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Building Trust, and a Schoolhouse, in a Zambian Community

Photos of Chipakta Children's Academy by Rob Duker, Fabian Bedolla, Gord Ray, and Joseph Mizzi.
Photos of Chipakta Children's Academy by Rob Duker, Fabian Bedolla, Gord Ray, and Joseph Mizzi.

The photograph is architect Susan Rodriguez's favorite. A line of women from Chipakata Village in Zambia, Africa, stand in front of the newly opened Chipakata Children's Academy—specifically, in front of a screen wall composed of locally-made cement block covered in stucco and painted white. The women are dressed in traditional chitenges—colorful swaths of material wrapped around their waists to make long skirts—and bright, patterned t-shirts. Some carry babies on their backs in equally vibrant slings. Their clothing contrasts the cool, white facade, but the building and the chitenges have a similar functional elegance. "In a sense, that idea inspired some of the simple geometries in the building," said Rodriguez, a founding partner and design principal at New York-based Ennead Architects. "This [photograph] is quite an important one, in understanding the ethos and character of the community interface with the building."

The Chipakata Children's Academy opened in January and serves 171 children from grades one through five who previously walked up to nine miles a day to get an education because there was no school in their village. The school has also become a community and polling center, a place where vaccines are administered, and a beacon at night, lit by a photovoltaic display on the roof. The design was a pro bono collaboration between Rodriguez and architects Frank Lupo, Randy Antonia Lott of MdeAS Architects, and structural engineer Nat Oppenheimer from Robert Silman Associates. Fabian Bedolla was paid to serve as the on-site architect and construction manager. But the school is the brainchild of Joseph Mizzi, president of New York-based Sciame Construction. Mizzi founded the nonprofit 14+ Foundation in order to build and run Chipakata and, he hopes, more schools like it. In January 2016, about another 30 children will join the school when grade six is added. And at a complicated time for humanitarian design, 14+ is moving ahead with additional projects. At a benefit event in Manhattan's East Village on October 1, 14+ announced that Annabelle Selldorf would design the foundation's second school in Zambia's Mwabwindo Village. The money raised at the benefit—more than $700,000—will help fund the construction of the school, to be completed in 2018.

In March of 2011, Mizzi went to a cocktail party in Manhattan hosted by a friend's mother. The party was a fundraiser for World Bicycle Relief, a nonprofit that distributes bicycles to children in Africa who have to travel miles by foot to school. Soon after the party, he learned that the organization hosted service trips to Africa, and by the fall of 2011, Mizzi found himself in Zambia helping to distribute bikes. Normally based in Sciame's New York office, Zambia was about as far from home as Mizzi could be geographically, culturally, and emotionally. One child in particular—at the top of her class—made an impression on him. "You see a young student in a uniform and you don't think about the conditions in which they are living," said Mizzi. This student, like many he encountered on his trip, lived in a mud hut with a grass roof. A single item of clothing hung from a string in her bedroom. "Here's someone living miles from their school with one article of clothing, but they value education so much that they are putting on a uniform and going a great distance to get an education," he recalled, sitting in a soaring conference room at Sciame's Wall Street office.

Though Mizzi had no larger ambitions when he began the service trip, he left with ideas about using his background in architecture and construction to start his own nonprofit. More than bikes, these children needed easier access to an education, he thought. Back in New York and shopping for a purse for his mother at Burberry, Mizzi mentioned his trip to Zambia to an employee. By perfect coincidence, Nchimunya Wulf, another sales associate, overheard and told Mizzi she was born in Zambia. The two had coffee and Mizzi learned about Wulf's passion for art and music—areas that Mizzi wanted his dream school in Zambia to focus on. "My education is in architecture," said Mizzi, "and Nchimunya was educated in Denmark and benefited from arts-based education; it only seemed natural to us to include that."

