Architects tackle larger development considerations alongside building design in Africa.

Image courtesy Perkins+Will
Kenya Women’s and Children’s Wellness Centre. Click the image above to view slide show.

When construction on the first phrase the 29,000-square-foot Village Health Works (VHW) medical campus wraps up this fall, the project will have involved architects, contractors, craftsmen, and one human waste-to-fuel specialist. If one of these things seems unlike the others, it is: Dr. Kartik Chandran, a professor of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University was contracted by New York-based architect and VHW designer Louise Braverman to consult on alternative energy solutions and sustainable blackwater treatment for the 40-acre site. “Kigutu is totally off the grid,” says Braverman, speaking of the lush, hilly central African nation where construction on VHW’s new complex is underway. “As we set out to craft a five-year master plan, our goal was to, simultaneously, create a five-year energy plan for the entire site” that took the center’s isolation and water needs into account, explains Braverman.

Braverman isn’t alone in taking on larger development projects in tandem with individual buildings on the world’s second-largest continent: firms from New York’s SHoP—which has designed a hyper-sustainable, 320,000-square-foot Innovation Hub for the government of Botswana—to Kohn Pedersen Fox—which is developing a 200-acre master plan in Accra, Ghana with Columbia University’s Earth Institute—have found that building in Africa necessitates an approach that considers local ecosystems, accessibility, and public health. These larger issues are fundamental to any project, especially in “so-called ‘resource-poor’ environments,” says Michael Murphy, founding partner of the Boston- and Rwanda-based non-profit firm MASS Design Group.

In January 2011, MASS completed work on a hospital in impoverished rural Butaro, Rwanda. In addition to the typical team of designers and contractors, “we connected with a number of engineers at the Harvard School of Public Health to help us understand things about virus control,” says Murphy, whose team also included a Harvard pulmonologist. This collaboration was crucial in reminding the design team “a hermetically-sealed building with an HVAC system is not sustainable or maintainable,” Murphy says. “The solution for building in these settings is high site-specificity and ecological sensitivity.”

Often, the key to the challenges of resource poor locations lies in adapting to harsh climates or poor infrastructure, rather than creating complex systems meant to circumvent these realities. “Not everything has to be high-tech,” says Pat Bosch, a design principal at Perkins+Will’s Miami office. Low-tech systems for natural ventilation and sun shading figure prominently in the firm’s design for the 534,000-square-foot Kenya Women and Children’s Wellness Centre in Nairobi. Additionally, Perkins + Will has begun work on a 7.4-mile-long specialized bus system meant to ferry patients and their families between downtown Nairobi and the Wellness Centre. Supporting the new building with secondary projects like this one is crucial for the firm. “It’s all about making very specific, strategic choices, and, ultimately, good design,” says Bosch. Murphy agrees, and adds that lessons learned on the burgeoning continent have universal application. “That kind of holistic thinking, that approach, can greatly inform the way we build in the U.S.”