Mahiga Hope High School Rainwater Court, Nyeri Kenya, by Dick Clark Architecture. Architecture for Humanity

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Brenda Nyawara

Brenda Nyawara is an editor at Archute. She is a graduate architect with a passion for edge-cutting ideas in design, fashion, art and modern world interests.
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Architecture for humanity. Architecture was made for man. Some projects have such inspiring stories behind them, the end result being a solution to humanitarian problems. This project in Nyeri, Kenya, is among the ones we have noted. Buckle up, this is a wordy one, but worth reading till the end.

A multi-purpose, full-size basketball court designed for the St. Joseph Mahiga Primary School and the community of Nyeri, Kenya.

It started with a tree. Joseph Mutongu, a local conservationist, wanted to introduce a tree growing program at the school his son attended. The Mahiga Hope School is located in a dusty rural village in the Aberdare Mountain Range in central Kenya. Most families are subsistence farmers and at the time were in the midst of a four–year drought. The school needed water toallow the tree to grow, but more importantly to provide some clean drinking water to its students. Joseph took it upon himself to find a way to make it happen. There were three options: to rely on the municipal waterline, which worked two weeks of the year; to drill an expensive bore well; or to develop an off–grid rainwater catchment system.

A chance encounter with Turk and Christy Pipkin of the Nobelity Project created the opportunity for the third option. In 2008, Joseph, Turk and the school installed a simple gutter system on one of the school’s wooden structures. Rainwater was collected in a small tank and purified with an ultraviolet system. For a few thousand dollars, the school suddenly had access to a small supply of water. The team then had a bolder idea, to provide water for every student all the way to the end of high school.

For a rural school, access to water is the key for focused learning. Children don’t have to walk miles to collect unsafe water, school lunches can use clean water for cooking and for drinking, and safe access to sanitation prevents disease and ensures teenage girls stay in school.

The idea was born of tackling two uniquely different issues, the desire of the children to have access to sports and the need for safe drinking water. Turk and Christy worked with Dick Clark Architects to develop a concept for a rainwater court and entered into the Gamechangers design challenge run by Architecture for Humanity and Nike. Thus, the Mahiga Hope High School Rainwater Court.

As one of the winners of the competition, the school was awarded financing, construction management and a one–year design fellow who would live and work in Mahiga. Greg Elsner therefore arrived in Mahiga with a task to design and build a multi–purpose basketball court that would collect up to 30 000 liters of water, with a budget on par with a simple borehole well.

Partnering with local architects Multiplex Systems, Elsner and the team utilized local hand–cut stone (Mahiga means “stone”), a steel structure that mirrors traditional Kenyan art, and a two–panel metal roof to build the 436 sq m (4850 sq ft) structure.

Going beyond a court, the architects designed a small stage that could be used for community meetings, movie nights and weddings.

Like many institutional projects, this was more than a structure; it became a community catalyst. In less than 18 months student test scores jumped from the lowest to the highest in a district of 600 schools; enrollment in the high school tripled; the school had electricity for the first time; it installed a computer lab and a library and a two–story high school was built.

Mahiga went from a derelict rural school to a model education campus. When the court finally opened it had not rained in over three months. Over 1000 community members stood in the midday sun under a cluster of umbrellas to see the first basketball game played on the new court. As halftime approached, dark brooding clouds rolled across the skyline and by the time of the last shot the heavens opened up.

Most building openings are dampened by a downpour, but in the case of the Mahiga rainwater court, it was the best way possible to celebrate. Joseph collected the first bowl of clean water to nourish a tree still growing in a corner of the schoolyard.

To explore more inspiring architectural designs, take a look at the Ring-Shaped Lycée Schorge Secondary School By Kere Architecture and Umubano Primary School in Kigali.

Project Information
Location: Mahiga, Nyeri County, Kenya
Date: 2009–2010
End User: 1500 residents of Mahiga
Client: St. Joseph Mahiga Primary and Secondary School
Implementing Agency: Architecture for Humanity
Project Managers: Greg Elsner, Michael Jones
Design Firm: Dick Clark Architecture
Contractors: Boslika Building Contractors
Mechanical contractor: Chaga Electricals
Water tank contractor: Gumbi & Associates, Samuel Maina Ndirangu
Environmental Consultant: Mazingira & Engineering Consultants
Funding:  Architecture for Humanity; