• The Neno Schools Project, in Malawi, is an effort by John McAslan  Partners to develop an inexpensive school prototype for one of Africa's poorest countries. The firm, which has created a deparment for pro bono work, also has projects in Rwanda and Haiti.

    Credit: Courtesy John McAslan + Partners

    The Neno Schools Project, in Malawi, is an effort by John McAslan + Partners to develop an inexpensive school prototype for one of Africa's poorest countries. The firm, which has created a deparment for pro bono work, also has projects in Rwanda and Haiti.

In Malawi, getting a basic education is not a given. This southeast African nation lacks the resources and infrastructure to serve its school-age children, a challenge that U.K.–based John McAslan + Partners (JMP) hopes to help remedy. In 2007, the architecture firm partnered with the Clinton Hunter Development Initiative to bring new schools to one of the world's poorest areas. Their Neno Schools Project (named after a rural area) aims to help Malawi provide 1,500 schools for the 1.7 million children without access to education.

JMP was tasked with rethinking the typical rural school found throughout Malawi. These buildings—which usually comprise two teaching blocks—are little more than concrete bunkers with pitched corrugated roofs. JMP worked to design a prototype building that could be replicated for the same cost as existing schools, about $12 per square foot.

Upon discovering that nearly 50 percent of the average school budget was poured into the foundation, the firm used a thinner slab. JMP's school is made from soil-stabilized blocks fabricated on site.* Large windows and doorways provide breezes and light, and the roof was engineered to encourage ventilation. The floor plan was altered as well: classrooms were pulled apart, and an exterior space was placed at the end of the structure. On a trip to Neno to assess the design, firm founder John McAslan was surprised to see how the new buildings—10 of which have been built to date—have affected locals. In addition to children's education, the schools host informal classes for adults, social gatherings, and healthcare clinics.

The Malawi project is just one of many pro bono initiatives spearheaded by JMP. The firm also is partnering with the Clinton Global Initiative and the Aegis Trust to design a master plan for the School of Genocide Studies in Kigali, Rwanda. And in Haiti, JMP is engaged in several projects: the preservation of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Citadel; the creation of affordable single-family housing; and an initiative, in conjunction with local development group Yéle, to create better schools.

  • The Neno Schools Project, in Malawi.

    Credit: Courtesy John McAslan + Partners

    The Neno Schools Project, in Malawi.

Pro bono has been a cornerstone of JMP's business for more than a decade. McAslan started by giving 5 percent of the firm's profits to charitable work; that amount has grown to about 10 percent. In addition, he's instituted a formula to help fund pro bono work. It's called "The Thirds": one-third comes from the client as a donation to JMP's costs; one-third is donated by JMP through the contribution of time at a heavily subsidized cost; and one-third is contributed by staff members working off-hours.

This month, JMP formalizes its pro bono component with the establishment of the Initiatives Unit. The firm will now have two full-time staff, plus a rotating group of part-timers, dedicated to pro bono. In a firm of more than 100 employees, "there is a queue of staff wanting to donate their time," McAslan says. "There's great interest from young architects to get involved in this type of work."

At the core, McAslan wants to provide not just aid but answers. He uses Haiti as an example: "This is about raising skills and resources, not about handing money over. Haitians are a proud people. They want their independence, but they need some help."

*Correction, Dec. 13, 2009: Originally, this sentence stated that the Neno schools use cement blocks. In fact, they were constructed with soil-stabilized blocks. We regret the error.