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Collaborating on model villages with Rwandan architecture students

UCL Bartlett and University of Rwanda students are exploring local village typologies that connect technological advancement with local culture and geographies.

A hand grasps at new technology above a row of new houses

5 April 2022

Julia Backhaus and Ben Hayes from the Bartlett School of Architecture are facilitating a collaboration between their Part I architecture students and a cohort from the University of Rwanda’s School of Architecture and the Built Environment. Together, the students investigate circularity and sustainability in relation to Rwanda’s new village models.

With funding from Global Engagement’s Africa Teaching Fund, Julia extended the programme to include a collaborative design research project. Its outcomes will be presented during an online roundtable that includes policy-makers, planners and academics from both countries in May 2022.

Rwandan Village Models

For over a decade, Rwanda has put the environment and climate change at the forefront of policy making. It was one of the first countries globally to ban single-use plastic bags, has the largest Green Fund in Africa, and is widely seen to have an innovative policy environment.

As one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, Rwanda has also been creating model villages across the country to provide housing to people in rural areas and relocate others from areas prone to flooding and landslides.

University of Rwanda and Bartlett students are now studying those new villages. They explore sustainable building strategies, such as new use of locally available materials, passive ventilation, rainwater collection, greywater recycling and strategies for social cohesion.

Learning together

On a fieldtrip, the Rwandan students visited the villages and then acted as virtual guides for the Bartlett students via zoom.

Julia said: “we learned so much from our partners and the students in Rwanda. To tackle our pressing global issues, now more than ever, we need to collaborate transnationally and share local and global knowledge. As educators, we aim to embed diversity, equity, and inclusion in the heart of a built environment pedagogy, helping to provide a visionary, meaningful experience for the next generation of architectural thinkers, practitioners and activists.”

Collaboratively (also with the Glasgow Macintosh School of Architecture), the students led two Transnational Housing Symposia, participated in joint lectures and were paired up in a buddy system where UCL and Rwandan students share ideas and lived experiences via zoom.

A 5-day face-to-face summer school is planned in Kigali where students, academics and local village communities will participate in a co-design workshop. The workshop will engage local residents in the planning process and build relationships with local planners and policy-makers.

Integrating a virtual element into the collaboration allowed students from the two countries to meet, exchange ideas and learn from each other in a way that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible.

Josephine from University of Rwanda added: ‘ The Rwandan, MSA and Bartlett collaboration culminating into a second transnational housing Symposium in November 2021 has been much more successful than expected. Together, we have build synergies and combined our experiences to be able to discuss bigger and more complex questions in housing. The ongoing global North-South collaboration is the best opportunity ever for the two worlds to shake hands and share teaching and learning methodologies and inspiring pathways to deliver transformative education for sustainable futures.” 

This article is part of a series which explores how UCL academics integrate African perspectives and voices into research and teaching activities related to the continent. The distance, high travel costs, and development funding cuts make meaningful contact with African counterparts more difficult, but colleagues across UCL are finding creative and innovative ways of delivering collaborative projects during and beyond the pandemic.

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