The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Building Green

Collaborating to design a brighter future for war-torn Uganda
  • View of future site of Teso University in Uganda.

The team intends the new university to be a “center for innovation” where Ugandans can go to learn about and generate geographically relevant ideas. 

With Uganda’s rapid population growth rate one of the highest in the world, the impoverished nation faces vast agricultural, technical and educational challenges. UMass Amherst researchers are lending a helping hand by introducing sustainable building practices and agricultural techniques while designing a new university devoted to ecological studies and sustainable technologies for northeastern Uganda.

Members of the UMass Amherst team, including ecologist Andrew Danylchuk, green building expert David Damery and Research Associate James Webb from the Department of Environmental Conservation and UMass Extension’s Craig Hollingsworth, have visited Uganda twice in recent years to provide sustainability workshops in close cooperation with Ugandan NGO (non-governmental organization) Pilgrim Africa. Here on campus, Damery has collaborated with architect Sigrid Miller Pollin to direct students in the Architecture, Building and Construction Technology programs as they work on green design projects for the new university.

The school will reside in the Teso Region of Uganda—a region devastated by conflict and natural disaster. The region lies on the Kenyan border, making it vulnerable to cattle raids and other border attacks. The LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) incursion into the area in 2003 left a wake of death and destruction, after which recovery was hindered by severe flooding in 2007 and continued heavy rainfall in recent years. As a result, 143,000 people fled to IDP (International Displaced People) camps for food and shelter. Since 2008, 95 percent of the displaced residents of the Teso region have returned to their homes, yet continue to be plagued by unpredictable weather patterns, lack of infrastructure and excessive growth.

The influx is generating a boom in building, yet current Ugandan construction technologies are environmentally unfriendly and unsustainable. With growing families and unfavorable farming conditions, people of the Teso Region are working to refine their agricultural techniques. But because many of the area’s schools were vandalized in earlier raids, educational opportunities are limited. The UMass team is doing their part to address all of these needs simultaneously. “I can help find the way forward—and that’s an exciting thing for me,” Damery says.

Ugandans presently build their homes with handmade clay bricks. To fire the bricks, they construct a natural kiln with a wood-burning pit at the base. Forests are cut down to fire the kilns, and with such damp conditions, the wood is often wet and unusable. The kilns themselves are also inefficient; bricks on the bottom are frequently overcooked while those at the top are undercooked. As a green alternative, Damery and the team are teaching Ugandans compressed earth-block (CEB) technologies. Methods for CEB involve molding clay and earth, infusing the block with cement and pressurizing it with either a handheld or hydraulic device. The technology enables the production of larger bricks in a high-efficiency process that does not require wood burning.  “Part of the goal here is to make it a sustainable construction technology—use local materials but not to cut down the forest resource,” Damery explains.

While one percent of the population is already using CEB technology, the practice is more costly as it requires cement. Cars are rare commodities and roads are non-existent in many parts of the country, making it extremely difficult to obtain non-local materials. “I think they’re very open to it [new technologies], but what they lack is funding,” Damery says.

More is needed for CEB technologies to catch on, which is why the team intends the new university to be a “center for innovation” where Ugandans can go to learn about and generate geographically relevant ideas. The school will feature a Sustainable Rural Technologies curriculum aimed at developing new technologies and fostering new profit models for agriculture, aquaculture and construction. The program holds special potential for Uganda’s aquaculture system—fish has long been a local staple and the area could greatly benefit from a more efficient, higher-yielding practice for fish farming. As pond aquaculture requires large amounts of water, the UMass team led by Danylchuk is working to train local farmers to integrate recirculating rainwater-harvesting systems and reduce the burden on existing infrastructure.

For the university structure itself, the team has set its sights on an old, vandalized radio building in disrepair. What remains is essentially a concrete shell, so Art and Architecture students have come up with an “adaptive reuse” model for the space. Additional buildings may be made with CEB and the campus will be powered with integrated wind and photovoltaic technologies. As the designs take cues from local techniques of maintaining natural airflow, no electric heating or cooling will be necessary. The floor plan sets related academic facets in clusters to make the educational process efficient and productive. The model includes an elaborately planned central courtyard (equipped with an amphitheater), an orchard, a “kitchen garden,” and an “experimental learning garden.”

Miller Pollin says that her students were eager to work on the project and found designing the adaptive reuse model “very stimulating.” They were happy to be involved in such a directly impactful project. “The students just jumped right into it,” Miller Pollin says.

Damery explains that green building in Uganda requires a different approach than what normally comes to mind in the U.S. Much of the necessary building materials are miles away from rural villages and Ugandans are often restricted by what they can hand-carry or put on a bicycle. A successful approach to sustainability should be uniquely tailored to accommodate their way of life. “It doesn’t make any sense to implement some sort of Western solution. We need to very much be conscious of and use their local capacities and their world view in moving forward,” Damery says.

Amanda Drane ('12)