Deep in the jungle of the Congo Basin, six hours by motorcycle from the nearest airstrip, the Ilima Primary School by MASS Design Group and the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) sets a new standard for rural education. Built as part of AWF's strategy to encourage environmental preservation in the region, the school serves as a community center for village-level programming to promote sustainable farming and hunting practices for the mutually beneficial integration of villagers and wildlife. With its innovative design, it has become a beacon school, attracting the region's best teachers and offering students opportunities beyond subsistence farming.
Built entirely of materials and labor sourced on the hard-to-access site, the Ilima School embodies MASS's ethos of Lo-Fab [local fabrication]. Designers collaborated with local conservationists to identify appropriate trees in the agricultural area, which were hand-sawn, planed, and crafted into the timber trusses, roof framing, furniture and architectural details of the final facility. Local artisans and MASS architects experimented with modified earth mixes and regional trees to form the building's walls and roof shingles. Taking their cue from regional climate-aware design practices, the school's steep roof and gutter system respond to heavy rainfall, the open clerestory and half-height walls encourage natural ventilation and daylight for comfortable classrooms. MASS designed construction documents for graphic representation, allowing often illiterate workers to assemble the building's complex roof frame.
In this way, the Ilima School redefines what sustainable architecture can aspire to be. Developed in tandem with the community it serves, the rural school does not risk deteriorating with time. Its construction saw intergenerational training and the introduction of new skillsets and techniques, encouraging local economic development; two young Congolese architects were trained in sustainable building techniques. With this focus on skills development, the project?s sustainability is rooted in the long-term investment of its users.