Your can learn a lot about the Kallari Association, based in Ecuador, simply by looking at the packaging for its line of organic chocolates. Each bar is wrapped in heavy stock paper printed with an elegantly simple font and a sketch of one of the natural ingredients contained inside. There is a short story about the inspiration behind the concoction: "Nina's Nuance," for example, is a medium-dark chocolate infused with the peppery aji chili (nina means "fire" in the native Kichwa language). Sales of the bars support indigenous production processes and fair trade in the communities of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Founded in 1997 as a co-op of cocoa producers and artisans, Kallari now includes some 800 families and is looking to grow. In 2007, the nonprofit Architecture for Humanity sponsored a global competition through its Open Architecture Challenge to design a new factory and technology hub for Kallari. Of the 566 entries submitted by designers in 57 countries, a design by architectural graduates Heather Worrell and ChunSheh Teo and intern Igor Taskov of Indianapolis-based RATIO Architects emerged as the winner. "They had clearly done a lot of research in terms of the process side, but they were also very attuned to the cultural aspects of the population in the area," says Elaine Uang, a project manager for Architecture for Humanity.

The designers had a tall order for the new Kallari Center. Located off a major road in the Ecuadorian rain forest, the center—on a steeply sloped site—will serve tourists, cocoa producers, artisans, and the community. The campus will include a chocolate factory with housing for some of the co-op's employees, a visitors center, a marketing area, a picnic spot and nature path, botanical gardens, a gift shop, and an education area. Kallari also wanted a way to bring wireless connectivity to local artisans looking to sell their wares online. The designers developed a mobile technology hub that can be hitched to a car and run on solar energy.

Just as the confections and crafts produced through Kallari honor the land and the traditions of the Kichwa people, so does the design of the center. The team exploited the natural terracing of the site to create several distinct program areas: An overlook provides a view for visitors onto the factory floor below, for instance, and a path zigzags down the slope from the access road through gardens and down to the picnic area. The main structure will have operable louvers to provide natural ventilation, and solar panels and shading modules will be incorporated into the roof.

Visitors will arrive at a gathering space shaded by a tubular roof system. This striking outdoor canopy mimics the shape of a local basket used to catch fish and serves the further purpose of harvesting rainwater. The canopy is also an apt architectural metaphor: Young cocoa trees in the rain forest rely on a canopy of mature trees to thrive.

  • ChunSheh Teo, Heather Worrell, and Igor Taskov of RATIO Architects, the designers of the Kallari Center.

    Credit: Worrell/Teo/Taskov

    ChunSheh Teo, Heather Worrell, and Igor Taskov of RATIO Architects, the designers of the Kallari Center.

Worrell and Teo received a $5,000 grant from Architecture for Humanity, and paid leave from RATIO, to travel to Ecuador last fall to see the site and meet with Kallari. (Taskov has returned home to Serbia since completing his internship.) One of the surprising twists was the association's desire not to use some indigenous materials, like bamboo. "They are really looking for something long-lasting," Teo explains. So while the design remains rooted in regional forms, the team is now studying a canopy made of steel.

Teo and Worrell will refine the design before turning it over to Ecuador-based architect Oswaldo Enriquez. Architecture for Humanity is working to raise funds for construction, and the exact budget for the project—estimated at roughly $225,000—is still being determined.