MASS Design Group practices architecture with a purpose

By Eric Acre ’17, contributing writer

David Saladik, director and co-founder of MASS Design Group, spoke in Stahr Auditorium Thursday about the importance of the physical design of buildings on enhancing utility.

Saladik’s speech, entitled “Design To Heal,” detailed MASS Design’s forays into “architecture with a purpose,” or the act of erecting buildings in areas of developing countries in order to benefit the individuals living in those areas.

His speech was part of a series of visits from renowned artists and architects made possible by the Conrad Nelson Visiting Artist Program. Saladik received his masters degree in architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and was a founding member of MASS

Design in 2008.

MASS Design’s first building of this sort was the Butaro District Hospital in northern Rwanda. The hospital was built with the needs and desires of the Rwandan people in mind, which illustrated Saladik’s point that buildings that are designed more thoughtfully have a higher value.

Saladik then recounted the tragic outbreak of extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDRTB) in South Africa in 2005, during which there were 53 cases of this disease and none of the people infected survived.

Saladik argued that the hospital design itself was partly responsible for the death of those 53 people, rather than just the disease. He then continued to criticize the design of hospitals in other countries as well, such as Rwanda.

“[There are waiting rooms] that are crowded, dark, congested, and, most importantly, unventilated,” Saladik said.

The poor design of these hospitals contributes to the spread of disease within them, which shows the importance of better design for buildings. Keeping its goal of creating a space for healing rather than extending harm, the MASS Design Group set out to build the new Butaro District Hospital.

“One of the first things we thought about in designing this hospital was, ‘If people are waiting in crowded hallways and getting sick, why don’t we make a hospital with no hallways?’” Saladik said.

As a result, the hospital was built much like a college campus, with outdoor waiting areas protected by covered walkways and different buildings serving different medical purposes. This was the first of many innovations by MASS Design that helped make its project a success.

MASS also utilized the beautiful Rwandan countryside by creating a low wall in the middle of the patient rooms, and making all of the beds face the windows so that patients could view the landscape, instead of only having a view of the grim hospital. The wall is also functional: it facilitates oxygen lines and other necessities to patients.

Perhaps the most inspiring feat of the group, however, was the decision to use local labor to excavate the site for the hospital instead of contracting jobs to outsiders to have the work done.

“Local people did all the work by hand, hiring upwards of a thousand people,” Saladik said.

The construction created both jobs and a sense of community in the rural Rwandan countryside. They shifted workers every three months, allowing more people from the community to contribute, and allowed women to work, as well, which was still uncommon in Rwanda at the time.

But the innovation did not stop there. The second phase of MASS Design’s program was to create housing for foreign doctors that were staying in Rwanda to work at the hospital.

The success of the hospital led it to become a major teaching hospital in east Africa, with many doctors from Boston coming to teach Rwandan doctors new medical practices.

According to Saladik, these houses were so well-liked by doctors that they serve as motivation for them to be successful in their field in order to obtain them. The houses are simple, yet elegant and desirable, and they have created a tangible incentive for prestigious doctors to come to Rwanda.

The success of the hospital has led to its recognition by the Rwandan government, which now wants it to be expanded to include more housing and an already-built cancer center. The positive effects of these new building efforts seem to be stretching far beyond the improved health of Butaro District citizens.

Thanks to the success of the Butaro District Hospital, MASS Design has become a thriving architectural firm, and is working on creating the GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center in Haiti, with more to come in the future.

First-year Eric Acre is a contributing writer. His email is eacre@fandm.edu.

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