By May 2012, Mizzi and Wulf, who became 14+'s co-founder and executive director, were back in Zambia. With help from Wulf's aunt who lives in Chipakata, the two decided to build a school there. They were wading into a controversial area: the ethics of Western architects' involvement in international projects has been a matter of much debate in the architecture world. "I had spoken with a lot with people, and a common theme was that outsiders come in and provide things [that] aren't needed," said Mizzi. "They are very well intentioned, but the community buy-in just wasn't there."

A major theme in his and Rodriguez's stories of Chipakata is the trust they had to build with the community, and the desire they had to deliver not only a resource that was truly wanted, but also one that the community could be proud to call its own. Design, in this way, had to elicit trust. "By the time we left, we had formed the basis of an organization, obtained a land grant, and found a community that was anxious for us to work with them," said Mizzi.

To help build the community's buy-in, Mizzi and his 14+ team, as well as other volunteers, embarked on a series of peripheral projects in Chipakata. When he realized the village didn't have its own grinding mill and adults were going as far as the children were for school in order to grind corn, he helped purchase a mill and build a structure to house it. The volunteers also built, with help from the community, five miles of roads and a small retail shop with necessities—profits go back toward restocking the shop. "All this time, we were planning the architecture [of the school]. We were becoming trusted in the community," said Mizzi. He knew that he had worn away some of the community's skepticism when, at a villager's house one day, Mizzi was presented with a dead rodent in a serving dish when he turned down lunch. "And they just started cracking up," he said. "I went from someone they were skeptical of to someone they are giving a hard time."

14+ became a 501c3 in July of 2012. The organization began fundraising, calling on colleagues in the design, architecture, real estate, and construction worlds, as well as some big names such as Vito Schnabel and Solange Knowles. The school cost $1 million to build, including the infrastructure to support it. "The long term benefit of education, rather than short term relief, is something that has resonated with a lot of people," said Mizzi.

"We met every Thursday at 4 p.m. at Sciame's office, for a year," said Rodriguez. The team began the design of the school by researching the local climate, heat, and daylight patterns, and studying typical Zambian schools—a typical model is four classrooms under one roof. "How do you take what they know and expand on that?" mused Rodriguez. "It's not, 'We have a better idea,' but we're trying to build on their traditions and culture and give them more."

The architects decided to essentially pull apart the four-room schoolhouse, transforming the typical monolithic volume into a porous structure with 10 indoor and outdoor learning spaces. They conceived a rectangular pavilion with a concrete floor and inserted three modular, two-story classroom spaces. The pavilion is topped with a corrugated metal roof canopy sourced from Lusaka, Zambia's capital. The interstitial spaces between the classrooms are just as important as the enclosed rooms, said Rodriguez, for providing collaboration between classes, chance encounters, and a sense of the rolling, rural landscape around the school. These covered outdoor spaces are also crucial because of Zambia's rainy season and strong sun. (Another of Rodriguez's favorite photographs features students peering over the wall of an open-air, second-story classroom into the landscape. Most students have never experienced being up so high, she said.)

Clerestory windows bring daylight to the first floor classrooms, as do vertical windows placed strategically near the blackboards and at eye-level with students' desks. (The classrooms are divided by grade, with one teacher teaching multiple subjects to a single grade level.) To the south of the classroom building, the 14+ team also designed a triangular dining and community pavilion with the same concrete slab floor and a corrugated roof supported on slender steel columns. Another classroom building is planned for south of the community pavilion. The results are graceful structures that sit lightly on the land.

In addition to using local materials, the design team enlisted local labor, training villagers when necessary. Fabian Bedolla, a New York-based architect who served as on-site construction manager, originally intended to stay in Zambia for six months. Instead, he was there for 11. He lived in Lusaka, about two hours west of the village by car, and traveled back and forth every day, rising at 5 a.m. and returning home to eat, report on the day, and go to sleep, only to repeat the process the next morning. "You're building in the middle of nowhere," recalled Bedolla. "You have to surrender to it. Things are different. The complexities of any construction are intense, but building with no running water, no power… You have to work with what you've got."

