Photo © BC architects & studies

Using soil from the site for compressed-earth blocks, and local stones for mortarless walls helps anchor the 1,500-square-foot building to its physical and cultural context.

Library of Muyinga
Muyinga, Burundi
BC architects & studies

The first phase of a school for deaf children, the 1,500-square-foot Library of Muyinga, in northeast Burundi, combines inexpensive local materials with a modern approach to design. 'It's an architecture of low resources,' says Laurens Bekemans, who with partners Wes Degreef, Nicolas Coeckelberghs, and Ken De Cooman started the Brussels-based BC architects & studies (BC-AS) in 2011 as they were all graduating from architecture school. The firm offers both design and research (the 'studies' part of its name) in order to find solutions appropriate to particular climates and cultures. It is now working on projects in Morocco, Ethiopia, Niger, and Belgium, in addition to Burundi.

Shortly after it started, BC-AS caught the attention of a Belgian nongovernmental organization (NGO) now called EDUCANS, which focuses on educational projects in developing countries and was doing work with a Burundian NGO named ODEDIM. The nonprofit groups invited the firm to visit Muyinga and, as recent graduates, the young architects had the luxury of spending two months in Burundi, researching the local culture and traditions of building. This led them to use compressed-earth blocks (CEBs), a material that was popularized in the 1980s by foreign organizations in Africa but that had been mostly forgotten in recent years. To make the CEBs, the architects could use local labor and soil from the site, which reduced costs and provided employment and new skills for residents of the area. In a stroke of luck, the project team found a pair of old CEB machines in a cellar near the site and put them to use.

Instead of specifying corrugated iron, which must be brought in from afar, BC-AS used locally baked clay tiles for the roof. Since clay tiles are heavy, the architects placed CEB columns 4 feet, 4 inches apart, and used another native material'eucalyptus wood'for roof beams. Capitalizing on the local craft of sisal rope weaving, the architects applied it to a new purpose: creating a large hammock suspended in a double-height space that would provide a place for children to literally hang out and read a book. 'Behind all of our decisions,' says Bekemans, 'was our research into materials.'

In plan, the building is a simple rectangle with just one interior space and a covered porch running its full length. Almost as wide as the indoor room, the porch provides protection from heavy rains and strong sun and serves as an important social space adjacent to a protected courtyard. Traditional houses in the area usually have a similar kind of covered space. For its public face, the library addresses an unpaved street with a set of five tall openings that welcome people inside or that can be shuttered when the building is closed. Phase 2 of the project'which includes a pair of classrooms, a sanitary block with toilets, and its own courtyard'stands perpendicular to the library and was completed this past summer. Two more phases, with additional classrooms, toilets, and a dining hall, are planned.

In addition to using local labor whose new skills will be useful for the people of Muyinga, BC-AS brought in students from Belgium to learn about Burundi, as well as help out. The transfer of knowledge here went in both directions.

Movie: Building the Library of Muyinga
Courtesy BC architects and studies