“More Than Just a Building:” MASS Humanitarian Architecture Projects for Countries in Need

The buildings we live in and use for various purposes make up the skeleton of our community organism. They protect, serve, and hold us, and encourage and allow us to live and act in various ways. Buildings are powerful, especially in communities facing dire and complex challenges. MASS design group is a specialized architectural organization that seeks to use buildings as positive change-makers for the local communities they partner with.

MASS Design Group was formed by Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks during the building of the Butaro District Hospital in Rwanda in 2008. It is a nonprofit architecture firm based in Boston known for humanitarian accomplishments in building. They have taken on a variety of design, environmental, and socio-economic challenges through their powerful projects, and have won many awards, including the Zumtobel Prize, and the Architecture League Emerging Voices Award, among others. Their site shares that since their firm’s conception, they,

“have seen that exceptional buildings and infrastructure can actually address the health, economic, and social challenges the world faces today.”

This article will focus on two of their unique building projects: The Kasungu Maternity Waiting Village and The Ilima Primary School.

Kasungu Maternity Waiting Village

This waiting village was constructed in order to support pregnant women in their last weeks of pregnancy (after their 36th week), especially those whose pregnancies are considered high-risk. In Malawi, a rural area with a high population in southeast Africa, a presidential initiative was created calling for the construction of 130 maternity waiting homes. This initiative was conceived in response to Malawi’s extremely high infant and maternal mortality rates. The World Health Organization shares that there were 510 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2013. These maternity waiting homes or maternity villages are built near healthcare facilities in order to give the mothers and babies easier access to healthcare and to promote healthy deliveries. The Kasungu Maternity Waiting Village was built by MASS in 2013 near the Kasungu District Hospital in partnership with the Malawi Ministry of Health, the Autodesk Foundation the University of North Carolina, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

MASS strove to create an attractive and useful model that would provide adequate light, ventilation, space, and comfort, as well as opportunities for socialization. Architectural Record shares this quote from Patricia Gruits, who co-led this project with Christian Benimana:

“How do we make it not only safe, healthy, and comfortable, but build community and dignity? That’s what drove our design.”

Their village ended up mirroring local architectural norms in being comprised of units grouped around courtyards, with covered paths connecting the units and shared spaces. The living spaces have several bedrooms with several beds in each room and two bathrooms. Interiors and Sources states that the village can accommodate 36 to 45 mothers at a time. The other shared spaces—a medical consultation space, classroom, and kitchen, round out the community feel of the village, along with benches and overhangs on the exteriors which create shaded areas. Quartz shares that Christian Benimana, a MASS Rwandan architect, hopes that the village design will create a “sense of security and belonging.”

MASS carried out this project in an environmentally and communally conscious fashion. The buildings are primarily built with soil and cement blocks (compressed stabilized earth blocks or CSEBs) which local workers learned to make with a press that MASS gifted to them.

The Ilima Primary School

The Ilima Primary School opened in a Congolese jungle village in 2015 to serve 300 students. Ilima is only accessible by foot, bike, or motorcycle, which made its construction more than a little challenging for Andrew Brose, the MASS project director, and the local workers who were largely inexperienced in this type of construction. MASS took on this project in collaboration with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and the result was an innovative primary schools and, as the MASS site describes it, a “community center for integration with local wildlife.”

As with the Kasungu Maternity Waiting Village, the materials used were locally sourced and locally built as much as possible in a low-fabrication or Lo-Fab style.

The school space contains six classrooms, a library, and an administrative space, as well as areas for play, demonstrations, and gardening. Fresh air circulates through the school in the open space at the tops of the walls and the roof and gutter system is designed to deal effectively with the extremes of local sunshine and rain. Design Boom explains:

“the structure also boasts a large suspended roof that provides extra shade from sun, and shelter during storms. Furthermore, catchments allow for rainwater collection, which is then used for agriculture.”

The Ilima Primary School has been nominated for a Notable Design for Social Impact Award in the Core77 Design Awards, 2016. The Core77 Design Awards site describes the project:

“Built as part of AWF’s strategy to encourage environmental preservation in the region, the school serves as a community center for village-level programming to promote sustainable farming and hunting practices for the mutually beneficial integration of villagers and wildlife… Its construction saw intergenerational training and the introduction of new skillsets and techniques, encouraging local economic development; two young Congolese architects were trained in sustainable building techniques.”

Below, enjoy student chalk art from the Mubuga Primary School.

A few of MASS’s other notable projects include the Butaro District Hospital in Rwanda and the GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center in Haiti. MASS is currently carrying out a Beyond the Building Campaign in which they tell their stories through film—check it out here. One of these clips has a striking quote on the benefits of meaningful and well-designed architecture from Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, Rwandan Minister of Health; “Beauty provides you with dignity.” The MASS home page shares the simple and moving statement that, “architecture is more than just a building.” They seem to embody and enliven these words with each of their innovative, human and earth-centered architectural works around the globe.

Julia Travers



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