The African Leadership University(ALU) campus in Kigali, Rwanda, opened its doors this year. Designed by MASS Design Group in partnership with ALU founder, Fred Swaniker, and university faculty, staff, and students, the campus will provide a new affordable higher education model on the African continent.
The flagship 6500 sqm campus accommodates a mix of in-person and remote learning and will serve 1,200 undergraduate students with the aim to develop 3 million leaders for Africa and the world by 2035.
“We have made space and design an integral part of the learning process at our sites. Our campuses don’t have traditional lecture halls. We believe in integrating the real world with learning, so our spaces are very open and transparent—both conceptually and physically. Our objective is to draw people in so they can see what we’re doing from outside and engage with us.”
Fred Swaniker, Founder of African Leadership Group
The Site: Climate and Context
ALU’s campus is situated in Kigali’s Innovation City, a Rwandan-government designated district for the co-location of tech companies, start-ups, and universities. Rwanda, known as The Land of a Thousand Hills, is a land of mountain views surrounded by volcanoes, which makes for amazing vistas and a challenge for building design. To accommodate the use of the ALU 10-hectares ( site with a 40-meter elevation span, the building is terraced over six levels.
The design pursues spatial efficiency by weaving interior and exterior spaces, such as courtyards and terraces, which take advantage of Kigali’s year-round temperate climate. The building is situated and designed to take advantage of shaded areas to the east and west, with views down the hill to the south. The majority of the building uses natural ventilation and daylight. A Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system supports interior parts of the building, further away from the facade and natural ventilation.
“The landscape of Rwanda inspires, from the volcanic mountain peaks to the green valleys, and ALU’s positioning maximizes the views and vistas that will inspire the next generations of Africa’s leadership,…Situated in Innovation City with a navigable campus that is both distributed and interconnected down the hill, the design invites in, and will allow for integration, with the surrounding businesses and government agencies nearby.”
Christian Benimana, Managing Director, and Senior Principal of MASS Design Group, Rwanda Office.
Due to the project’s elevation-related complexity, there isn’t a single floor plan that can fully represent the project. The project uses modules stacked and linked together to create new spaces of learning and interaction. The floor of one plaza is the roof of a classroom below. MASS also worked closely with in-house geotechnical engineers and engineering partner ARUP to ensure seismic performance.
The Model: Designing a New way to Learn
With buildings and outdoor spaces, the master plan was designed to meet the educational advancement needs of Africa’s growing populations, which is expected to double by 2050. Through in-depth engagement with leadership, faculty, staff, and students, MASS developed a site-specific program, master plan, and architectural designs to create spaces that work in tandem to support students’ learning and accommodate for future phases of campus growth.
The campus was conceived so that Kigali-based students could convene for in-person study, group work and events. ALU’s education model required the space to be available and flexible to allow students to spend time on campus, but also return to cities where they live and use mobile devices or networks to stay in touch with their global network of teachers.
Space is organized into three connected spaces: the Learning, Social, and Enterprise Commons. The campus design includes student learning labs; a reception and greeting space for group gatherings; resource commons; a faculty area; a leadership center for events and presentations; a dining hall and food vendors; and a fabrication lab where students can prototype and test ideas.
MASS addressed learning and information sharing at ALU, which is either through online and individual learning or small-group discussions, facilitated by peers or faculty. Space normally allocated for large classrooms or lecture halls could be turned into individual and small group learning spaces. A modular and structural grid was created based on these parameters to create open spaces that allowed for greater flexibility of use. The model enabled MASS to think about the building in smaller increments, stacking and nesting cohorts of learning labs and work hives, and linking them together around shared commons.
Circular study pods were assigned to the grid and distributed across the campus within or adjacent to larger work hives and common areas. Students and faculty can peel off to focus in smaller pods individually, or meet in larger pods for group work or experience sharing. The gridded modules between the pods support 30 students for facilitated learning and for larger classes, gatherings, or lectures, the modules are connected into larger spaces and shared commons. The modular design reflects ALU’s unique learning cycle with spaces dedicated to self, peer, and facilitated learning and an interconnected campus to support discovery.
The pod structure is also utilized for building services, including mechanical and electrical risers, elevators, circulation, and storage. The circular form of the pods carry throughout the design, expressed and occupied on the exterior, forming the filleted corners of the building and terraces. Exterior pods emerge in the landscape, creating exterior learning spaces and provide the pattern and dimension for pavers and location for trees and plantings.
The Building: Locally Sourced, Locally Made
MASS employs locally fabricated (Lo-Fab) design to scale local innovation and ideas; bolster and develop local crafts; hire local labor; invest in capacity building and job training; and reduce the building’s carbon-footprint through reduced materials transportation distance and use of local materials. Working with locally sourced materials and labor, MASS reduces the supply chain for environmental impact, and assures that the majority of capital invested in construction flows to the community.
The ALU building is a concrete frame infilled with compressed stabilized earth blocks (CSEB) fabricated on site, with a light-colored clay brick facade. Made in Muhanga 1.5 hours outside of Kigali, the bricks are design-inspired, energy-efficient, low-maintenance, relatively weather-proof, and sustainable. Skat Consulting, Inc., supports and trains local brick manufacturers to fire the bricks using coffee-husk-fired efficient kilns. The stormwater management system includes a stormwater retention pond of approximately 1800cum capacity.
In addition, MASS deployed Lo-Fab methodology by designing and building part of the furnishings, including tables and benches for common spaces, as well as built-ins, lighting, signage, and lockers. Painted by local artists, Afrofuturist murals, branded wall graphics, and provocative quotes from African leaders, are distributed throughout the campus providing moments of inspiration and reflection.