Architecture students design a new green complex to bring education, clean water and sustainable food sources to East African villages
Nov. 7, 2011
Last spring, a handful of architecture students were faced with a daunting and unfamiliar challenge: design a school for a village 8,000 miles away in the African Simanjiro region, where water is scarce, the average wage is $1.25 a day and half the children die by age 5.
Michael Garrison, professor in the School of Architecture, realized the request from the nonprofit organization Africa’s Promise Village was intimidating. But he was confident the students would bring vision and passion to the project.
“Every five years or so there is a noticeable change in the disposition of our architecture students,” said Garrison. “Today’s students are very much rooted in globalism, and they want to know how they can be relevant in developing countries.
“This project was a long journey of discovery. The more we learned about the culture, education, economy, religion and traditions of the Maasai people in Tanzania, the more we learned about ourselves. Education is always a two-way street.”
The students’ mission was to design a school to serve the parish of the Rev. Peter Pascal Pinto, a priest with the Divine Word Missionaries, a Catholic society that works among the poor, neglected and disadvantaged in more than 70 countries around the world.
The complex will serve 19 Maasai villages and 400 students from the Simanjiro district in Tanzania, east of the Serengeti National Park and south of Mount Kilimanjaro in East Africa.
The Maasai community donated 40 acres to the project. Ten acres will be used for classrooms, dormitories for students and volunteers, an outdoor cooking facility, teacher housing and a sanitation facility.
The other 30 acres will be planted with maize, sunflowers and chickpeas to help feed the community. Children and residents will be educated in crop production, and revenue from the sale of excess crops will help sustain the school.
“The opportunity to work on the Africa’s Promise Village has been an incredible experience,” said graduate student Todd Mattocks.
“It was very important for us to learn what ‘education’ meant to these people in their context, rather than our own somewhat naive Western notions. It was through this process that some of the most innovative ideas about what the school could be surfaced; it would be more than four walls and a roof, but a place for the people, built by the Maasai tribe themselves.
“I was fortunate enough to continue work on the project through the summer, developing a set of construction documents to be used for bidding and construction of the school.”
With an emphasis on sustainability, the architecture students designed a “green build” complex constructed with local building materials that is naturally lit and ventilated. The design also includes a rainwater collection system, drip irrigation, gardens, photovoltaic panels and tanks to breed Barramundi fish that can be used as an alternative source of animal protein.
“Basic education is a critical part of rural development,” said Garrison. “However, the long-term benefit of the school will be to educate a new generation of children who will eventually come back to help their community as leaders, teachers, doctors, builders, engineers and architects.”
In the new parish school, the Maasai children will be taught not only to read and write but to understand agricultural practices that will help to improve the food supply. They will learn how to negotiate a fair price for their crops, how to market their crafts and how to prepare food and water that is free of harmful bacteria, Garrison said.
“Through Professor Garrison’s leadership and the work of his talented students in the School of Architecture, this project will save hundreds of lives and educate the children of the region for decades to come,” said Donna Gunn, executive director of Africa’s Promise Village, a nonprofit based in Texas whose core mission is to provide educational resources in the form of schools, teachers and their needed support systems to the people of Tanzania.
“The University of Texas has long been known for its participation in projects that benefit the larger community, and when we contacted Professor Garrison, we wanted to draw upon the expertise of the numerous professionals at the university.”
Construction on the school will begin in the spring or summer of 2012, and an onsite design fellow will be on hand to help teach the Maasai how to build the school’s walls, which will be made from compressed earthen blocks of sand and grasses.
Erinn McGurn, who graduated from the School of Architecture in 1998 with a master’s degree in architecture and is the founder and principal of SCALEStudio, will act as the architect to further develop the construction documents and work with local contractors to coordinate and implement the project.
The graduate students who helped design the project are Christine Kim, Yung-Ju Kim, Kaziah Haviland, Amarantha Quintana-Morales, June Jung, Carrie Joynton, Todd Mattocks, Katherine Guenthner, Gordan Lee, Garrett Martin, Kathy Chang, Ana Calhoun and Laine Hardy.
Graduate student Gordon Lee said that the most attractive feature of the project was the integration of different cultural environments.
“We started with research of the Maasai culture and realized that the Maasai’s social structure, natural resources and vernacular architecture are totally different from North America and my hometown, Taiwan. We had to think through issues such as seismic impacts, pollution issues, the deficiency of educational resources and energy in our design. We had great discussions that brought forth dissimilar cultural perspectives.”
According to Garrison, the marriage of different cultural perspectives is what brings strength to the project and, in the end, to the design.
“We had numerous international students working on this project, and each of them brings with them a unique understanding of the pedagogical process from their own countries,” said Garrison. “Our main priority was to create a design that was fully sustainable — not something that creates a dependency on others.”
For more information, contact: Amy Crossette, School of Architecture, School of Information, 512-573-1078;
Banner photo: Donna Gunn