We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Theo Uwayezu and Emily Goldenberg of MASS Design Group to talk about the significance of local fabrication, a design philosophy that we are putting to use as we work with them to construct The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. Mr. Uwayezu is the project architect for the Campus, and Ms. Goldenberg is the project manager. The eco-friendly facility adjacent to the Volcanoes National Park, which we anticipate will be completed in late 2021, will include laboratories, a computer lab and library, flexible office and meeting space, classrooms, an interactive educational exhibit and on-site residences for visiting students and scientists. Built with locally-sourced materials, the campus will embody the Fossey Fund’s mission to conserve and limit its impact on the environment, through rainwater harvesting, green roofs, the planting of over 250,000 native plant species and a constructed wetland to treat wastewater and promote biodiversity.
What is local fabrication?
Theo Uwayezu: “Local fabrication,” or “lo-fab,” is a philosophy that was formed out of our experience working and learning on construction sites across the world. It’s both a challenge and an invitation to think about the construction process itself as having the potential for impact, and is organized around four principles: hire locally, source regionally, train where you can, and most importantly, think about every design decision as an opportunity to invest in the dignity of the communities we serve.
Give me an example of where you’ve used local fabrication.
Theo Uwayezu: We have used this approach since the very beginning of our practice in Rwanda. The traditional way of constructing walls, for example, highlights the cement as a statement of status. When we designed and built the Butaro District Hospital, we sought to challenge this value statement, repurposing materials that are overlooked and underutilized and exploring creative ways to construct using what’s available locally, bringing value to the communities we work with. (For example, we used the local volcanic stone, considered a nuisance by farmers and piled on the side of the road for free.) We used volcanic stone for walling at the Butaro hospital because we wanted to avoid the intensive use of cement mortar and instead celebrate the stone in its natural form. The masons on site developed an incredible craft, hand cutting the stones and laying them with a small amount of mortar backing. This technique has been improved over the years, and now two of the stone masons from the first Butaro project own and operate their own master masons volcanic stone cooperative. They work on many projects while also teaching other communities about the work.
Lo-fab naturally looks different wherever we work. In places like Ilima, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the most remote areas in the world, we used the mud, dirt and wood around us to construct a center that would show us ways to protect and conserve our rich biodiversity. In Alabama, in the United States, it meant looking for ways to repurpose wood reclaimed from old cotton mills for concrete formwork, while in Texas we utilized brick from local manufacturers. At its core, lo-fab helps us invest in local communities and brings a sense of place to all elements of construction.
Why is local fabrication important?
Emily Goldenberg: We believe in the value of craft and the importance of making design contextual. Through our first project at Butaro District Hospital, we learned the power and value of local craft—where a sense of ownership over the use of materials instills pride within each individual who contributes to a piece of built architecture. Local fabrication ensures that we are investing in talent and creating jobs in the communities we are serving, and that the mission and vision of a project can truly benefit the craftsmen and craftswomen who contribute. It also speaks to a concept that goes beyond the building, beyond ownership, where the community continues with upkeep and maintenance of the building after construction is complete all the way through the building’s life cycle. This investment ultimately stems from their pride in the building, providing a lifetime value to the project.
Does local fabrication change our carbon footprint? How?
Emily Goldenberg: Absolutely. As architects, engineers, designers and builders, we have incredible influence over the way buildings are built, and every decision we make has consequences on our built and unbuilt environment. The construction and building industry are the worst offenders—contributing to half of all embodied and operational carbon emissions. We have a responsibility to make decisions that can change that trajectory and work toward a carbon positive future. Local fabrication shifts how we approach what we call a materials value chain—from the extraction of raw materials and manufacturing of products, to their transport to site. The more we consciously choose to use materials closer to our sites, from sources we know and trust (like hiring expert masons from the region who understand the context in which we are working), the lower our need to transport materials to site, and the lower our carbon footprint. At the same time, the more we understand the value chains of materials we use, the more we can account for safe and equitable labor practices, making decisions that ensure we are not contributing to or growing a demand that further depletes our environment’s resources.
Does local fabrication affect the ways we hire and train people?
Theo Uwayezu: Local fabrication is not only about using local materials but is also about utilizing, improving and building off of local skillsets. When designing for local fabrication, we are often inspired by the artisanal craft that we see in the context of the project, and we work together to innovate on what has been done traditionally. This allows us to find partners from the community who are already trained in a craft or trade proximate to the project, and then work with them to find new techniques and develop unique skill sets. With lo-fab, we have found opportunities to scale up local techniques to achieve bigger impact, which then improves construction standards.
Does local fabrication affect the speed at which we can complete the project?
Theo Uwayezu: The speed of completion varies by project and initiative. Because the process invests in building ownership and pride, it’s important for any consideration of “time for completion” to include an awareness of the total lifecycle of any project. For some elements, local fabrication can take longer, while in other cases it can reduce the time needed to complete the project. The coronavirus pandemic is an example when reliance on imported goods could have caused a significant construction delay; lo-fab is less likely to be affected by global trends. We have also found that when you are utilizing a skillset that is widely available on the local market, and you need to increase the speed of production, you can more easily find capacity.
Another consideration is what happens when something breaks or a material undergoes natural wear and tear. If it is locally fabricated, it can more easily be repaired or replaced. A specialized imported element, which might have been quicker to import, can present maintenance difficulties, resulting in a shorter lifespan for a building. Lo-fab construction improves a project’s lifetime and maintenance, with fewer hurdles for the end user.
Does lo-fab change the cost of the project?
Emily Goldenberg: The question of cost is often misplaced. Lo-fab ultimately seeks to redefine the value of our investment, rather than its cost. There may be less expensive (or less costly) materials that can be used in place of those that are locally fabricated; however, they may not be of the desired quality, and will likely influence the project’s overall carbon footprint if imported from further away. There may also be more expensive materials that do achieve the desired quality, but neither of these other options would have the same positive social impact on the local community and economy. In other words, a decision based solely on cost can negatively affect the value of the investment.
What are you proudest of in terms of your own involvement in the Campus?
Theo Uwayezu: I am honored to have been part of this project from the very beginning. I have had the opportunity to learn more about conservation challenges, protection and scientific research in Rwanda and in the region. I am excited about bringing our design idea to life in Kinigi and the surrounding community, and I am inspired by everyone’s dedication to not only the buildings but also to the message the project gives about the conservation movement.
Emily Goldenberg: Truthfully, it’s difficult to hone in on one item or moment that I am proudest of in my involvement with the Campus. The importance of this project to Rwanda, to the Fossey Fund, and to conservation cannot be overstated. If I had to choose, the thing that makes me proudest at the end of the day is the passion and dedication of the full project team—including Fossey Fund, partners and donors—to continue to challenge and push this project to be the best it can be, to provide measurable impact, and at the same time to become a model showcasing a commitment to conservation and to future conservationists around the world.