_Ilima Primary School_

“Beyond the Building” is a series of videos about the work of Boston based MASS Design Group, illustrating their approach and the architectural impact on the communities they work with. Their main premise is to “…. design, build and advocate for better buildings, and empower the people that build them.”

Their working method is to first immerse themselves in their context and location in order to understand the existing challenges and opportunities. Then, they design buildings that “deliver dignity, improve health and well-being, and have the greatest positive impact in the communities they serve.” The construction processes aim to maximize the economic, educational, and environmental outcomes. “Finally, the end of construction is in many ways a beginning. We evaluate the quantitative and qualitative impacts of the design and construction process to prove the value of architecture in improving people’s lives.” This in turn informs future projects.


Aerial concept image (MASS)

In their third video, “Ilima: Beyond Sustainability”  MASS explores it’s collaboration with the African Wildlife Foundation and local masons to build a primary school in the rural Congolese jungle village of Ilima, where, due to its remote location, the construction will employ exclusively local materials, including the fabrication of custom shingles using local timber on-site.


Model showing the two gently curving blocks housing the classrooms, separated by an open-ended corridor to allow air, traffic, and light to flow through. (Image: AWF)

More than a primary school, the building will also serve as a community center for the safe and mutually beneficial integration with the local environment and wildlife. Conservation and community development, they argue, is most feasible when communities are given the opportunity to develop in harmony with surrounding natural environments. The school will foster learning opportunities around conservation, and the classrooms will offer views of the forest, reinforcing the link to the natural environment.


Interior concept view of a classroom, showing the raised roof structure (MASS)

As the village sits between two land uses—untouched forest and areas that were cleared by people for agriculture—the school is situated to span these areas. All classrooms feature views of the forest, reinforcing the link to the natural environment. Due to the rainforest climate, with heavy rains and high heat, school walls will only go up to two thirds of the ceiling to allow for unrestricted ventilation. The structures are covered by a large suspended roof to provide extra shade from sun and shelter during rains. Rain catchments will allow for rainwater collection, which will be used in agriculture.


The site: laying the foundations (MASS)


Installing the roof rafters (MASS)

Led by MASS Design, school construction is being carried out by members of the local community. They are being trained and employed through the duration of the construction process. This transfer of knowledge will allow community members to maintain their school building, ensuring that the building does not fall into disrepair and leaving the community with newly learned, employable skills. This will further transfer ownership of the conservation school to the community.


Brick laying (MASS)

“It’s pretty evident that for conservation to work, there has to be investment in communities,” says Michael Murphy, co-founder and CEO of MASS. “Part of that is investing in dignified infrastructure to improve lives.”

Because of the village’s location deep in the Congo Basin, MASS calculated that it would take at least one month and multiple modes of transportation to ship construction materials to Ilima. “We want to build efficiently, inexpensively, and functionally,” says MASS’s Murphy. Thus the new school will be primarily built from locally sourced brick, with a shingled roof made from a local hardwood. The community will be trained and employed throughout the construction process, a hallmark of MASS’s typical construction process and in keeping with AWF’s capacity building philosophy.


Shingles for the roof being made on site from local trees


Local fabrication of the furniture (MASS)

The current status of the construction is that the school is nearly completed. Although some landscaping and roof work remains, classes have already began.


Classes begin! (photo: Antoine Tabou of African Wildlife Foundation)


MASS Design Group is a nonprofit design firm based in Boston, MA and Kigali, Rwanda.

MASS has been awarded the Curry Stone Design Prize, Zumtobel Prize, Architecture League Emerging Voices Award, Healthcare Design Changemaker Award, Contract Magazine ‘Designer of the Year’, and received the World Architecture News Burro Happold Award, among others. MASS has been a finalist for the TED Prize, and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and a semi-finalist for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge.

Check out their video above!