In Rwanda, architecture that empowers and heals

A hospital in Rwanda reveals architecture that builds a sustainable community and economic capacity as well as infrastructure.
Written by Sun Kim, Contributor

In an area of Rwanda with a population of 340,000 people and previously no doctors, the Butaro Hospital embodies humanitarian and sustainable design. The 65,000 square foot project was designed by Boston based MASS Design Group in collaboration with Partners in Health (PIH) and Harvard Medical School.

Seeds of the hospital as a design project began at a meeting in 2006 between Michael Murphy, then a graduate student at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, and Dr. Paul Farmer of Partners in Health. Murphy volunteered to help design the newly planned hospital in Rwanda, after learning Partners in Health had no architect and didn't really see the need for one. The collaboration was eye opening for both. Farmer and Partners in Health saw the value of architecture and design; Murphy founded MASS Design Group and refined how architecture can and should be used to address social justice.

MASS Design Group's original design problem was to make a building that would address unhealthy conditions in hospitals due to airborne disease. By applying the inclusive, community based model of PIH to construction, the designers created a hospital that would be part of the Rwandan community and be a sustainable source of health care, jobs, infrastructure, and community.

Instead of bringing in expensive machinery for building, MASS and PIH purposely employed (and fed and provided healthcare for) local labor. The decision created thousands of jobs as well as a newly trained workforce. The workers who worked with the locally sourced volcanic stone especially became highly skilled and sought after craftsmen. The large construction project also activated infrastructure in the form of new roads and a hydroelectric dam. These projects in turn created more jobs. MASS Design Group designed the building as a way to address infectious disease and used the project to address the larger issue of poverty.

The project is an inspiring case of using architectural problem solving to create communities and to achieve systemic change.

Examples of MASS Design Group's simple yet innovative design solutions for the hospital include:
1. Removing hallways between wards
The design team learned from healthcare workers that hallways were known sites of cross contamination and contagion because they were poorly ventilated and crowded with patients and visitors alike. Placing circulation outside in the form of open verandas took advantage of the temperate climate, natural breezes and beautiful views. To further improve ventilation and decrease contamination, air conditioning was eliminated.

2. Colorcoding interior walls
The simple, easily understood wayfinding system helped illiterate patients and visitors know which areas they should and should not enter.

3. Moving the heads of the beds
Typically patient beds were placed with their heads at the exterior wall. Moving the heads of the beds to an interior partition allowed for more windows at the exterior walls as well as restorative views of the outside. The interior partition houses the mechanical, electrical and ventilation systems.

4. Finding an optimal site
The designers recommended a large site with good air circulation at the top of a hill that had been a military site. As a sign of the country's shifting priorities, the Rwandan government and military agreed to the transfer.

MASS Design Group's core principles include appropriate design, local investment, and innovation. The organization practices architecture as a fundamental force in development and health care systems. Their current projects include the VHW Women's Hospital in Burundi, Girubuntu School in Rwanda, and the Gheskio Tuberculosis Hospital in Haiti.

Images: MASS Design Group

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards