Advancing ethics and impact in Rwanda

Adam Saltzman
Director, MASS.Build | Kigali, Rwanda

Christian Benimana
Senior Principal, MASS Design Group | Kigali, Rwanda

The construction industry spends over $11 trillion each year. This massive amount of production has an indelible impact on our world, creating almost 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions.[1] However, this also comes with an incredible opportunity for impact: supporting over 100 million jobs, as the industry creates necessary social and physical infrastructure to further advancement and development. Every decision made while building has reverberating effects: Who is employed and under what conditions are they working? What materials are being used and where are they being sourced?

MASS Design Group was founded as a nonprofit design collective in order to align organizational operations with our values. As a nonprofit, our leadership is obligated to hold us accountable to our mission: to research, build, and advocate for architecture that advances justice and human dignity. Over the last decade of work, with 30 projects completed or in construction, one question continually emerged: What would it look like for a construction company to seek to steward a developer’s mission, as well as their financial investment? Good construction companies may deliver on quality, schedule, and budget; however, it is rare that contractors are incentivized to make decisions based on, or even contemplate, the social and environmental impacts of the supply chain of the products, or the means and methods of construction.

We set out on a new venture with precisely this in mind.

Rwandan Institute for Conservation Agriculture © MASS
Butaro District Hospital © MASS

In 2020, we launched MASS.Build with the goal of being a changemaker in the Rwandan construction sector — advancing both ethics and impact while still meeting traditional project targets. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in continental Africa, and it is rapidly urbanizing. Industry and manufacturing, including construction, represented almost one-fifth of the country’s GDP in 2019.[2] Rwanda, like many of its African counterparts, is uniquely positioned to leapfrog Western construction practices to create better jobs, reduce carbon emissions, and create sustainable infrastructure. But how can this opportunity be capitalized on? What would it look like to have capacity building, skills training, and sustainable employment as guiding principles of a construction company? What would it mean to set a new precedent, one based on the values of being good, clean, and fair?

Everyone deserves good design — design that is beautiful and just. It is essential to delivering human rights, services, and spaces that will build a better world.

MASS has demonstrated this in the development of Ruhehe Primary School. Creating a space which encourages learning requires more than four walls and a roof. The versatile school design stimulates play, exploration, and education — with classrooms that can be closed to allow for greater student concentration while still providing adequate daylight and natural ventilation, yet spills out into courtyards when the weather allows for it, creating a versatile learning environment. The project was accomplished by working closely with the construction workers, some of whom were the parents of future students of the school. This encouraged community ownership and pride in the new school, and allowed MASS to ensure that the integrity of the design was upheld during construction, making sure that the school could withstand both seismic movement and the wear and tear of young students.

Being climate-positive is an imperative, and it can only be achieved by intentionally designing an entire supply chain to be sustainable, resilient, and regenerative.

Rwandan Institute for Conservation Agriculture

The majority of construction in Rwanda is concrete.[3] On the Rwandan Institute for Conservation Agriculture campus, MASS created a precedent for sustainable timber construction in Rwanda. This required tracing materials all the way to the roots of the supply chain and overcoming hurdles to make timber construction viable and sustainable. We needed, to identify a few challenges, to avoid illegally sourced timber which depletes precious rainforests, find timber of suitable strength with a manageable level of structural defects, and discover the few mills with the necessary specialized grading, treatment knowledge, and equipment. In Rwanda, the sourcing of structural materials, furniture, fuel, and the need for arable land are all interlinked. So it is paramount to continue to demonstrate the value of structural timber in order to drive demand for it as a construction material, while also helping to establish robust and sustainable supply chains.

The profession must shift to looking at the design and construction process holistically — from material extraction to assembly and operation — ensuring we have safe and equitable labor practices.

Butaro District Hospital

The volcanic soil of Rwanda is what makes the land so fertile, but the farm fields are littered with piles of volcanic stone which are cleared to make way for crops. For Butaro District Hospital, MASS worked with local craftsmen and women to develop a way to use the otherwise worthless stone to create a beautiful, local, cost-effective building system. The volcanic stone masons have honed their craft and are now applying this technique on some of the most high-profile projects in Rwanda. A simple rethinking of a common material has created sustainable employment for a growing group of specialized masons. Additionally, through the promotion of gender equity in construction, ethical employment practices, and focusing on developing sustainable economic opportunities, MASS has become a leader pushing for a more fair and equitable construction industry.

MASS is on a path of reevaluating every aspect of the design and construction process to reclaim agency and intentionally develop processes that prioritize health in all its forms: human, environmental, public, and economic. The founding of MASS.Build is our latest step down that path, and we are constantly striving to identify ways to amplify our impact as builders.

[1] 2019 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction: Towards a Zero-emission, Efficient and Resilient Buildings and Construction Sector,Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, International Energy Agency and the United Nations Environment Programme. 2019.

[2] Sabiiti, Daniel. “Rwanda GDP Increases By 9.4 – NISR,” KT Press. March 23, 2020.

[3] Energy Technology Perspectives 2020, IEA. September, 2020.