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The good place: Architect drawn to improve Rwandan society

Kelly Doran's design firm MASS is taking a social-impact approach to planning high-quality buildings in East Africa

January 22, 2018 — 

Originally Published in the Globe and Mail

If you map the global hubs of architecture, you end up following the money to the world’s richest cities: London, New York. And yet the young, ambitious Canadian architect Kelly Doran has wound up in Kigali, Rwanda. Why?

Simply: to make a difference. With the design firm MASS, the Manitoba native is working to create high-quality hospitals and educational facilities and affordable housing in East Africa. And, also, to carve out a bigger role for a profession that has a lot to give.

“What we do is not just some service, and it’s not a luxury; it’s a need,” the 39-year-old said on a recent visit to Toronto. “That’s the challenge for architecture right now: to make that case. Design can add so much value. We need to be able to prove it.”

Right now, working from Kigali, where he is MASS’s senior director of East Africa programs, Mr. Doran is designing an entire campus for an agricultural university, as well as a pair of hospitals in Rwanda and a library for another university in Uganda – among other things. Rwanda in 2017 is “a very good place to get [things] done,” he says. “It’s a total meritocracy, largely free of corruption … and there is this incredible growth that needs to be addressed.”

Yet, he explained, the past few years have posed questions: How do you design a building in a place where you can’t afford to import building materials? How do you build a cancer hospital in a country with no cancer hospitals? And, most important, how do you design a place that will make society better? “That’s broadly our mission,” Mr. Doran says. “To take the enormous amount of money that is involved in building and make it more equitable.”

In short, MASS’s approach is to back up and look at the social impact of its buildings. They are consistently beautiful, and they reportedly perform well in environmental terms, but the office also applies measurement and testing to many other aspects of its work.

MASS was born through the design of Butaro Hospital. Opened in 2011, the facility in Rwanda’s Northern Province features high ceilings and large windows, natural ventilation and local materials. It is absolutely unlike a Western hospital: It’s much cheaper, more pleasant and, the designers claim, achieves better health results. Meanwhile, its use of volcanic rock – “which people used to leave by the side of the road” – generated a new local trade.

MASS co-founder Michael Murphy had just finished his first year at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design when he connected with a mentor: the doctor-anthropologist Paul Farmer of Partners in Health. That non-profit organization works in a variety of developing countries – and with Native Americans in the United States – to provide health-care services and programs. It places a firm emphasis on partnership with local groups.

At MASS, which is structured as a non-profit, “we have borrowed Partners in Health’s approach,” Mr. Doran says. “That is: We work with ministries of health and help them help themselves. We apply that model to architecture.”

Mr. Doran joined MASS in 2014, in his mid-thirties, after a rise through the profession. Raised in Winnipeg, he attended architecture school at the University of Manitoba and then the University of Toronto, where he won the Canada Council for the Arts’ Prix de Rome in Architecture for Emerging Practitioners in 2009.

He also worked with the prestigious, small Toronto firms WilliamsonWilliamson and then regionalArchitects. At the latter, working with John Van Nostrand, Mr. Doran travelled extensively in Africa and Latin America on projects for the mining industry; then, while teaching at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he connected with MASS’s Murphy.

Mr. Doran brings a passionate, and accurate, critique of the North American building industries, in which architecture has been displaced by lawyering and risk management. “We think about the entire scope of making a project; too often architects are late to the party,” he says. “The planning and visioning have been done, and a lot of decisions have been made – which means you’re fighting upstream.

“Now, if you can get in the room with the people talking about this project, you can ask the big questions: What do they want to achieve? What is it we’re trying to build here?”

The dual focus on mission and data defines MASS’s work. “What can we measure,” Mr. Doran asks, “in a society that’s increasingly about proving it?”

Accordingly, a new birthing centre in Malawi is being measured, via health data and qualitative measurements, against another more typical facility. “Our hypothesis was that if we designed it differently, it would encourage people to come, and improve health incomes,” Mr. Doran said. “We’re working to prove that out.”

At the same time, Mr. Doran asks: “How do we take the approach we learned in a place like Rwanda, and bring it to North America? That’s the question right now.” MASS is now working on a health clinic with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota; and a project with the Isle de Jean Charles Band in Louisiana, whose reservation is being threatened by rising sea levels in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the spring of 2018, the designers will open the Memorial to Peace and Justice, a national memorial to the victims of lynching in the United States. Located in Montgomery, Ala., it has been created in collaboration with the Equal Justice Initiative, lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s non-profit group, which works to counter racial and economic injustice in the American justice system.

If that memorial takes MASS into new territory, Mr. Doran will himself be shifting across the map. In early 2018, he’ll move to London, where he and his wife, an epidemiologist, aim to start a family. He aims to bring MASS’s design skills and approach to more countries, but one thing, he said, remains the same. “Whatever we do, we’re aiming at the big picture,” he said. “The hope is always the project will allow people to imagine something different.”

Solving design challenges by going back to the basics

Following the success of its work at the Butaro Hospital, MASS was faced with a huge design challenge: to translate the design of that building into guidelines for Rwanda’s ministry of health, a sort of recipe for successful hospitals in the local context.

“It was an incredible learning opportunity to get into the complexities of health care,” says Kelly Doran, the design firm’s senior director of East Africa programs. “And then they asked us, ‘Can you take these standards and test drive them in a real site?'”

The resulting pilot project is a 300-bed district hospital in a poor, remote district called Nyaruguru. The challenges are many: The site is 20 kilometres from the nearest power source and outages are frequent; because it serves a wide area, family members often travel to help care for patients; and the site is hilly and irregular, curving around a mass grave that dates back to the Rwandan genocide.

The North American standard for hospital design, which is a building with a huge floor plate and complex mechanical systems for air-exchange and climate control, is impossible here.

So what is MASS’s answer? A return to the first principles of architecture.

“This is a building designed to provide light and air,” Mr. Doran says. The design splits the hospital’s functions into three narrow bar buildings, which curve with the topography; almost every single room in the complex, except the operating room, has windows to the exterior. On the upper floors, these house patient rooms; each room has a balcony, allowing patients to see the verdant landscape – which, as studies have shown, improves patients’ mood and condition.

“Even if you’re on the third floor,” Mr. Doran explains, “you can get outside and get some Vitamin D.”

For cooling and air exchange, the hospital relies on natural ventilation – in other words, cross-breezes. Patient rooms are accessed from exterior hallways, which reduces the risk of infection. Even the construction techniques are geared toward boosting the local economy and dealing with its remote location; the building is constructed with locally made bricks and with stone quarried within a few kilometres of the site. And the courtyards in between the buildings, which are landscaped, provide both views for patients and places for visitors to rest.

Several aspects of the facility’s design – particularly the connections to the exterior and provision of daylight – echo the principles of ” patient-centred design,” which is now current in North American health care. But it also echoes Western health-care facilities designed before the onset of climate-control in the mid-20th century. If these ideas can work in the back country of Rwanda, perhaps they can work in Canadian cities, too.

The project is now in construction and is scheduled to open in 2018.


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