Exhausted but elated, Bedolla immersed himself in the collaborative process. It thrilled him to teach community members and some skilled laborers from Lusaka about modern design, how to read a construction drawing, or how to mimic the mock-up of a corner detail. While Bedolla is working with 14+ on the second classroom building and expanding the Chipakata prototype, he won't be going back to Zambia as a site manager, he said: "It's really important that other people experience what I experienced. It was perhaps the most rewarding experience of my life."

Joyce Habeenzu, director of community affairs for Chipakata Children's Academy, recalled that local residents didn't believe a school was possible. "When we first came, the area was a bush and accessibility was difficult," wrote Habeenzu in an email. "We had to leave our vehicle across a stream and walk about 5 km to get to the point where the school is. Now the place is totally transformed." She reported that when the school opened only a few children could read and write; today, over 70 percent can. "The school has given life to the area," she said. 

Rodriguez thinks the school is successful in terms of its design because the 14+ team created a comprehensive framework to understand the needs of the village. "I think the school is very respectful of their own traditions and the beauty of the place," she said. At Ennead, the bulk of her work is with nonprofits and schools, organizations with limited resources. "You don't want people to say, 'Do you really have to do that? It costs another five dollars.' The design has to become essential and justifiable," she said. At Chipakata, ideas that Rodriguez has implemented in New York, nearly 7,500 miles away, have resonance. Her design for the Schermerhorn House (2009), a multi-unit housing project in Brooklyn for the formerly homeless, people living with HIV/AIDS, and low-income adults (with an emphasis on the performing arts), employed some of the same tenets she later used at the Chipakata school: ample daylight, access to outdoor spaces, a design that honors the community, and a modularity that could be repeated.

It is a transitional time for "humanitarian" design. On January 1 of this year, the groundbreaking, 15-year-old Architecture for Humanity (AFH) shuttered its 60 chapters around the world, announcing Chapter 7 bankruptcy. AFH had built a reputation on swooping in to communities after disaster struck and helping with rebuilding efforts, but many in the design world pointed to a lack of a sustainable business model as the culprit for its closing. When the organization closed, its final executive director, Eric Cesal, was attempting to shift gears, asking how AFH could help communities become resilient before expensive and devastating storms or other natural disasters.

While no other organization has adopted AFH's broad mission, the Chipakata Children's School is representative of a quieter trend that has been steadily chugging along, one project at a time, for a while. It's a more DIY approach, taken on by individuals like Mizzi or architects working one-on-one with foundations or donors or simply through their own efforts—Toshiko Mori, MASS Design, SelgasCano, Diébédo Francis Kéré, Louise Braverman, Sharon Davis, and Shigeru Ban have all taken on these kinds of projects. Mizzi calls it "small impact, big change" and sees himself as a facilitator for allowing people to help. "There's no shortage of architects asking, 'How do I help?' or people who have resources to help," said Mizzi. "I don't think we can rely on always being a volunteer organization, but the concept of having a volunteer force is very interesting—people are there because they want to be there. Susie could choose to do a lot of things on a Thursday afternoon, but she was here because she has a passion for it."

The Chipakata model involves a driven "client" (Mizzi) who called on friends and colleagues for help (many of the school's design team knew each other from sitting on the board of New York's Architectural League). Mizzi also didn't want to stop at design, passing the program off to someone else. "I call it design-fund-build-operate," he said of the 14+ structure. The foundation has developed a curriculum for the school based on the Zambian curriculum, with additional arts-based components. 14+ employs the teachers and the administrators. It's a model that 14+ is tweaking as the school's first year in operation approaches. As Rodriguez hoped, the idea is to replicate the successful elements—design and program—of Chipakata. (If all goes as planned with Selldorf's school in Mwabwindo Village, that hope will become a reality.) Mizzi visited Chipakata in April and was more delighted by how children ran in and out of classrooms and teachers took ownership of the building than he was by the opening day of the school. "It would be silly to stop," he said. "The research we did to understand how to obtain building materials, how to build, the design process….We have to use it."

· Humanitarian Architecture coverage [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]