So I Improvised."
Once her master’s was completed, Yusuf spent some time trying to figure what she would do next. Fortunately she had built a bit of a reputation, and was pursued for a position back in Addis Ababa through the Returning Experts Programme – offering assistance and incentives to experts who have developed their professional skills in Germany to return to their home in developing countries to support local innovation and economic growth.
Yusuf was offered a role as manager of the brand-new “Green Tech Innovation Hub” at EiABC – where she had completed her bachelor’s degree. Housed in the university, she had access to the school’s facilities to develop a place for students to research their ideas and promote sustainable business.
“There was no structure, so I improvised,” Yusuf admits. “I decided to focus it more around architecture to allow students to pursue their ideas after graduation.” While her dual degree had scratched the surface of organizations working together, the environment at the innovation hub allowed Yusuf to collaborate with the students, graduates, the university, and local businesses to help realize their ideas.
Creating Architectural Solutions to Urban Design Problems
But as fulfilling as her time managing the innovation hub was, working so closely with the students, Yusuf realized her interests lay more in being able to teach. She spent the following four years teaching fifth and sixth semester architectural students, and providing consultation on their research.
Yusuf’s goal, along with that of the school, was to create architectural solutions to urban design problems. One project in particular stands out as the one of which she is most proud, and turned out to be one her last before moving to Canada.
Collaborating with local and international businesses and schools, 25 students, along with Yusuf and her fellow faculty team, focused on addressing problems around window glazing being installed in new development in the Ethiopian capital. Having taken ideas from areas of the world with climate control, the existing windows on many new developments were proving to be impractical.
The Experiment on Building Envelopes workshop sought to develop creative, sustainable solutions. “We wanted to come up with an alternative façade design that could also be representative of Ethiopian culture and architectural style,” Yusuf explains. Using a more cultural craft approach, the students came up with innovative ways to address the problem, earning them the prestige of attending the Venice Architecture Biennale, where they merged their ideas with performance art.
“It’s something I’m really proud of because I am able to see how much can be achieved when you collaborate,” she reveals.
"It's Just a Matter of Context, but the Elements Are the Same"
That spirit of collaboration is what continues to push Yusuf further along in her career. As a Community Planner at Urban Systems, she has had the opportunity to work at a municipal level, assisting the City of Abbottsford with development applications, working on transportation projects, including an exploration into the capabilities of car sharing, as well as work with First Nations.
Yusuf sees working with Indigenous communities as a unique opportunity to apply her learning and experience in Ethiopia, specifically around informal settlements. Much like “Moonlight Houses” back home, many Indigenous communities were built on an as-needed basis, without community planning in mind. By combining funding from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), with the knowledge toolbox planners like Yusuf can provide, as well as addressing the needs of each of the individual communities, they could consider building houses with design and sustainability practices that allow for long-term, lasting structures to support their social structure.
“I think it’s just a matter of context, but the elements are the same,” suggests Yusuf. “You have people, who need houses, with a strong need and desire to built close-knit communities.”
"I Know a Few Ingredients, but Not the Whole Recipe"
While she misses her home in Addis Ababa, Yusuf is enjoying the variety of projects she is able to work on: “I like the fact that it’s diverse, but also allows me to identify what career path I want to take.”
She is even exploring ways to combine her love of teaching and academia with her current position at Urban Systems. After participating in so many inspiring projects during her years at EiABC, Yusuf recognizes the value of combining professional knowledge with the freshness of idealistic students: “When you spend all your focus in an office, just doing what is practical, you miss out on the research and innovation academia can offer.”
For now, Yusuf is eager to see career will evolve in the coming years. Her experiences, both in Ethiopia and since coming to Canada, have helped her to begin to identify where her passions lie, even if she hasn’t quite narrowed in on one specialized area.
“I think I know the cup, and I know a few ingredients I want to mix, but not the whole recipe. Not yet.”