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Architecture as an Impetus for Change

Professor who founded a nonprofit architecture collaborative combines community engagement with design innovation.

Group of villagers sit together on stairs

Yutaka Sho, associate professor of architecture at Syracuse University and a founder and partner at General Architecture Collaborative, poses with staff in Kigali, Rwanda. (Photo credit: GAC)

In rural Rwanda, most homes are built from sundried adobe blocks with the help of family and neighbors, and without contractors, engineers or architects.

Since the summer of 2019, the architecture design firm General Architecture Collaborative (GAC) has been surveying the residents of more than 370 self-built homes in Masoro, Rwanda, for the Rwanda Rural Housing Project—an effort to better understand the housing needs and goals of rural Rwandans. GAC, operating as both a business in Rwanda and nonprofit in the U.S., makes communities their primary clients and creates sustainable spaces that provide access to quality health care, education, reliable energy and more.

I have never doubted that one can make a change, even if she is nobody particularly special. The architecture I teach revolves around those concepts, and it has been a privilege to share my work with and learn from Syracuse students.

—Yutaka Sho

“Our biggest challenge is that in many low-income environments, communities are rarely the primary architectural client, though almost always the end user,” says Yutaka Sho, associate professor in Syracuse University’s School of Architecture and a founder and partner at GAC. “The Rwanda Rural Housing Project is an effort to rethink sustainable building practices for rural communities. Our survey is a surrogate, though imperfect, for rural Rwandan voices that are often excluded from the decision-making process of development projects.”

Portrait of Yutaka Sho standing in architectural site in village.

Yutaka Sho wants to educate world citizens who can contribute to sustaining shared communities. (Photo credit: Veronique Gamard)

Community activism is nothing new to Sho. She grew up among activist housewives who were the first in Tokyo to recycle cans, which eventually led to a national policy. “I have never doubted that one can make a change, even if she is nobody particularly special. The architecture I teach revolves around those concepts, and it has been a privilege to share my work with and learn from Syracuse students."

For the Rwanda Rural Housing Project, GAC partnered with Rwandan architecture students and a social scientist to survey residents in the area. They expected to find homes in need of small repairs—leaking roofs and misaligned windows, for example. What the survey found, however, was surprising. “Only 3% of the households had access to tap water within their property and 11% had electricity, while 95% said their house needed repairs,” Sho says.

They also found that most homes in the village—an area prone to earthquakes and erosion—had no foundations. The team determined the small repairs they had planned must also be accompanied by education on understanding the theory behind structure. They offered village residents a three-day workshop to review basic building composition, including the functions of the foundation, supports and gutters. To demonstrate what they had learned, 15 of the workshop participants built a public latrine block from the foundation up.

Sho says this skills training embedded in GAC’s model recognizes the value of training opportunities that will support long-term sustainability for the community. “The structural knowledge the participants gained can be applied to their own homes,” Sho says. “They can now teach their neighbors when they help with construction projects.”

Builders lay bricks onto a wall.

GAC engages Masoro, Rwanda, residents in skills-based training. (Photo credit: GAC)

Learning Experience

As part of the survey, Rwandan architecture students made drawings of each of the homes surveyed in Masoro. Sho is supervising architecture students at Syracuse as they translate these hand-drawn sketches into accurate digital drawings—a crucial process, she says, for understanding and cultivating empathy for those who are from a different culture.

“Our goal as architectural educators is not only to produce better office workers who can draw beautiful forms fast and accurately,” Sho says. “We want to educate world citizens who can contribute to sustaining our shared communities and who can critically and courageously address problems when they see them, by applying design tools.”

To create the digital drawings, Syracuse students developed a process to translate the hand-drawn sketches of the houses. The sketches were rendered in the correct scale and proportion—identifying the housing type, location, materials and dimensions—and the uneven lines and hatches were redrawn to make them more accurate.

Illustrator sits at desk working over architectural blueprints

Hayyatu Deen Ikharo G’21 creates digital drawings of Rwandan homes.

Hayyatu Deen Ikharo G’21 has been working as a graduate assistant for Sho and making digital drawings of these homes. “Syracuse University offers a unique curriculum that promotes a project-based learning environment while fostering collaboration among students,” he says. “The architecture program equips you with all the necessary and critical experiences, which make you well-rounded in architecture and as a global citizen.”

Digital architectural drawings of small homes

Syracuse architecture students are creating digital drawings of Rwandan homes based on hand-drawn sketches. (Photo credit: GAC)

Sho believes this project is an important learning experience for students. “When they draw 20 or 30 homes in this way, they understand building scales, material behaviors, climate and cultural responses and so forth, and the reasons why the buildings are the way they are,” she says. “Students put themselves in the space, and they are not likely to forget it.”

Now in his third year of graduate studies and preparing for the future, Ikharo is grateful for the drawing experience and the opportunity to understand the architectural language of housing types in Rwanda. “It is rare to come across such an approach and understanding of architecture. The knowledge I gained from this project has begun to inform how I see and interpret architecture,” he says. “Working with Professor Sho has been critical in making me a better designer and researcher.”

The architecture program equips you with all the necessary and critical experiences, which make you well-rounded in architecture and as a global citizen.

—Hayyatu Deen Ikharo G’21

Making an Impact

The Rwandan Rural Housing project sits geographically in Masoro, a rural community about an hour outside of Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali. GAC has been working with this community long-term—building, understanding, learning and collaborating.

In 2020, GAC completed the first construction phase of the Masoro Learning and Sports Center, which provides a hub for community, space to meet and gather, sports and learning opportunities, and a library. Athletics at the center will include soccer and basketball leagues, yoga, and dance, while educational classes will be offered in reading, writing, math, computer science, health and well-being, construction, plant cultivation and accounting. “These activities may sound normal to you, but for this community they are challenging if not impossible to access, and they create significant opportunities for the future,” Sho says. “Most houses in this rural area do not have access to electricity or water, let alone Wi-Fi, further education, training, and access to sports.”

Villagers stand in center of sports field in ampitheater

Masoro Learning and Sports Center was the delivery hub for COVID information and emergency supplies. (Photo credit: GAC)

GAC also designed the Masoro Health Center, which is advancing the holistic well-being of this entire community. “We realized that a lot of diseases were caused by the water quality in the village,” Sho says. “We proposed the installation of the water tank and a filtration system so clean water is available. This health care campus takes advantage of Rwanda’s steep terrain to integrate landscape with water circulation, while separating administrative, curative and preventive care spaces.” The project received five national and international design awards in 2020. GAC was also recently selected as the top small firm in the Northeast category by The Architect’s Newspaper in its first-ever “Best of Practice Awards” and as a popular choice winner in the “+For Good” category by Architizer.

The Path Ahead

GAC plans to publish a book of the drawings of Rwandan homes made by Syracuse architecture students, so future development plans align more closely with rural needs.

Their next project will be to plan and design the new campus space for the recently announced Kigali International Community School in Rwanda. The 22-acre campus will be home to 1,600 students from kindergarten to 12th grade. GAC is also partnering with TEACH Rwanda to build a demonstration school to mentor teachers from across the country. They hope to win this year’s Architecture in Development Global Challenge, which recognizes the best community projects and helps accelerate their development.

Sho says that while the architecture profession may not always be glamorous, the ability to make an impact is invaluable. “It is a luxury to study architecture,” she says. “The luxury is in the time and effort you are afforded to study both tangible and intangible materials—steel and soil, human activities and aspirations, ecology—and transform them into habitable spaces that we share with the community."

Shaina M. Hill

This story was published on .

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