Climate-Positive Development

Putting Down Roots: MASS Design Group’s Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture breaks new ground (and builds with it).
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Architectural Record
By Katherine Logan

The second success from innovation with low-carbon materials is that RICA has already become a model in the region, the country, and even internationally. There have been many visits from members of regulatory bodies in various trades, Uzabakiriho says, and the project is being referred to by experts and technical authorities.

The third success Uzabakiriho identifies, from the perspective of construction administration, was the clarity and conviction that RICA’s original vision infused into an arduous process. “The main mission for the project was to minimize the carbon footprint of the whole process by using the natural materials that are most available,” he says. “We had so many trials, so many failures, and were sometimes overtime on the schedule because of the testing process. But because we had that mission, we ended up having the project that we wanted.” It’s a reminder, he says, that “every day and on every project, we should have that mission set from the beginning.”

Just as it’s unusual to build an entire university campus from scratch, so it’s unusual for the architect to have such a high degree of control over the process. “To understand what goes into our buildings—not just in terms of embodied carbon, but embodied costs, labor, and environmental impacts—these things are hard to do,” says Ricks. And, yet, worthwhile. “Our being involved and getting into the weeds made the project better,” says Chris Hardy, project architect for RICA, who has recently returned to MASS’s Boston office after four years in Kigali. “There’s comfort in being able to rely on standards and common practice, but, in emerging markets, you don’t have that luxury.” Instead, stepping out of that comfort zone, thinking critically about project goals, being willing not to rely on a catalogue, and returning to first principles are what helped RICA achieve climate positivity. “I’m looking forward to bringing some of that back with me,” Hardy says.

While design decisions and advocacy have the power to influence building materials’ supply-chain values and carbon impacts, to put the entire onus of doing right by the planet on architects is unrealistic, says Ricks: “We need regulatory, political, social, and market pressures to demand these things, so that the appropriate amount of research and development can go into figuring out the answers.”

In the meantime, RICA stands as a new precedent for what a radically contextual mode of practice can do—socially, materially, and ecologically. As Uzabakiriho says, “Even with photographs, it’s hard to describe the beauty and what the local community all together were able to achieve.”


Architect: MASS Design Group — Alan Ricks, design lead; Kelly Alvarez Doran, project lead; Sierra Bainbridge, landscape-design lead; Chris Hardy, project manager; Jean Paul Uzabakiriho, supervision lead; Rosie Goldrick, engineering lead
Consultants: MASS Design Group (s/m/e/p); Arup (civil); Transsolar (environmental); Curry Willey Associates (agricultural); Conspectus (specifications)
General ContractorS: MASS Build, Costwise Contractors, Remote Group
Owner: Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture
Size: 3,400 acres
Cost: $75 million
Expected Completion date: September 2022


Tile: Ruliba Products
Timber: New Forest Company, Sao HIll Industries/Green Resources, Tekwani

Supplemental Materials:

Gernot Minke. "Introduction.” Building with Earth: Design and Technology of a Sustainable Architecture, Birkhauser, 2006, pp. 11-18.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in August 2022