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Helping Women in Rwanda, One Brick at a Time

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When I tell people in New York City that I am nearing completion of a two-year-long design project, people assume that it must be located somewhere on the densely packed island of Manhattan. Not in this case. The largest, most ambitious, project I've undertaken in my career as a designer is opening in another continent over five thousand miles away. For me, it has been a true labor of love, hope and inspiration. But that's Africa for you.

For the past two years I have commuted to the recovering nation of Rwanda, and the small town of Kayonza. The Rwandan genocide ended nearly 20 years ago, leaving over 800,000 dead and the highest concentration of widows that a country has seen to date. It became clear to me that the startling amount of regrowth and rebuilding that needed to occur in Rwanda was not limited to architecture, but needed to center around support for women as well. As women joined together in support of rebuilding -- not just economically but socially -- Rwanda has set a record that no other nation in the developed world can match. They have more women in parliament -- 56 percent -- than any other country including the United States.

Rwanda is about the size of Maryland and has a very equatorial climate, with two heavy rain seasons and two dry ones. Working there provided many challenges -- on cultural and environmental levels. Most of all it provided me with the opportunity to create an incredible new facility for women which is not just ecofriendly, but also sympathetic to the needs of the Rwandan women who will be occupying it. One of the key components of my design work is the personalities, hopes and aspirations of my client and users. In this case, in the town of Kayonza, many of the women have lived through genocide, yet clung on to a hope that the next generation would have more opportunity and continue to grow and develop.

These desires to be an agent for change, growth and hope led my design process for the Women's Opportunity Center, which covers five acres of lush and tropical terrain. I needed to design a place where women could meet, where women could learn, and where women could graduate after being part of a year-long program for the NGO Women for Women International. The challenges to confront here would make this my most ambitious project to date, but also the most rewarding too. Learning to trust again is a big deal here. Many women not only witnessed male family members killed, but they were also subjected to rape and abuse. I came to realize through discussions with local women that they were in need of a safe haven, a space to share and introspect; they wanted to feel safe, protected and respected. Armed with this information, I made certain that classrooms were circular in design and compact in footprint so that the female students felt protected and closely connected to one another during their studies. For daylighting and ventilation, I implemented a series of brick patterning that let light dapple in. The production of the bricks was not only necessary for construction, but also a teaching tool. The brick-making process was collaboratively conducted on site where women dug clay, molded bricks and fired kilns together towards a communal goal. It was so rewarding to see the joy of creation as they developed a new skill set.

A focus on life skills such as micro financing, basket weaving and agriculture at this center are essential to the success and productivity of the project and so exist at the very foundation of the design. I believe in creating well-considered and functional spaces, but especially with this project, I felt that uplifting architecture and innovative design principles had to resonate in every detail of the campus. The campus is an environmentally sustainable and self-sufficient facility that incorporates locally appropriate technologies, including solar power generation, rainwater harvesting, biogas fuel for cooking, and composting toilets. The principal building material is the more than 450,000 clay bricks, each one handcrafted by the women that will be the users of the campus. So the next time you're walking along a street and notice the bricks that form a building, I hope you recall the story of these bricks being hand molded by women in Rwanda and the hope and growth it helped insight. In the case of what I've done at the Women's Opportunity Center in Rwanda, each of the nearly half a million bricks we have made together have provided hope and opportunity, and along the way a new chapter for me, in my belief in the healing capacity of design. To the women of Rwanda -- you are the opportunity and the world is watching you lead in so many ways.