A hospital in the Burera District of Rwanda stands as a beautiful example of the Lo-Fab approach to architecture. Presented at Design Indaba 2016 by Rwandan architect Christian Benimana, Lo-Fab (locally fabricated) is a mentality that prioritises sourcing materials, labour and ideas locally. The system is one where the architects of a new building are a mix of locals and foreigners and where collaboration and sensitivity to context is key.
The approach is being implemented around the world by MASS; an architectural/design firm with an alternative perspective, where Benimana works as programmes manager.¬†A beautiful series of videos made by MASS showcases the process and impact of their Lo-Fab collaborations in Africa and Haiti. In this series we meet Anne-Marie Nyiranshimiyimana, a Rwandan master mason who started out working on the Butaro Hospital in Rwanda as the sole female builder. She shrugged off scepticism by thriving in her work and encouraging more women to fill masonry jobs. For her, work is directly linked to dignity.
The hospital was built using all local materials, labour and innovation. Through collecting volcanic rock from the nearby Virunga Mountains; a labour intensive process to acquire the structure‚Äôs core resource, the cost of materials was cut and the number of employees swelled.
The hospital was designed thoughtfully, to take into account the experience of the patient, how much light they are exposed to, the view from their beds, even the lush gardens integrated into the design. The gardens are tended to by the doctors and hospital staff in their spare time out of sheer pride and enjoyment in the space. The hospital meets a basic social need while still providing a comfortable environment where the psychological and social aspects of healing are considered along with the physiological treatment. The space encourages it.
The Lo-Fab movement is a push back against the missteps so many external contactors and development agencies have made in the past. It’s a rejection of the notion that standardised architectural plans will suffice when a project has specific needs and calls for ingenuity. This is shown through a project in Haiti where local metal workers who predominantly worked on tourist fare were hired to construct the ventilated exterior of a cholera centre. This repurposing of skills has led to the creation of something functional which also happens to be an artistic marvel.
Gheskio Cholera Centre in Port-au-Prince, Haiti:
The idea seems so straightforward it should be self-evident, yet often the human side of building a structure like a school or a hospital is neglected. The problematic assumption seems to be that people in areas with limited infrastructure in terms of schools, hospitals and general housing would be happy with anything that meets the basic criteria.
Lo-Fab really questions the flawed logic of importing materials into areas with alternative but abundant resources. We can no longer depend on a model that brings foreign materials into a space where they will eventually degrade with no hope of being correctly maintained or replaced.
Projects that appreciate the value of the workers and their contribution have an inevitable knock-on effect. People like Anna-Marie can help build structures in their village and work on more paying jobs that require their expertise.
This may be utopian thinking, na√Øve to think this could work on a larger scale, but perhaps it‚Äôs plausible. Why should innovation in design be seen as a stage we get to after the conventional basics have been built? Despite the range of challenges that come with thinking critically about each step of the design and construction process, maybe a human centred approach to architecture, in countries that are seen as ‚Äòdeveloping‚Äô, could work.
One of the most exciting ventures Benimana is involved with is an African Design Centre, “The Bauhaus of Africa”, based in Kigali. The idea to start up a college to teach design and architecture came as a response to the lack of skilled architectural professionals and a dire need for reliable structures for an escalating African urban population. A story Benimana knows personally. Wanting to become an architect,¬†in spite of there being no word for his desired profession in his native tongue, he took an opportunity to study the practice in Shanghai for which he had to first learn Mandarin.