The power of the "Lo-Fab" (Locally Fabricated) movement: In conversation with Andrew Brose of MassDesign Group
I was in Raleigh, North Carolina, at the yearly Public Interest Design Conference, when I learned about the Ilima Primary School. The school, which also serves as a center for the community, lies deep in the Congolese Jungle of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
One of six winners of the prestigious SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design) Awards presented at the conference each year, the Ilima School is designed by Mass Design Group in collaboration with the African Wildlife Foundation.
There is a compelling narrative for the project–It’s remote, constrained location, It’s many construction feats with limited materials and the social impact generated by it. Andrew Brose, from Mass., was responsible for the management and construction of the school and was present at the conference to share this narrative.
Hearing Andrew speak, I learned about Mass's long-standing commitment to using locally fabricated material and scaling local innovation and ideas (termed the Lo-Fab movement). What was also evident was the firm’s absolute immersion into the social context of its projects.
In addition to the Ilima School, another project that Andrew shared– The Gheskio Cholera Treatment Center in Haiti drew my attention. Here, the perforated colorful metal facade served two goals—one was providing much-needed daylight and ventilation to ailing patients; the second was uplifting Haitian metal workers by engaging them on a scale of construction that magnified their skills.
Following the conference, I reached out to Andrew, and we were able to speak further about the pivotal role of materials in Mass's work in Africa and beyond.
Here is what he had to say:
MaterialDriven: We have seen several new materials and building elements such as wood-chunk roof shingles, new kinds of plaster, woven screens and metal facades, emerge from your projects. How are these filtering down into the local construction language of the region?
Andrew: In the case of some building solutions–like improved foundation techniques, and roofing (the wood shingles)—we can expect a replication in local projects. For others, like the metal work facade at the Cholera treatment center, the aim, and result, has been an increase in the capacity and skills of the local metalworkers. These metal workers then feel a sense of pride in the work they have done to improve life in their country.
MaterialDriven: Your construction palette and techniques for each project are completely tied to the local site conditions and skills of local masons. How do you inventory a site?
Andrew: The immersion process is crucial to Mass' design. So, early on in the timeline of a project, we are immersed in community workshops and partnerships. We speak to local masons and carpenters, assessing their skills and mindset.
The idea is to design what will build on these existing local skills and plan nothing at all that will require importation (material and labor) from outside the area. For example, in Ilima, in the Congolese jungle, we would never have used metal work, since that is not part of the local skill set, nor is the material readily available. We also ensure that construction drawings speak to this criterion, as well as the literacy of the community.
MaterialDriven: There is talk of Mass Design Group drawing from its experience (with healthcare architecture) in East Africa and recommending solutions for the American healthcare system. What attributes about your process in Africa do you think could be easily transferrable?
Andrew: My colleagues and I are amazed at how much of our learning from Rwanda can be transferrable to other parts of the world. The biggest attribute of the design process that can benefit other areas of the world, however, is the engagement with the end-user and management of buildings. The focus on how the design can maximize impact on people regarding health, participation, etc., is something that can immediately help in the US healthcare context.
MaterialDriven: How did you realize there was so much there was to gain from crowd-sourcing construction solutions at your sites?
Andrew: This realization came very early on, perhaps my first project in Africa. A colleague and I were creating a metal template for bricks. We learned a much better way to create it from a local Mason. Without collaboration, all this knowledge might be lost. That's why it is vital to our projects that one of us constantly be at the site, working together with the community and masons, finding solutions. Often, we designers will develop the basic structure, but finishes, textures, and details will be realized as a team effort with the community.
MaterialDriven: Thanks, Andrew, We appreciate this opportunity to learn more about the incredible work that you and the firm as a whole have done in the region!