Women’s Opportunity Centre in Rwanda, Sharon Davis Design

Drawing on local precedents, this centre teaches cultivation skills to the women of a Rwandan village, improving both their prospects and those of the community

The Women’s Opportunity Centre in Rwanda was conceived as an economic incubator that would serve a local community and become a model of sustainability in this impoverished country. It was sponsored by Women for Women International, an NGO founded by a refugee from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to help women in strife-torn states rebuild their lives.

The organisation has rented space in many countries, from Bosnia to Congo; in Rwanda the government gave them a two-hectare plot of land near the village of Kayonza and invited them to build a ground-up facility. For this ambitious project they picked Sharon Davis Design, a New York practice that had collaborated on their earlier Kosovan venture.

Rwanda is one of the smallest, most densely populated countries in Africa. Scarred by the 1994 genocide, in which Hutu extremists massacred nearly a million of the Tutsi minority, it welcomes outside assistance and is relatively free of corruption.

Davis knew little of Africa before this assignment, but she responded enthusiastically to the challenge. Drawing on the expertise of a hydrologist, engineer and landscape architect in New York, she did a lot of research in Rwanda before starting her design. ‘I wanted to use locally available materials and find inspiration in the vernacular tradition,’ she explains.

Those traditions have been lost in the rush to modernise, but Davis found a model in the recreated King’s Palace. That gave her the idea of building in the round. An arc of circular classrooms frame a community space. A pair of curvilinear administrative offices, orthogonal housing, stables, and a covered market border the trapezoidal site. Four tented rooms accommodate guests.

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Vernacular structures had thatched roofs supported on a wood frame and walls of woven reeds, all of which required frequent maintenance. Davis considered the alternatives and specified bricks, 450,000 of which were hand-made on site by the centre’s users. She designed the perforated brick walls of the classrooms as self-supporting coils, with a single recessed entrance.

The engineer was unsure how much weight the walls could support and recommended an independent roof structure. Thatch harbours bugs and indigenous clay tiles are heavy and require massive supports. So Davis chose corrugated metal, ubiquitous throughout Africa, to create lightweight canopies, supported on tapered steel girders, which float above the masonry.

web  390 Womens Opportunity Centre in Rwanda, Sharon Davis DesignChain drains are used to collect rainwater which is then stored in underground cisterns

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detail section 0 390 Womens Opportunity Centre in Rwanda, Sharon Davis Designdetailed section

It was an inspired solution. The complex captures the spirit of a traditional village using contemporary materials that can be locally sourced and assembled. Brickwork proved much stronger than anticipated, and should be able to withstand seismic shocks. The curved plan was ideal for classrooms, where up to 25 women form a circle to interact more effectively.

Pierced walls and the detached roofs shade the interiors from the equatorial sun, drawing in cool breezes but shutting out wind-driven rain. The openings are large enough for occupants to look out, but small enough to ensure privacy. Corrugated metal facilitates the collection of rainwater, which is channelled into underground cisterns to keep it cool. From there, a small solar pump raises it to a tower at the top of the site, where it is filtered and sold as drinking water - a precious commodity win this drought-prone country.

It was important to Davis and the sponsor to make the complex self-sufficient, for economic and social reasons. Construction of the centre cost about £800,000, but it should pay for itself in sales of water and produce, and rents charged for market stalls and event spaces.

There’s a model farm adjoining the site so lessons can be directly applied. In rural Rwanda, women eke out a living in subsistence farming, fetching water and scavenging wood for fuel. The goal is to teach them new skills, in cultivation and marketing, and have them become teachers in other villages. The 300 women directly served by the Kayonza Centre could enlighten a broad spectrum of their sisters, country-wide.

web  390 Womens Opportunity Centre in Rwanda, Sharon Davis DesignThe women are taught skills in subsistence on the farm, making the centre self-sufficient in terms of produce, even deploying human waste as fertiliser

wev 390 Womens Opportunity Centre in Rwanda, Sharon Davis Designcircular classrooms facilitate interaction and intimacy

Inevitably, there is resistance to change. Local masons were initially reluctant to build the pieced brick walls, but they acquired valuable skills in doing so, as did the women who made the bricks. When the project began, there were few Rwandan architects and no building codes; the situation has since improved.

Davis designed hygienic composting toilets that save water and allow human waste to be used as fertiliser, in place of the pit latrines that pollute the aquifers. Some villagers are still reluctant to make use of the waste. As the architect notes, it’s a cultural issue that calls for education and time to win over doubters. She has become an advocate and plans to focus her practice on the opportunity to serve and innovate in Africa.

 Womens Opportunity Centre in Rwanda, Sharon Davis Design