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Alan Ricks and Michael Murphy of MASS Design Group.
Photo by Simon Simard.

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How MASS Design Group uses architecture to empower communities

And how the firm is “thinking beyond the building”

The Boston-based MASS Design Group started in 2008, when co-founders Alan Ricks, 32, and Michael Murphy, 35, then students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, met with famed Harvard professor Paul Farmer, who spoke about the lack of educational and public health infrastructure in the developing world.

”It was an ‘aha’ moment for us,” says Ricks.

Soon after, they took on projects with the aim of improving the communities around them, like the Butaro District Hospital in Rwanda, which rethinks the typical model of crowded medical wards that exacerbate health problems like disease transmission. The design places much of the program on the exterior, while simple interior spaces allow for more light and ventilation.

The Butaro District Hospital in Rwanda.
Photo courtesy MASS Design Group.

Since then the firm, which has a permanent office in Kigali, Rwanda, has worked in ten different countries throughout Africa and in Haiti, all “using architecture to create impact,” says Ricks, and striving to involve the community far beyond the building. For the Butaro project the firm sourced local materials, like nearby volcanic rock, and employed local craftsmen and carpenters, saving money, increasing sustainability, and providing jobs.

Passive energy and ventilation systems protect against system failures and naturally fight germs. MASS has used such simple technical innovations elsewhere, using the combination of large fans and Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI) fixtures to drastically improve health conditions.

The Ilima Primary School in the Congo.
Photo courtesy MASS Design Group.

The Ilima Primary School in the Congo was developed with the African Wildlife Foundation to create new educational and economic opportunities to residents who might otherwise resort to poaching or slash and burn agriculture. Its hyper-local construction included the fabrication of custom shingles using on-site timber.

Elsewhere, the firm has helped developed a factory to produce compressed earth blocks, taught residents to make ceramic shingles, and worked with local welders, weavers, furniture makers and potters. The collaborations give their projects a contextual, highly-customized beauty that merges seamlessly with the firm’s modern aesthetic. Stone walls adorn angled masses; corrugated metal provides texture; papyrus leaves give texture to unique furniture.

The studio of MASS Design Group.
Photo by Simon Simard.

”When we build something beautiful, people take ownership of it. That’s the ultimate sustainability,” notes Ricks.

“Thinking beyond the building” extends to an even broader realm. It has included working with the country of Liberia to develop health infrastructure standards, creating new material industries throughout Africa, and promoting long- term development plans in disaster zones, not just short-term solutions.

Photo by Simon Simard.

The firm’s next goal, perhaps ironically, is to show that their firm’s focus on “systemic impact” is applicable in the United States. They’re now working on a community development project in Poughkeepsie, New York, a peace memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and university projects in Colorado Springs, Colorado. But their focus will remain the developing world.

”You have to be immersed into the context to understand the challenges and opportunities,” says Ricks.

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