In 2003, as a part of government policy to improve school enrollment, Rwanda eliminated school fees for primary education. While enrollment rates dramatically increased, there was not adequate classroom infrastructure to meet demand, resulting in overcrowded classrooms and poorly constructed and maintained facilities. From 2013-2015, MASS Design Group, in partnership with the M2 Foundation and the Musanze District Ministry of Education, renovated and expanded Mubuga Primary School with the goal of creating a sustainable, scalable model of design. After Mubuga re-opened, the District identified the next priority project: Ruhehe Primary School. Ruhehe was located in the same district as Mubuga, and served 1,120 students in subpar educational conditions that did not meet the standards set by the Ministry of Education.
Mubuga and Ruhehe reflect a larger systemic infrastructure need across the entire continent: with the African population set to double by 2050, the design profession likewise needs to grow in order to serve its community with dignifying and just construction. MASS launched the African Design Centre in 2016 to help respond to this need, hosting 10 fellows in a 20-month, multi-disciplinary program. This initial cohort culminated with a design-build project--the Ruhehe Primary School, which opened October 2018.
Under the tutelage of MASS design principals, the ADC fellows studied methods of immersive research that would place them in direct proximity to the community. Using this training, the fellows led workshops within Ruhehe’s community to determine how a redesigned campus could best address the needs of the school and its students. The ADC fellows gained hands-on experience by interviewing students and shadowing teachers in the classroom, assessing both the structural conditions of the facilities and the learning environment created. The fellows worked closely with local craftsmen and contractors to research local materials and building practices.
The new design of the campus centers around two scales of threshold: bridging the school and community, and creating distinct spaces for learning and play. The school is laid out along a gently curving wall of local volcanic stone, which creates a unique entryway for the community to engage with the campus. Visitors are guided directly to the school’s central gathering plaza, which leverages accessible ramps along the slope of the campus. These same thresholds provide the students with sheltered educational and recreational spaces that help reduce unwelcome distractions from their studies. The stone wall pays homage to the existing vernaculars of Rwandan stoneworking, but is built around a central core of steel and concrete to guarantee its stability in a region prone to seismic activity.
The campus program features five new classrooms, a library, a headmaster’s office, a community plaza, and outdoor recreation spaces. Referring to their assessments of the campus, the ADC fellows demolished two of the old classroom blocks, and renovated the remaining two. The new classrooms feature skylights and light-shelves that diffuse the incoming natural light, ensuring comfortable daylighting for reading and writing. Vertical woven infill windows along the sides of the classrooms feature operable lower units, allowing for fresh air to enter the space. In poor weather the clay roofing tiles reduce the sound of rainfall, allowing for lessons to continue uninterrupted. A central plaza at the heart of the campus provides an outdoor assembly space for the school’s community. The new outer yards feature built playspaces where students can congregate, socialize, and engage in recreational activity.
The ADC fellows prioritized local materials and labor for the construction of the Ruhehe Primary School. During the initial site visits, the ADC surveyed the structures and materials of the old buildings, assessing their capacity to safely fulfil their functions. Expanding upon this data, the fellows sourced materials within close proximity to the site to minimize the adverse effects of embodied carbon produced when importing non-local materials. Selected materials included local clay bricks, volcanic rock, clay roofing tiles found only in Musanze District, and cement paving mixed with volcanic stone dust. Over 80 percent of materials used in construction were sourced within 50 kilometers from the site.
The construction process provided additional opportunities for new on-site training practices and equitable hiring programs. In response to high rates of unemployment in the district, particularly among youth, the ADC fellows hired a workforce of 110 laborers, a majority of whom were members of the local community. Among this number, 35 percent were women and 18 percent were youth. A majority of the women on-site also participated in training programs led by the ADC, where they received training in carpentry, masonry, and stone crushing. Nearly half of the women hired stated their intentions to start community businesses with their new experience and earnings. Julienne, a teacher and site worker, said of the program, “Being trained to work on this primary school has made me realize that women can work on construction sites next to men.”
The Ruhehe Primary school opened in October 2018, marking the culmination of the ADC fellowship. Since the program’s completion, half of the fellows have continued on to full-time positions at MASS, and others have joined architecture practices in their home countries. As construction came to a close, the ADC fellows tracked the impact of their built capacity by measuring the new investments made in local materials, interviewing locally trained laborers, and discussing methods of following Ruhehe’s growth in future fellowships. Ruhehe’s redesign strategically matched local costs and budgets in order to set an affordable, replicable model for educational infrastructure that can be scaled across Rwanda.
MASS Design Group is an architecture and design practice with offices in Boston, Kigali, and Poughkeepsie. Our mission is to research, design, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity. MASS approaches every project by deeply engaging with the community and identifying opportunities to build capacity, scale impact, and effect systemic change. Since our first project opened in Butaro, Rwanda 10 years ago, we have expanded our work to include 25 built projects in a dozen countries, and--to date--our projects have helped our partners serve over 500,000 people. In 2016, in response to Africa’s massive infrastructural needs that will occur over the next 50 years, MASS launched the African Design Centre. The ADC is a 20-month fellowship program that seeks to empower the leaders who will design a more equitable, just, and sustainable world. The program graduated its first 10 fellows in May 2018.