Active Social Architecture (ASA) is a Kigali-based architectural firm built on the principle that architecture is a basic human right. The firm designed and managed the construction of 11 early childhood development and family (ECD&F) centres in nine Rwandan districts.

“There is a misconception that architecture is a luxury,” says ASA co-founder Nerea Amoros Elorduy, “that design is a luxury and that poor people just need a facility, or a container off-programme, whereas actually, design should be a right. It should work to improve people’s lives.”

The ECD&F centres gave ASA scope to fulfil its mission of showcasing the potential for empowerment and education through architecture. The buildings provide safe and healthy environments with good light, ventilation and thermal insulation as well as access to water and sanitation facilities, and in so doing, they enable attention on childhood growth and development.

Socially Active Ecosystems

ASA’s brand of socially active ecosystem design found a welcome home in Rwanda, where communities work together to build and maintain required infrastructure. On the last Saturday of every month all Rwandan adults take part in compulsory Umuganda – community work.

Over 85% of the Rwandan population lives in rural areas, which often lack basic infrastructure. Rural communities meet every week and discuss their villages’ issues and needs. These tasks are then tackled during voluntary work hours on Wednesdays or monthly Umuganda.

ASA became involved with communities where the ECD&F centres were to be constructed through these meetings.

Early learning

A staggering 43% of Rwandans are under the age of 15 years. “There are so many children everywhere in Rwanda in need of care,” says ASA principal architect Alice Tasca, adding that the community – particularly women – welcomed the opportunity for a safe place to leave their children while they worked.

ASA’s projects included elements and colours that encouraged children’s sensorial stimulation, with the aim that in 20 years – through the construction of more ECD&F centres with these features – the education system could be enhanced and the students could have a better learning path up to academic level.

Water

In addition to childhood development, the design team learned that the community needed free access to water. They included a 35 000L underground rainwater tank so that the centres could provide a valuable resource for the community. Water from the tank was also used during construction.

The tank is a masonry brick dome with reinforced concrete foundation, and an inner and outer layer of waterproof plaster. It collects rainwater harvested from the clay roof tiles of each building. The water is pulled through a fountain activated by a pedal pump with no need for electric power.

The children and their families are the primary users of the collected rainwater, but all who live close to the centre can access the fountain.

Nourishment

Nutrition also became a focus of the centres; a large kitchen and vegetable gardens where people are able to learn about different cultivating practices were included in the design.

The kitchen and masonry stove reflect traditional cooking methods, but the design facilitates indoor pollution reduction through proper ventilation, improves the stove’s performance, and integrates a sink, counter and storage.

Early community involvement followed through to every stage of building means there is a strong sense of ownership. The centres are not only used for early childhood development, but also for parenting education, after school homework, community meetings, co-operatives and other activities that encourage community ownership.

Two designs, 11 sites

“The conceptual approach to the design rests on two pillars,” says Tasca. “It highlights the role of a central space as catalyst for community gathering in a contemporary reinterpretation of the traditional urugo settlement pattern. It also conceives a modular structure, where components can adapt to different terrains and situations, but originate from similar facilities.”

There were two main building typologies tested for replicability and adaptability: a circular plan and an S-shaped plan.

“Both typologies required adjustments and changes during the construction process in an effort to source locally available materials and transport them to difficult and remote site locations. The typologies also had to deal with different climatic and geological conditions, such as soil types and heavy rainfall,” says Tasca.

Building blocks

In both building types, the five basic elements – stimulation classrooms, multipurpose hall, open demonstration kitchen, administration block and sanitation facilities – are all small-reinforced masonry structures.

They were built with locally produced fired bricks, and assembled with Flemish bonds and vertical reinforcement bars to improve stability and mitigate the use of concrete. The community was taught how to create the materials used for construction.

During Umaganda, the community planted the grass and vegetable gardens, helping to keep construction costs more affordable.

“From the start the community loved these buildings. They welcomed the care available to their children and any improvements to their villages. As a natural ecosystem works without human inputs to adapt to specific climates, this socially active ecosystem will work without architect inputs to empower communities,” says Tasca.

The full feature appears in the April-May 2015 issue of earthworks magazine.