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Needs and Deeds

University of Virginia (U.Va.)

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Needs and Deeds

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Imagine you have a $48,000 construction budget to build a school. The majority of your materials will have to originate from within a 6.2-mile radius of the building site. Also, the design will have to be simple enough to be constructed by a team of untrained volunteers. Oh, and there won’t be any electrical power at the jobsite.

That was the challenge that Anselmo Canfora, assistant professor of architecture at the University of Virginia (U.Va.) in Charlottesville, posed to his senior architecture students in 2008. The result was the Gita Primary School—the first educational institution within a 9-mile radius in Uganda’s Wakiso District. The school opened its doors to about 200 students last year, and has already received the AIA Education Honor Award and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture Collaborative Practice Award.

Canfora’s Initiative reCOVER, shaped around a U.Va. studio curriculum, focuses on developing countries and disaster zones. But it’s not just about deploying solutions “over there” so much as embedding the process in the jobsite. For Gita, students had to adjust their design to accommodate handmade bricks that varied greatly in size. “We want to give our students a sense of what the other 98 percent of the population works with in terms of architecture,” Canfora says. “Our goal is to engage architecture in a more meaningful manner, and show students how they could begin to have an impact on society in a positive way.”

Initiative reCOVER contributes to the focus of the School of Architecture curriculum: Offered in spring term, it is one of four or five studios offered to fourth-year students. But it’s not all about architecture; it’s about teaching students how to collaborate with other parties, as they eventually must do as practicing architects. The Indianapolis-based nonprofit Building Tomorrow (through its U.Va.-student chapter) initiated the project and provided fundraising and cultural guidance. Building Tomorrow then asked Initiative reCOVER to design the school. The project also benefited from the donated labor of hundreds of Ugandans, many of them parents or relatives of the school’s pupils.

Initiative reCOVER students have recently turned their sights southward to Haiti. Their latest project, Breathe House, was designed with a very specific type of tenant in mind: the stigmatized members of Haiti’s HIV population. Breathe House aims to provide a degree of normalcy and relief to its inhabitants, while addressing larger public health concerns, in a modest but elegant prefabricated structure built entirely around the concept of passive ventilation. The project, which incorporates a lofted design with a special air filtration and purification system, draws its name from micropockets, which are part of the wall panels. These “gills” facilitate air exchanges with minimal energy input for four to six inhabitants.

The concept won first prize this year in the Archive Institute’s Kay e Sante nan Ayiti Open Innovation Competition. (The name is Creole for “Housing and Health in Haiti.”) The Archive Institute is a global nonprofit that seeks to improve worldwide health through improved housing.

Breathe House, along with four other designs, will be constructed this fall in Saint-Marc, Haiti, with funding from Archive Institute.

In developing this specialized domicile, Initiative reCOVER students were careful to consider how disease (particularly tuberculosis, which poses a grave threat to Haitians living with HIV) could potentially spread between family members. The structure stresses passive ventilation and the importance of separating sleeping areas from eating areas or, in other cases, providing a family member who may be ill a more private bedroom. At the same time, the group sought to incorporate design elements such as outdoor gathering spaces that would help make the family unit cohesive, says Aja Bulla-Richards, a U.Va. graduate student who worked on the design.Although Initiative reCOVER is not the first academic architecture program to focus on low-cost, high-impact, needs-driven solutions, Canfora sees the field growing. He credits former Vice President Al Gore and journalist Thomas Friedman with nurturing awareness of design’s social mission in the Millennial Generation. He also points to people like Architecture for Humanity’s Executive Director Cameron Sinclair and Managing Director Kate Stohr, who signal a shift in architecture’s professional scope.Another related pedagogical shift is in post-disaster development. The New York University Schack Institute of Real Estate offers a seminar on the intersection between disaster relief and real estate, led by divisional dean James Stuckey. In planning the curriculum, Stuckey drew on his experience in New York commercial and residential development in the wake of 9/11. He presented a set of ethical dilemmas not usually covered in real estate coursework: What is the value of the land? How do you provide free title? Who would be the natural tenants? These questions continue to be raised in New Orleans, Myanmar, and, now, Japan—not just for legal reasons, but because the answers will frame the future of communities and commerce.Stuckey’s students are currently helping sort out some of the complicated legal questions that surround property ownership and development in Haiti following last year’s devastating earthquake. Their current focus is 17,000 acres north of Port-au-Prince (known locally as the North Pole), which has potential for residential and agricultural development.But the concept of organizing a lot of people around a central effort is certainly not foreign to architects. “In the middle of a crisis,” Stuckey says, “you’re trying to bring order to the chaos, and this is an area where lots of people should be collaborating.” Learn more at
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