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Primary School by Diébédo Francis Kéré, Gando, Burkina Faso

A local architects extension to his original, now oversubscribed, school project

‘Help to self-help’ is the ideology of Diébédo Francis Kéré, a young architect from Burkina Faso who is attempting to improve the lot of his West African countrymen. Kéré was the first person from his village of Gando to go to university, studying architecture in Berlin, where his practice is based. Here, he conceived the idea of building a new village school to replace the decaying existing one, which had fallen into disuse, exacerbating a cycle of social decline. Completed in 2001, the new school accommodated 120 pupils. Its empowering social remit and resourceful use of local materials to create dignified and appropriate architecture on a small budget (about £18,500) won it an Aga Khan Award in 2004 (AR January 2005).

To raise funds to build the school, Kéré set up a development company that now implements education and healthcare projects across Burkina Faso.

The aim is to provide sustainable models of development that engage with communities and harness local skills. The first Gando school was such a success that it became oversubscribed, so Kéré constructed a second building, which opened at the start of this year.

Like its predecessor, this latest school is a long single-storey volume topped by a lightweight roof made from corrugated steel metal sheeting. Supported by a space frame structure, the oversailing canopy creates a generous zone of shade around the building. Four identically sized classrooms are housed within the volume, together with a covered but unwalled space containing a large sandpit for play and teaching. The hope is that this classroom core will eventually be extended to encompass a small library and reading room, completing the school campus.

Materials and construction are necessarily low tech. Walls are constructed from traditional earth blocks, using local raw materials and basic tools. Floors are beaten earth. Classrooms have shallow, vaulted blockwork ceilings which are perforated for natural ventilation. Curved concrete ribs span between a continuous concrete ring beam to provide support for the steel roof structure. Made from reinforcement bars bent and welded together on site, the lightweight frame was erected manually in sections without the use of mechanical equipment. Colourful steel window shutters made by local metalsmiths fold up to let in light and air. Timber is used only for furniture, because hardwood is both difficult to source and vulnerable to termites.

Without electricity, environmental control relies on traditional, passive techniques. The heavy walls provide thermal mass, reducing temperature fluctuations. Cooling breezes circulate through the shutters and hot air is drawn up through the vaulted ceiling and dissipated into the roof space through the stack effect.

Construction was carried out using local labour. ‘This was new for the region,’ says Kéré, ‘and initiated a turning point in the perception of the community. Never before has a school project raised such high expectations. Even the government was surprised by the overwhelming interest of the people and is now considering ways of supporting the schools in the long term.’

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