Village Health Works. Click on the slide show button to view additional images.

In Kigutu, Burundi, New York architect Louise Braverman is helping bring modern health services to an impoverished area. Working with the nonprofit organization Village Health Works, Braverman has designed a master plan for an existing 40-acre medical campus, in which she plans to add a number of facilities, including a staff residential unit and women’s health pavilion.

The project is part of an effort to help Burundi recover from an ethnic- and civil war from 1993 to 2005 that resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 people and forced another 48,000 citizens to flee, according to the United Nations news service. The small East African nation is among the poorest in the world, with an annual per capita GDP of about $300. Political tensions still run high in the country.

Deogratias Niyizonkiza, a Burundi native who is training to be a doctor at New York’s Columbia University, founded Village Health Works in 2006. His remarkable story of escaping his war-torn country to the United States is recounted in the 2009 book Strength In What Remains by Tracy Kidder. In recent years, he has made building health facilities in his homeland a priority. “We believe that only access to high-quality health care and a world-class education will transform a society that has been sick, tired, and neglected for many years into a hopeful society with a bright future,” Niyizonkiza told Architectural Record. He notes that he wants his organization’s buildings to “reflect the beauty of the landscape and the highest quality and respect for all people, rich or poor, from any society and culture.”   

Braverman, whose portfolio includes libraries and affordable housing, got the paying commission after receiving a phone call out of the blue from Village Health Works. “Someone knew one of my other projects here in New York,” she says. “Without even meeting me, they said ‘Well, we’re having this board meeting in Burundi. If we bought you a ticket would you come?’”

She went and signed on to design the project. Given the remote locale and limited resources, Braverman sought to create a complex that incorporated passive sustainable design strategies and local materials. She also had to integrate several existing buildings (a clinic, malnutrition ward, community center, group residence, and bath house) that had been constructed in recent years, starting in 2007, by Village Health Works.

The first of Braverman’s buildings to rise will be the 6,000-square-foot staff residence, and construction is expected to begin “imminently,” she says. It will include 10 double rooms, each with a porch and windows on three sides to maximize natural ventilation. The long, low-slung building will be partially dug into the hillside to take advantage of the earth’s natural cooling properties. Noting that the site is off the grid, solar panels will generate the building’s electricity, says Braverman. 

The building will incorporate typical Burundian construction techniques, with reinforced concrete columns and beams and locally made brick infill—all constructed by local laborers. “I’ve been down in Haiti, where everyone is talking about prefabrication,” says Braverman. “I think that’s backwards for these types of projects because prefabrication doesn’t create jobs or a community.” On-site construction projects provide employment opportunities for various tradesmen, including plumber and electricians. Hiring local labor “is a way to build a workforce,” Braverman says.

Her hope is that the residence will be completed by spring 2012. The women’s health pavilion is currently in the fundraising stage; a library, chapel, and additional medical buildings are also planned. “When you’re living in a hut, most people just want shelter,” says Braverman. “But Village Health Works thinks that’s not enough—they want state-of-the-art buildings, and they want them to be beautiful. I’m all for that.”