Although architect Sharon Davis’s office is in New York City, she spends much of her time thinking about the rest of the world. One recent afternoon, she prepared a presentation for the World Architecture Festival in Berlin, where she is a finalist for her design of the Bayalpata Regional Hospital, in a remote region of Nepal. Her latest project—the one she’s most excited about—is a design for a K-12 school in Ethiopia.
Davis’s firm, Sharon Davis Design, focuses on creating buildings that grapple with issues of social justice, economic empowerment, and sustainability—and ironically, that means she tends to work far afield. "I don’t even know what’d it be like to work for a New York developer," she admits, a bit sheepishly.
Davis’s path to establishing her own practice in 2007 was not at all planned. She moved to New York in 1982 to pursue art but ended up in business school, then spent a decade working for a mutual fund company before taking a leave of absence after she had her fourth child at age 39.
"I took two years off, but I have never been a good stay-at-home mom," Davis says. Not wanting to return to her old job, she had a self-described midlife crisis and hired a career counselor to help her through it.
Work with her career counselor pointed to one profession: architecture. "I knew I’d have to go back to school," says Davis. "I told my career counselor, ‘I’ll be 45 by the time I finish!’ She told me, You’ll be 45 no matter what you do."
Davis began a continuing education program at Columbia University, attending introductory architecture seminars with college first-years, and went on to receive her master's from Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. By then, her youngest daughter was six.
"The prospect of working for a large firm was really daunting," she says. Wanting a more flexible schedule, so she could spend time with her family, Davis decided to strike out on her own, just as the real estate market collapsed. Then she got the call that would change the course of her career.
The nonprofit organization Women for Women International purchased a parcel of land in Rwanda from the government and sought a female architect to design a building there. They envisioned a Women's Opportunity Center that would serve as a educational and job training site for women in eastern Rwanda’s Kayonza district. A Women for Women board member recommended Davis for the job, and she quickly clicked with the organization. Her first visit to the site was in 2009.
Davis started her design process by speaking to local women who had lost family members or been raped during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. "This project was for women who were really marginalized and threatened," Davis says. "We wanted to create a place where the women felt safe."
The Rwandan women ultimately responded to her suggestion of designing the opportunity center much like a village, with a series of low-rise pavilions arranged in a circular pattern, with classrooms at the heart of the site. A farmers market, community space, gardens, and guest lodgings would sit along the outer edges of the circle.
Davis used local materials and took inspiration from one of, as she describes it, "the only historic buildings still standing in the country," the King’s Palace in southern Rwanda. As opposed to Rwanda’s mostly generic contemporary buildings, the palace is a low, round structure with an exterior made of elephant grass and an interior of woven bamboo. The circular buildings of the opportunity center were designed to mirror the palace’s traditional building style.
The design and construction process reflects a central tenet of Davis’s work: Create more than just a building, with a holistic approach that intimately includes the people using it.
In that spirit, Rwandan women were employed to make the opportunity center’s 450,000 clay bricks. The roofs were designed to accommodate a rainwater collection system, with the idea that potable water gathered in the system could then be sold by women at the market.
One of Davis’s fondest memories of the project has little to do with the actual structure, but the fact that the process left the women with resources and job skills. After construction wrapped on the opportunity center, the government posted an advertisement looking to hire masons to construct a municipal building. "The ad noted that any of the women who worked on this project would get first dibs," Davis said. "They had already gained the experience of brick making building the opportunity center."
The long-term investment required for these projects has helped Davis take on new challenges in new places. At the opportunity center, Davis found that rainwater was being wasted as people left spigots running; previously, limited quantities of water had been carefully transported with buckets. And employees who didn’t have showers at home started taking them at the center, further depleting the amount of rainwater available for use each year.
Now in the design phase for a school in Ethiopia, "We’re wondering how we can make the travel of water explicit, not implicit," she says, to give users a better sense of how much water they consume. She also asked if teachers might be able to work a water consumption curriculum into the school program. "I like to make challenges for myself," Davis says.
After the Women’s Opportunity Center project, Davis has gone on to design and build dormitory housing for medical professionals in rural Rwinkwavu, Rwanda, as well as create additional structures for the Baylapata Regional Hospital in Nepal.
In Nepal, Davis was challenged with replacing an obsolete healthcare facility with a sustainable 30,000-square-foot campus that includes staff housing, an eight-unit dorm, and new outpatient, emergency, lab, pharmacy, administration, and inpatient buildings.
To minimize expensive shipping to the remote location—it’s a 36-hour drive from Kathmandu—Davis wanted to build the structures primarily out of rammed earth. "There was one person in Nepal who did it," Davis says. The specialist arrived to train the local building crew, who went on to erect the rest of the structures themselves.
Aside from the trip to Berlin, Davis has been on a travel break recently (any given international project usually requires her to travel about four times a year). She spoke of how her firm, which now employs one full-time and three part-time architects, must shift modes depending on the project at hand. Despite her apparent acumen, Davis isn’t enamored with the logistics of running a New York office. "I don’t want to manage," Davis says. "I want to design."