Using Architecture to Heal, One Hospital at a Time

photo courtesy of MASS Design Group


For many people, the advantages of sustainable building center on the environmental impact and costs savings that stem from using solar panels or wind turbines for electricity generation. While this is certainly true, architects are constantly breaking old barriers in a quest to apply innovative ideas and construction techniques to achieve a variety of social and economic benefits.

In fact, there is a whole new dimension to sustainable building, one that can affect each and every person on an individual level.

When Building Is About More Than Just Aesthetics

On April 10, 2012, architects from MASS Design Group, a not-for-profit company, gave a presentation at the Boston Architectural College titled “Buildings that Heal. Towards an Architecture (of Impact).” The lecture, and the accompanying exhibition, focused on an approach to building that puts the economic and physical health of the local community at the heart of the creative process.

Using the example of the Butaro District Hospital in Burera, Rwanda, which the team started in 2008, co-founders Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks discussed the goals they had set out to accomplish, which can be divided into economic and health-oriented. Given Rwanda’s tragic modern history, both of these goals are intended to have a healing effect.

Rwanda’s civil war, which lasted from the early to the mid-1990s and included one of the largest acts of genocide of the 20th century, left the country’s infrastructure, resources and human capital in tatters. Today, this Central African nation of nearly 12 million ranks 166th out of 187 nations on the UN’s Human Development Index scale, meaning it is one of the poorest in the world.

New Hospital Design Heals Patients And Restores Communities

In light of this statistic, it may be easier to see the importance of this construction project to the people of Burera. Murphy and Ricks defined the central concept behind the hospital’s design as revolving around the 3Es: Employment, Environment and Education. By using volcanic rock that is abundant in northern Rwanda as the main material, and having it hand-cut on the site, the designers allowed the local community to earn much-needed income. But the economic benefits don’t end there. The multi-year project will help previously uneducated individuals gain valuable skills as masons and other craftsmen that will allow them to find employment for years to come. Moreover, the project is being used as a training ground for a new generation of local architects in a country that has experienced a significant brain drain in recent decades.

The environmental benefits of the Butaro Hospital include natural ventilation systems that take advantage of the mild climate and particular local air circulation patterns.

photo courtesy of MASS Design Group

Crucially, this approach has a dual benefit of also contributing to a reduction in infectious disease rates, by making it impossible for any area of the hospital to trap hot air that would facilitate the survival and transmission of pathogens to patients and staff. One of such pathogens is the bacterium that causes multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, a major public health issue in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Another key element of designing this hospital to be a truly healing place was the decision to do away with hallways, and instead allowing patient access directly from the outside. The idea behind this approach stems from the simple observation that crowding sick individuals in waiting rooms can create a breeding ground for disease to spread.

A Blueprint For The Future Of Healthcare Construction?

The Butaro project, based on the insight that some buildings can make us sicker and that smart design can neutralize this effect, or even contribute to the healing process, has garnered significant attention.

photo courtesy of MASS Design Group

Among those who have recognized the groundbreaking nature of this approach is the United States Agency for International Development, which teamed up with MASS Design Group to produce a USAID primer on building innovative health facilities around the world.

In conclusion of the presentation, Murphy stated that these types of projects are not just about metrics but qualitative measurements as well. He sees the true impact of today’s architecture in its ability to deliver buildings that, throughout their life cycle, improve the economic, environmental and physical health of their occupants.