A Hospital in Rwanda Proves Smart Design Can Save Lives


Sustainable design gets a lot of attention—as well it should. Devising new, environmentally supportive methods of construction is imperative if our planet has a chance of surviving current rates of urban growth. But smart architecture can, and should, also include practices that do more than protect the environment; they should protect its people as well.

A Boston-based design firm is making that a reality. Using innovative design practices, the MASS Design Group, in collaboration with Partners in Health, has built a hospital in Rwanda that is designed specifically to prevent disease transmission while promoting faster recovery from illness.

As chief operating officer of MASS, Alan Ricks explained to the Boston Globe that the world’s poorest endure healthcare facilities are “in dismal conditions, in clinics that are unclean, unlovely...grim, dank, and sometimes deadly.” Butaro is about restoring patients’ dignity, giving them the opportunity to heal in an environment that supports recovery, rather than obstructs it.  

High rates of tuberculosis are of particular concern to area residents, so designers have shelved the idea of closed-in quarters and instead given the hospital a natural ventilation system with large, strategically placed windows that promote air flow. Shaded outside seating has also been added. Ultraviolet lights in the wards and waiting spaces keep the air purified. And instead of interior hallways, which can traditionally serve as incubation areas for germs, high ceilings and exterior pathways mean disease transmission is greatly reduced.

According to MASS’ website, since the facility’s opening in 2011, the area has witnessed the most drastic drop in infant mortality seen anywhere in the world.

Perhaps most enjoyable for the hospital’s patients is that unlike traditional healthcare facilities, their beds don’t face each other. Instead, all are turned outwards, towards open windows with soaring views of the hillsides. FastCompany reports that simply adding a view to a patient’s perspective can boost recovery rates by as much as 25 percent.

But Butaro has served as more than a healthcare facility—its construction has also improved the community’s health. Built from locally- ourced materials, the project employed a brigade of local workers, totaling 3,500 people. Because many lacked a construction background, they received on-the-job training, which was apparently effective—the team finished the project a year ahead of time.

Butaro brought much-needed work to an area that has demonstrated consistently high unemployment rates. The Globe reports many of those original workers have since gone on to other construction opportunities because of the training they received during the hospital’s build.

With current plans to expand Butaro with the addition of doctors’ quarters and a community center, the group has also started other projects, including healthcare facilities in Haiti and a school in Sierra Leone.

Much like the premise of the Sustainability Institute in South Africa, MASS Design takes a holistic approach to its projects, addressing an area’s public health, environmental issues and the local economy as a whole. And it relies heavily on the community’s input to direct the goals of their designs. As one of the founding members, Michael Murphy, said to the Harvard Gazette, “We want Rwandans to rebuild Rwanda.”

Are you ready to see the US healthcare system adopt smarter designs? Let us know in the Comments.

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A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and medical writer.  In addition to reporting the weekend news on TakePart, she volunteers as a webeditor for locally-based nonprofits and works as a freelance feature writer for TimeOutLA.com. Email Andri | @andritweets | TakePart.com