MASS Design Builds With Beauty, Dignity, and Hope in Rwanda and Beyond

by Cindy Glass
- Jan 29 2015 - 6 min read
Ilima Primary School. Courtesy MASS Design.

MASS Design Group is a business, a model, and a movement. Founded by Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks, who met while students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, MASS (Model of Architecture Serving Society), was borne from their first major project together: a hospital in a remote region of Rwanda with 340,000 people but no public hospital.

So, how do students shift from going to class to designing a hospital in one of the most under-resourced, war-ravaged places in the world? In this case, it started with a question. In 2006, Murphy asked global health activist, physician, and founder of Partners in Health, Dr. Paul Farmer, which architecture firms he used for his development projects in poor communities. According to the The New York Times recounting of this conversation, Dr. Farmer replied, “I drew the last clinic on a napkin.” Soon after, Murphy and Ricks were on a plane to Rwanda, and the seeds of MASS Design were planted.

Butaro Hospital
Butaro Hospital, designed with AutoCAD. Courtesy Iwan Baan.

The result is a stunning facility capable of delivering superior health outcomes, a status Rwanda as a nation is starting to deliver. An intentional side effect has also been its impact on the community it serves. The Butaro Hospital facility uses materials found or made locally to lower costs, improve local engagement and employment stats, and ensure sustainability in times of change and repair.

The design itself strives to lower hospital-acquired infections—a serious health issue for even developed and resourced areas like the U.S.—by leveraging fresh air and inexpensive ventilation techniques to improve airflow. The natural setting provides patients ample settings for private visits with families. Simple changes—like shifting the orientation for patients in the wards from looking at other sick people to looking outside onto the stunning landscape—offer compassion and privacy that no doubt influence well-being. And it is, in a word, beautiful.

Butaro Hospital. Courtesy Iwan Baan.
Butaro Hospital. Courtesy Iwan Baan.

“Beautiful” is a word that appears frequently on the firm’s website regarding its projects. But, for regions that lack basics—hospitals, schools, roads—does beauty matter? Well, yes. A lot.

“Beauty is what allows a building to transcend into architecture,” Murphy says. “It’s what allows a place to become not just a setting, but a kind of arena for hope, for aspiration, for reflection. The difference between bare-minimum facilities and creating a place that actually inspires us is that [a well-designed space] allows us to aspire to something greater in our lives. That transitional incision of beauty provides dignity to people. It reminds people that they deserve more from the world, and great architecture offers that.”

He credits the aesthetic care and respect put into the Butaro design as a reason why people in the community value it enough to spend their free time caring for it through volunteer gardening and other caretaking services. “I think [Pritzker Prize–winning Japanese architect] Shigeru Ban—when asked why people are maintaining temporary homes that were built in the face of disaster for almost 20 years—said people maintain things that they love. People take care of what they value, and they’re not going to value things that don’t value them. So beauty does matter, because it insists that it values the community that uses it.”

GHESKIO Tuberculosis Hospital
GHESKIO Tuberculosis Hospital. Courtesy MASS Design.

Murphy and Ricks have taken threads of this thinking and begun weaving plans for something much bigger. They are striving to completely redefine architecture’s business model, and shift design’s role from a decorative luxury to a necessary catalyst for broader social change and justice.

“Remember, we started in 2008 when every architect was basically losing their job,” Murphy says. “So the kind of typical model of practice is obviously an evident failure. It doesn’t necessarily serve the community it needs to serve, and when times are hardest, it becomes the first thing that gets cut. There is a need for a multiplicity of a new practice model, but that doesn’t reject completely the way things were done before. It just forces the evolution of the industry to be toward impact, toward service of who it serves, and… to not give up on its key transcendent potential, which is to create amazing environments for people to live in and to be a part of.”

Although MASS is organized as a non-profit, Ricks says his team is agnostic in regard to corporate structuring. “But what we’ve seen is that what we can do as a non-profit is open up these markets for the broader architectural community,” he says. “So what we’re doing is going into places that don’t value architecture, and showing—through our work—that it can add value and can contribute to the mission of our clients and their constituents with the idea that once that’s been established, then it becomes affordable. Once people can point to the value add of design, then they can make an argument to pay designers to do this.”

MASS Design Maternity Waiting Village
Maternity Waiting Village in Malawi. Courtesy MASS Design.

MASS Design uses its non-profit model to create a kind of R&D lab to use as proof of concept for later paid work. The two donated their time to the Butaro Hospital project and, today, MASS is working on full-fee projects for the Rwandan government to continue to raise the bar on health infrastructure once again. “[Butaro] was a hospital built for a community that didn’t even have a doctor at the time,” Ricks says, “but now Rwanda has some of the strongest health outcomes anywhere in the world…. They see architecture as vital to that.

Lessons learned from Butaro continue to bear fruit across the 20 other projects MASS Design has in various stages of development—from schools in partnership with the African Wildlife Foundation (such as the Ilima Primary School) to a cholera treatment center in Haiti. And they are bringing critical learning back to the U.S. In particular, MASS is helping the Family Partnership Center in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., which had recently been devastated by Hurricane Irene. While federal funds were readily available to rebuild, Brian Doyle, CEO of the parent organization, started asking bigger questions about whether a more meaningful investment could trigger broader change for the economically challenged community it intended to serve.

MASS Design Butaro Hospital
Butaro Hospital. Courtesy Iwan Baan.

MASS Design helped Poughkeepsie think about the project in multiple levels—creating a safe, energy-efficient, affordable structure; ensuring that it is an amenity to the community; and catalyzing change in the broader region itself. Design elements, as reported in The Poughkeepsie Journal, include creating an asset out of the creek that triggered the flood in the first place, and adding a rooftop garden that could provide food year-round.

Their work feels like the beginning of something new and very good for the world in terms of how design needs to and will happen in the future. “Even though we’re a non-profit, we work really closely with other for-profits in order to work together to carve out new markets,” Murphy says. “We welcome the partnership of vendors, of other designers, of architecture firms, and the building trade to join this movement to build an environment that overall improves our lives, improves our health. All of the players are needed at the table in order to do that, to make that paradigm shift, and we hope to be both a partner as well as a convener for this discussion to really make resonant and transcendent change in our industry in general.”

MASS Design Group is a member of the Autodesk Foundation, the first foundation to focus investment exclusively on the people and organizations using design for impact. To learn more about MASS Design Group, see Alan Ricks’ recent talk at Autodesk University.

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