Rwandans are trying to put the past in the past with the help of good design. This June, the humanitarian organization Women for Women International (WfWI), which assists survivors of war in rebuilding their lives, opened the Women’s Opportunity Center (WOC) with local resources, a local workforce, and pro bono help from Sharon Davis Design, in New York.
Located about an hour east of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, the two-acre site emerges on a small hill along a road that leads to Tanzania. Here, families rely on not only on subsistence farming, but also on the women who carry 20-liter jerry cans to scavenge potable water and wood for fuel. The daily journey can take upwards of four hours.
The WOC is a micro-village of 21 brick buildings, which include a kitchen and canteen, storage, offices, dorm rooms, and guest lodging. Two farm buildings represent the largest facilities, at 225 square meters (2,422 square feet) and 144 square meters (1,550 square feet); the smallest are the 9-square-meter (97-square-foot) classrooms that ring a central plaza.
Up to 300 women take daily classes in-the-round on topics such as goods production and marketing, and perhaps, more importantly, how to feel secure—both physically from a safety standpoint, and inwardly, in terms of self-confidence, Two large and five small classrooms host WfWI training courses on topics such as financial literacy, agri-business, early childhood development, and health and nutrition. Women also have the opportunity to put their skills into practice at two markets on-site.
Helping WfWI realize its ambitious mission through the built environment is Sharon Davis, a former mutual fund COO who earned her master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University in her mid-40s. Though she started her eponymous firm in 2007, she had been active in philanthropic causes throughout her life. She had also served as a consultant on a WfWI school project in Kosovo.
“From the beginning of my education, I was committed to using architectural design to improve substantial climate issues,” Davis says. “But it wasn’t until I visited Rwanda that my conviction really took form. I saw how dirty the water was and the miles that women had to walk to get water. Rainwater collection and waste treatment took on a completely different meaning for me—survival.”
Establishing a reliable water supply would become one of the WOC project’s biggest challenges. Davis teamed with other consultants who also worked pro bono, including: structural engineer Arun Rimal from OSD Engineering, in Belle Mead, N.J.; water management engineer Eric Rothstein from eDesignDynamics, in New York; and landscape designer Julie Harris of XS Space, in Brooklyn, N.Y., with Susan Maurer. Davis’ own project manager, Bruce Engel, moved to Rwanda for two years to work on the project.
Davis and her studio studied the site extensively, from its terrain to wind patterns, for cooling ideas as well as for views of the valley. They moved program pieces around a site model to test circulation and accessibility. The radial organization of the WOC, its repetition of circular forms, and its woven brick structures are modeled on traditional Rwandan architecture and reference an indigenous, historical, woven-reed construction method exemplified by the King’s Palace in the south of the country.
The Center features sustainable design elements, such as green roofs, passive cooling, retained earth walls, and echoes the local village vernacular. Furthermore, it engaged local women—graduates of the WfWI program and future WOC users—to make 450,000 clay bricks, the project’s primary building material. The traditional, locally made bricks, Davis says, were under-fired, faring poorly under compression tests, and often cracked in application. Their irregular shape required workers to use more mortar during construction, and inconsistencies in proportion limited bricklayers to specific bonding types and installation methods that, in turn, limited the strength of the wall.
After consulting Village-Level Brickmaking (GATE International, 1988), by Anne Beamish and Will Donovan, Davis and her team replaced the traditional brick-making method, called slop-molding, for a technique called sand-molding. They found high-quality clay in a nearby valley and established a facility to produce a drier brick mixture that retains its shape better and provides a far superior compressive strength than the conventional product.
During the WOC construction, local women worked alongside builders to hand-press the mixture in steel molds, which retained a void through the center of each brick for reinforcing steel. The rebar addresses seismic loads and eliminates the reinforced concrete columns and beams typically required in brick wall infill construction. Davis and her team also developed a 1:2:3 proportion for the molds, in which the length of the brick would be three times longer than its height and two times longer than its width, for use with a 10-millimeter mortar joint. This ratio allowed workers to alternate a running bond stretcher course with a header course. In the header course, workers could remove individual bricks to create a visual texture as well as opportunities for natural ventilation and daylight. At night, the classrooms glow like filigreed lanterns.
Along with sourcing local materials, the designers integrated sustainability technologies suited for the region such as solar power generation, sand and UV water purification, the use of biogas fuel for cooking, and composting toilets.
The broadleaf shape of the building roofs, with their centered valleys and upward-facing eaves, provide peak-hour shading and promote natural ventilation. Similarly to the indigenous leaves, which are natural water collectors, the roofs can capture rainwater and sluice it into a single cistern. The roof design itself became a teaching tool; because rainwater collection is not yet common practice in Rwanda, the technology has become another hands-on resource for students.
Architecture has brought the career path of Davis, who studied fine art in college and whose grandmother and mother were also artists, to full circle. Only six years into the profession, she’s already a member of the boards of the Van Alen Institute and Friends of the High Line. She describes her practice as “human-centered” and believes that architects have an extra responsibility when working in countries such as Rwanda. “As more architects take on work in developing countries, it is our responsibility to design the infrastructure as well as the building,” she says. “A school with no water and no wastewater management just isn’t acceptable anymore.”
Perhaps Davis’ conviction is a tool for good will help those frustrated with the delays, egos, and compromises common to architecture to remember the industry’s virtues. “Most architecture, historically, is about changing or influencing perception,” Davis says. “I think the WOC conveys respect for the land, the materials, and the women. And respect and dignity are two ways that architects can use the power of perception to improve people’s lives.”