MASS design group uses materials from congolese jungle to build ilima school
all images courtesy of MASS design group / african wildlife foundation

 

 

 

boston-based studio MASS design group has completed its first conservation school in the rural congolese jungle village of ilima. working closely with the african wildlife foundation, ‘ilima primary school’ also serves as a shared community center for the wider region.

 

speaking in amsterdam at WHAT DESIGN CAN DO!, MASS’s co-founder michael murphy expanded on the project’s remote location. ‘the ilima primary school is so far away. it takes three flights and a six hour motorcycle ride to get there, which takes about three days. this also means that not one building material can come in that can’t fit on the back of a bike. consequently, we had to build it all out of materials we could source or farm from this very site.’

MASS design group ilima primary school african wildlife foundation congo designboom
an aerial view of the project in the congolese jungle

 

 

 

owing to the region’s rainforest climate – known for heavy rains and high heat – internal walls only reach two-thirds of the ceiling height to allow for unrestricted airflow. 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.

MASS design group ilima primary school african wildlife foundation congo designboom
the structure boasts a large suspended roof that provides extra shade from sun

 

 

 

‘we figured out a new way to use mud block, blended with different mixes of palm oil to make it stronger and sturdier,’ continued murphy. ‘then we had to ask, what would be the roof construction that would keep out the rain? typically, it would be palm leaf, which only lasts about eights months in this area. people wanted a metal roof, but a metal roof would rust and be hard to replace.

 

so we came up with a way to think about what would be the roof material that would employ the most people, be the most easy to replicate, and last as long as possible. we found a way to make a shingled roof out of sourcing a local wood. and soon the same people who made the roof, will put the same material on their own homes. architecture needs constraints to create resourcefulness, a blank slate is actually a great burden’.

MASS design group ilima primary school african wildlife foundation congo designboom
internal walls only reach two-thirds of the ceiling height to allow for unrestricted airflow
photo by billy dodson

 

 

 

using exclusively local materials, construction was carried out by community members, who were trained and employed throughout the duration of the process. this transfer of knowledge will allow community members to maintain their school building, ensuring that the building does not fall into disrepair, and leave villagers with practical and employable skills.

 

see here for designboom’s interview with michael murphy, who discussed his role as an architect, the media’s impact on the profession and which project has given him the most satisfaction to date.

MASS design group ilima primary school african wildlife foundation congo designboom
the shingled roof has been constructed using locally sourced wood
photo by billy dodson

MASS design group ilima primary school african wildlife foundation congo designboom
photo by billy dodson

MASS design group ilima primary school african wildlife foundation congo designboom
the school shown during its final stages of construction

 

 

beyond the building at ilima school‬
video courtesy of MASS design group

MASS design group ilima primary school african wildlife foundation congo designboom
detail of the school’s timber doors

MASS design group ilima primary school african wildlife foundation congo designboom
construction was carried out by community members who were employed throughout the process

 

 

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WHAT DESIGN CAN DO! is an international platform about the power of design, promoting design as a catalyst of change and renewal and a way of addressing the societal questions of our time. formed in 2011 by a group of designers from various fields, it aims at showcasing best practices and visions, raising discussions and facilitating collaboration between disciplines, raising awareness among the public for the potential of creativity. at the same time, WHAT DESIGN CAN DO! calls on designers to take responsibility and consider how their work can impact the wider society.