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Ecological construct: Studio FH Architects' and Light Earth Designs' college in Mityana, Uganda

Studio FH Architects’ and Light Earth Designs’ new dormitories and classrooms for agricultural students in Mityana, Uganda, exploit the school’s keen interest in eco solutions

The Rural Community in Development (RUCID) has a history of breaking new ground. Founded in Mityana, Uganda, in 1994 by four friends, it exists to train students from the area and the wider country in organic farming techniques and practices to improve their crop quality and yield. When the college started work, even the term ‘organic farming’ was virtually unknown, and practitioners of what was then known as ‘biodynamic agriculture’ were at best regarded as a fringe movement. However, the concept became more widely accepted and today the college has around 80 students living on campus at any one time, studying soil biology and chemistry, how to create organic fertilisers and value addition, as well as packaging and product design for their crops. 

The college runs an exchange programme with the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming (KIOF), and welcomes students from universities around the world on research visits every year. RUCID’s Ugandan graduates are sought after and most will quickly find jobs in the farming and development sectors, a major achievement in a country with one of the world’s highest youth unemployment rates. Within Uganda, as elsewhere, there has been strong recent interest in organic farming, and everybody from the President (himself an avid farmer) to development agencies, universities and private companies are beginning to join the movement. They face an uphill struggle though – many farmers rely heavily on chemical fertilisers and are sceptical of natural remedies, and the organic farming community remains only a fraction of the overall economy, albeit one that is increasing at a good rate. It’s no wonder that Samuel Nyanzi, the director of the college, has grown accustomed to needing to convince people that what he is doing will really work.

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs Will Boase p9936 edit

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs Will Boase p9936 edit

The college has long been supported by the Tudor Trust, and when it agreed to fund the expansion to house more students, RUCID commissioned Tim Hall and Light Earth Designs to create a masterplan, envisaging the college’s evolution from the cluster of original buildings to a larger facility, encompassing a model farm and offering both practical and classroom-based education to students housed in several ‘villages’. Each village has two dormitory blocks, a kitchen and washrooms, as well as an associated classroom. The campus is connected by meandering paths through small farms and lawns. 

The site sits on a sprawling plot that winds down a hillside towards a large papyrus swamp. Arriving at the main gate means navigating a narrow dirt track with deep ruts and high greenery on both sides, then swinging past the school’s logo and a list of classes painted on a brick wall, through the steel gate and parking on a red dirt driveway surrounded by trees and shrubs. The original buildings, typical rural bungalow blocks with red tin roofs and plastered walls, are scattered above and around the driveway. In the courtyard of one building sits a calabash tree, its boughs weighed down with fruit that resembles green cannonballs. The trees are full of birds, and in the bushes you can glimpse half a dozen beehives. The new structures, which are all on the lower slope, are barely visible through the foliage, save for an occasional glimpse of a silver roof.

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs Will Boase p9084 edit

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs Will Boase p9084 edit

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs site plan

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs site plan

The schematic design of the new dormitory blocks was produced by Light Earth Designs. Studio FH contributed the classrooms and the final detailing of all buildings, as well as assisting in the supervision of construction. All surfaces are raw and textured, tactile and warm, as a result of the project’s principal feature: it is built almost entirely from blocks of compressed earth. According to Felix Holland, principal architect of Studio FH, the site is ‘very experimental’, and even the mould for the earth bricks had to be custom-made because the size and shape required did not exist. He describes the structures as ‘monolithic’, with the use of earth-based mortar between bricks meaning that the entire building fuses as one single block with no material division between brick and mortar.

The dormitory structures each comprise two long blocks of bedrooms, placed face to face and with shared living spaces and washrooms at their perimeter. The blocks are low solid shapes that emerge from the green, their raw earth faces and shallow-sloped roofs echoing the landscape. Each bedroom is long and at its end is a large window. The ceilings are lined with cane, and sections of translucent roof sheeting filter light onto walkways and common areas. Doors and window frames are made of simple, rugged steel profiles fabricated locally and easily repaired. Materials are fair-faced, and Holland notes that while the approach has the drawback of requiring higher-skilled labour (because the builders can’t rely on plaster to hide imperfections), the final result is worth it as wear and tear is absorbed into the structure rather than marring it.

