Ofttimes the best stories in architecture find you. They are not the typical stories announcing the next icon with the obligatory eye-popping images. But they are in some respects more powerful in terms of their ideas and the eventual good they will do. Such is the story of the WATERBANK school, a new school building in East Africa designed by Princeton, New Jersey-based British architects Jane Harrison and David Turnbull of Atopia Research, that combines innovative thinking and modest means to get transformative results: The potential end to water wars in the region.
How can architecture end the water problems in Africa, you might ask? The answer is to design for needs; in this case education, especially for girls, and to give them a reason to come, which is access to clean drinking water. It’s no secret that in the semi-arid region of East Africa, where this project is located, water is in short supply. And what little there is of it, the quality is questionable and the competition for it high, including from roaming elephants who will stop at nothing to get it. The WATERBANK school, which opened last week,endeavors to change lives by changing one’s relationship to water, particularly the children and the girls, by providing access to clean water on the school’s grounds. In Africa, girls typically spend the better part of their waking hours gathering and transporting water from sources located far from their villages. By designing a school building that can also harvest, store, and filter water in large quantities, those same children will now be able to attend school and get an education instead of working all day. What a liberating idea!
The school building itself is designed as a defensible and climate-resilient structure, a linear classroom structure in the form of square that is encircled by a garden wall that functions to keep elephants out while moderating the microclimate. Built of modest materials and by ‘the locals’ with much of the construction administration done from afar and via Skype, the building houses four full sized indoor/outdoor classrooms, each large enough for 50 to 60 children, four teachers' rooms, community and workshop space, and a theatre (which in Africa is considered to be the best method for teaching). At the centre of the school’s courtyard, is located a 150,000m reservoir with an integrated filtration system that stores water collected from the building’s 600 sq m roof catchment area. It is anticipated that project will yield 350,000 litres of rainwater annually, which means that the 200 or more students studying at WATERBANK’s will each receive 5 litres of water a day year round.
This access to clean water will mean a reduction in illness and malnutrition, fewer school absences, improved study results, and also lead to a reduction in youth employment. But most importantly, it will result in gender equality by allowing girls to go to school in lieu of working. “The ambition is community empowerment”, said Harrison. "We’re trying to find the absolute core issues that architecture can do something about.”
The Waterbank School, located near Nigare Nyiro, is one of a wide range of innovative designs produced by PITCHAfrica, the US based non-profit organisation, for which Harrison and Turnbull serve as founding directors. Other projects in the works are a WATERBANK Dormitory and a Sanitation Center. Both of these are planned for construction next year in the same area. Also on the cards - and as with the WATERBANK School another project done in partnership with the Zeitz Foundation, a locally based NGO with funding from Guernsey Overseas Aids - is PITCHAfrica’s Rainwater Harvesting School and Football Venue. That project is being carried out with funding assistance from star footballer Samuel Eto. Called PITCHKenya, the project is planned as a secondary school, incorporating a 1,500-seat 5-aside Football and Volleyball Stadium, with a 2 million litre water reservoir, classrooms, a dormitory, dining facilities, latrines, a regional Environmental Center for Sustainable Technologies and the Samuel Eto’s Soccer Academy.
As part of their ongoing WATERBANK initiative, PITCHAfrica will be assisting other organizations in building WATERBANKS in their communities. Interested organisations can address enquiries to email@example.com