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Designing for Dignity: A Cornerstone for Hope

View of completed Classroom Building

A serendipitous encounter in early May 2014 led to an extraordinary journey to a Kenyan mountaintop where one Northeastern students’ perspective on the social role of architecture was forever changed through the design and construction of a science building for a secondary school for underprivileged girls. Five days earlier, Madison Rogers (BS, ARCH 17) had just returned home after her sophomore year at Northeastern when she met to the founders of the Jane Adeny Memorial School (JAMS).  Established in 2011 in Fort Ternan, Kenya, this small boarding school is making a significant impact in the lives of young women. Madison was invited to go to Kenya and she leapt at the chance. She would spend the next four months there, working in any capacity she could. She got to know the extraordinary stories of the young women, the instructors, and the passion behind the founders’ mission to provide a transformative learning environment where everyone has the potential to grow with dignity and integrity. Here Madison experienced life in rural Kenya; coped with the issues of sanitation, access to water, electricity, and transportation, and saw the importance of having a safe environment to live and learn in order to break the cycle of poverty.

Though the programmatic elements of the science building were not complex in nature, the real test for Madison was maintaining empathetic and realistic expectations that focused on the baseline needs of the students and the school, albeit staying within their limited fundraised budget. She had to adapt her mindset, design methodology, and therefore the resulting architecture to fit within the context of JAMS and Kenyan culture. Building materials, orientation, and site location are imperative in providing a building that catalyzes on passive design strategies to maintain comfort. The hipped roof provides shade, minimizes solar heat gain, while allowing heat to rise to the roof’s ridge. The offset window heights allows for cross-ventilation while blocking the predominant southern winds from inferring with laboratory experiments. The site is extremely remote, with electricity provided by solar panels and water pumped from a borehole at the base of the steep and rocky hill. Building materials were locally sourced from a stone quarry near the village market to save on transportation costs in addition to utilizing regional construction methods. This provided the most economical and efficient structure, while offering excellent thermal lag potential for diurnal temperature variations.

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Madison with the local children

At a time when architecture is always challenging the norm and pushing boundaries, it is important to step back and recognize the proper time and place to do so. In actuality, the JAMS science building’s success will not be measured by its architecture or aesthetics. Its success will be derived from the strengths of the existing community, while reinforcing the mission of JAMS to build a community that inspires, transforms, and champions the livelihood of young women. It will be measured on how it provides a safe space for students to learn, to challenge themselves, to build self-confidence, and create a sense of social agency. It is instilling in them that they matter and deserve a space to learn. The impact of the science building will be larger than its four walls – it will be a symbol to the students and the community that quality education, human dignity, and gender equality are vital to a stable and thriving socio-economic world, thus casting a ripple effect on the generations to follow.

Madison Rogers is a 5th year B.S. of Architecture student from outside of Chicago, with minors in Urban Studies, as well as Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She has completed two co-ops; one at Overland Partners in San Antonio, Texas, and the second at ZGF Architects in Portland, Oregon. Besides her time in Kenya, she has studied abroad in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia and Berlin, Germany.