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs Will Boase p9224 edit

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs Will Boase p9224 edit

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs Will Boase p9194 edit

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs Will Boase p9194 edit

The roofs have a very shallow pitch, something Holland puts down to the learning curve of working with the reflective galvanised roofing sheets that are a feature on many of his buildings. The sheets reflect sunlight, keeping rooms cool throughout the year; steeper pitches would mean that light is reflected in unintended directions, sometimes dazzling occupants of neighbouring buildings. Holland also cites the washrooms, built around their own storage of water harvested from their roofs, as examples of experimentation informed by experience. A frequent complaint of residents is that the bedrooms are too cold, a result of the thick walls, reflective roofs and passive ventilation. Holland is thrilled with this – proof that his passive ventilation strategy is working in the equatorial heat.

Alongside each dormitory block, across a winding path designed by The Landscape Studio (Nairobi), is a classroom shaped as a pentagon with a roof that rises to a peak above two open sides facing the grassed common at the centre of the village. So far two pairs of dormitory blocks and three classrooms have been completed, making 20 rooms (80 beds) available. The masterplan calls for an additional two ‘villages’, to be constructed further down the plot, though that phase is on hold while Nyanzi seeks the funding to make it a reality. 

 

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs Will Boase p9114 edit

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs Will Boase p9114 edit

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs Will Boase Fh drawings

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs Will Boase Fh drawings

Click to download

Inside, the classrooms are spartan volumes infused with light and air, with space to accommodate whatever the day calls for. On a recent visit, several temporary tables had been positioned along the rear walls of the uppermost classroom, and on these tables was an assortment of jerry cans from which emanated a strong odour of brewing (above). Each jerry can bore a label describing its contents and uses, ranging from encouraging worm populations to treating pest outbreaks. In the centre of the rough concrete screed floor was a huge heap of dry fertiliser called Bokashi, which gave off a faint dungy scent. One wall is plastered and painted with blackboard paint, and on this surface was written a spidery chaos of notes about fertiliser that looks more akin to a physics lecture than a class on farming.

In all of the new structures, from design to construction and materials, there is, as Holland describes it, ‘a certain roughness’. The structures were built by labourers under the supervision of a site engineer, rather than by a general contractor, and the simplicity of the design is a reflection not just of the desire to use only materials from the area – earth from the site itself, eucalyptus from a nearby plantation, cane from the garden of a friend of Nyanzi – but also a pragmatic approach to the realities of using unspecialised labour on such a complex project. That roughness is visible in the ways that the structures have absorbed their purpose. Residents have been quick to knock nails into the walls to hang pictures and run lines across the spaces, draping screens to divide the shared spaces for privacy, and writing their names on the matt-painted doors in chalk. 

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RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs Will Boase p9887 edit

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs Will Boase p9792 edit

RUCID college Uganda Studio FH Light Earth Designs Will Boase p9792 edit

Walking through the scattered gardens, past fruit trees and students carrying books and shovels, the structures appear already at home, integrated. There’s smoke drifting from the chimney of a kitchen, and in the courtyard a student sweeps leaves with a grass broom. In the classroom opposite, two more students are busy sorting and bagging seed samples, a child dashing around their ankles. The earth-block structures glow reddish-brown in the morning sun, and a display of RUCID’s produce has been laid out near the main gate in anticipation of the arrival of a group of students, some from Kampala and others from Sweden, who are visiting the campus for a study trip. As we walk up the meandering path, Nyanzi chatters excitedly about the next phase of construction, arranges by phone the delivery of a batch of organic fertilisers to clients in the capital, and runs through the day’s study activities with a staff member. There’s clearly plenty of new ground left to break, and he appears to be relishing the challenge.

Architect: Studio FH Architects and Light Earth Designs

Landscape architect: The Landscape Studio

Structural engineer: Edson Agume

Photographs: Will Boase

This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Food – click here to purchase your copy today

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