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New Architecture Scholarship Enables Two Students to Research Projects in Africa

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Architecture majors Rachel Lamica and Connor Bell
Architecture majors Rachel Lamica and Connor Bell

Designing a public building includes tackling a set of unique challenges. And when the building site is 7,000 miles away in Africa, those challenges take on a whole new dimension. A new endowed scholarship has enabled Architecture majors Rachel Lamica and Connor Bell to overcome some of those challenges by funding their travel to Africa, where they visited a couple of proposed building sites and gained critical understanding of the physical and cultural realities of the project.

Each year, students in the Keene State Architecture Department’s Communicorps class create design plans for underfunded community organizations that need to build new structures or modify existing ones. It’s a perfect opportunity for students to work in a team and get real-world design experience while offering something of value to the community. In 2013, the Communicorps class moved in a daring new direction when it accepted the task of designing a much-needed vocational school in Haiti. Since that time, its partnership with the Boston chapter of Architects for Humanity has brought other important projects to the drawing board, including a health clinic in Rwanda and now a peace center in that country and a pre-kindergarten school in Uganda.

You can imagine that designing buildings in Africa presents problems that are quite different from designing for the Keene area, and the architect has got to be on site to really understand them. There are the obvious physical considerations, such as the slope and orientation of the building site, the availability of construction materials and resources, and weather and environmental factors. But there are also cultural and social aspects that can be just as important. Creating a sense of ownership among the local community members is just as important as creating a functional building. “Architects sometimes design beautiful buildings for Third World communities, but when they visit them a few years later, they often find them not being used,” said Associate Professor of Architecture Peter Temple.

“One serious problem is sustaining the services and getting the local people to buy into it.” said Professor of Architecture Donna Paley. “It has to do with problems at a basic cultural level. … The local people need a sense of ownership for the school to succeed.”

The new scholarship, the AIA New Hampshire and Kahn Family Fund for the Advancement of Architecture, named for the American Institute of Architects – New Hampshire Chapter (AIANH) and for Jay Kahn, a long­-serving vice president of Keene State College and honorary member of AIANH, was created to support KSC Architecture program-related student travel and study away.

Begin pull-quote…[This project] challenged me to really think outside of the box, and do a lot of research on commercial spaces. In the end I felt it brought my architectural abilities to another level. …end pull-quote
– Rachel Lamica

Lamica and Bell are leading Communicorps teams designing the peace center and pre-K school, and the AIANH/Kahn Family Scholarship helped them spend three weeks in Rwanda and Uganda, gathering important information about the physical and cultural aspects of the building site that they could only get by being there in person.

“I learned a great deal from working on this project,” said Lamica, who hails from Malone, New York. Her team designed the peace center in Rwanda. “First, I learned how to design for a part of the world that is very different from New England, and has very different design needs. Since this is a big project, with a huge site and a rigorous slope, it challenged me to really think outside of the box, and do a lot of research on commercial spaces. In the end I felt it brought my architectural abilities to another level.”

Connor Bell and his team worked on the primary school in Bucundura, Uganda, to be built on land bought by Father Robert, a native of the village and former priest at St. Bernard’s Church in Keene, with help from the Keene-based non-profit, AfriCAN Educate. “This project meant a lot to me,” Bell said. “I was able to use my design skills to accomplish a project with two other students, and we created a functional and yet very aesthetic design. We wanted to have this village feel a sense of ownership of their school. The program included six classrooms with a central play space, a kitchen for serving meals, and a building for a headmaster’s office and teachers’ area. I will carry this experience with me always, because I have never felt more of a senses of accomplishment than I did with this project. I learned to be both compassionate and very practical during my design work. I used my knowledge to lead a team to create an effective design, and now that design is set to become a reality. I couldn’t be more proud.”

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