Deep in the jungle of the Congo Basin, six hours by motorcycle from the nearest airstrip, the Ilima Primary School by MASS Design Group and the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) sets a new standard for rural education. 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. With its innovative design, it has become a beacon school, attracting the region's best teachers and offering students opportunities beyond subsistence farming.
Built entirely of materials and labor sourced on the hard-to-access site, the Ilima School embodies MASS's ethos of Lo-Fab [local fabrication]. Designers collaborated with local conservationists to identify appropriate trees in the agricultural area, which were hand-sawn, planed, and crafted into the timber trusses, roof framing, furniture and architectural details of the final facility. Local artisans and MASS architects experimented with modified earth mixes and regional trees to form the building's walls and roof shingles. Taking their cue from regional climate-aware design practices, the school's steep roof and gutter system respond to heavy rainfall, the open clerestory and half-height walls encourage natural ventilation and daylight for comfortable classrooms. MASS designed construction documents for graphic representation, allowing often illiterate workers to assemble the building's complex roof frame.
In this way, the Ilima School redefines what sustainable architecture can aspire to be. Developed in tandem with the community it serves, the rural school does not risk deteriorating with time. 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. With this focus on skills development, the project's sustainability is rooted in the long-term investment of its users.
Description of Ilima Community
The Ilima community is situated in Equateur Province at the heart of the Congo Basin, an environmental treasure that spans 3.7 million square kilometers and is home to some of the world's largest, pristine tropical rainforest and wetland areas. Humans have lived in the forests of the Congo for tens of thousands of years, and are heavily dependent on the environment's resources for raw materials. The capital city of Kinshasa can only be reached from Ilima after a two day canoe trip and a full day's motorcycle ride, leaving the people of Ilima relatively isolated. This isolation has forced the community to develop an extensive knowledge of their ecosystem and its animals, and to depend on the Basin for food, medicine, water, and shelter.
The population of Ilima fluctuates greatly as young people move between villages and seek work or attend school. While all members of a typical Ilima family work on the family land plot, women do the majority of the harvesting, collecting of produce, fetching of water and cooking. The men and boys in the community collect rubber from trees, hunt animals in the forest, distill alcohol or transport goods for sale to make money for their families. Men often take multiple wives and have from 8 to 18 children.
MASS Design Group's Project Partner
In 2012, MASS Design Group and the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) partnered to implement the African Conservation School (ACS) Initiative, a network of conservation schools throughout Africa engineered to mitigate conflicts between people and wildlife and facilitate environmental stewardship. This initiative is an unprecedented combination of conservation and design efforts, with MASS Design Group providing community engagement, assessment, architecture, implementation and onsite training and the AWF ensuring the development of the conservation curriculum, teacher training, long-term community engagement plan, and investment in wildlife conservation plan. The Ilima Primary School was the first school created by this collaboration.
The Ilima Community's Participation
MASS's design practice hinges on thorough community engagement at every phase of design and construction. We begin our projects with a process of pre-design immersion, working with future occupants to identify unique constraints and local opportunities, and collaborating towards a design solution. We then optimize the construction process to use local labor, material innovation and techniques and, in doing so, training artisans in new skills. By fostering communication and empowering local residents, each project MASS completes becomes a community development program as much as a construction site. We call this ethos the Lo-Fab [local fabrication] movement, and continuously advocate for this critical and proactive practice of architecture.
In this case, the Ilima community have been active participants in this project from the very beginning, as the community elders committed to AWF to conserve a set acreage of land and wildlife around their village in exchange for a new school for the community. Residents of the village and region remained active stakeholders throughout the design and construction process,
In keeping with MASS Design's commitment to hiring and training local workers to go beyond the building and use architecture as a powerful tool for economic and social gain, the Ilima Primary School was built entirely by local laborers and craftsmen. This created employment opportunities for the community, inspired pride and ownership in the structure, and empowered the community with the skills they would later need to maintain the school after its completion. In addition, MASS held forums with community leaders, residents, teachers, and students through all steps of design and construction of the school in order to create a finished product with not for the community.
Impact on the Ilima Community
With increasing urgency over two decades of war, the residents of Ilima have been forced to exploit the natural resources around them in order to survive, cutting down trees for sale in the charcoal market, hunting and selling bushmeat, and using slash-and-burn farming methods.
Beyond establishing a conservation zone, the African Wildlife Foundation has developed a conservation-focused curriculum that promotes environmental stewardship among children, as well as community-wide programming to promote sustainable hunting and agricultural practices. MASS and AWF hope this and other conservation schools in central Africa will help a new generation come of age empowered by the knowledge to steward their natural resources.
In addition, the Ilima Primary School aims to redefine what architecture can aspire to in limited-resource areas. The building sets a new standard for rural education in the Congo Basin, and has attracted significant regional attention; some of the best faculty and staff from the region will be taking positions at the school as it develops into a new center of rural opportunity and a bridge to further education in larger cities. The redesigned classrooms, with capacity of 350 (replacing an old lean-to on this site with room for 90) shelter students from the elements and invite focus and curiosity, leading to higher student attendance and retention rates.
Construction of the Ilima School was an opportunity for skills-development in the region, as expert craftsmen wove reed door panels and crafted furniture, as well as for local economic development. Between 160 and 170 people from Ilima and the surrounding villages of Bolima and Lotulo worked on construction, and families set up shops to cater to activity around the site. Two Congolese architecture fellows were trained in high-impact design and construction methods.
The Ilima School was designed for extreme sustainability. The building was built entirely of materials sourced onsite, embodying MASS's ethos of Lo-Fab, or local fabrication. The difficulty of accessing Ilima by road made this critical to the school's long-term maintenance and sustainability. Labor-intensive processes of hand production were prized over imported materials, creating opportunities for employment and craft and ensuring the facility can be maintained well into the future. Local design solutions and material innovation have resulted in a resilient and highly adaptive facility with a low ecological footprint.
Teams of local laborers selected individual trees to minimize impact on the immediate ecosystem, and then felled these and worked days at a time with manual tools to transform them into the structural beams, roof shingles, and furniture of the Ilima school. MASS trained workers to use a Compressed Stabilized Earth Block machine, and experimented with locally-sourced palm oil and ant hill clay to strengthen the school's walls. Taking their cue from regional, climate-aware design practices, the school's steep roof and 2/3rd-height walls respond to heavy rainfall and encourage airflow against the daytime heat.
Ilima was a great example of humanitarian architectural intervention, but one that particularly capitalized on the local context.
Using local materials, the designers elevated what was already inherent as assets in the community to create a more sustainable system for building.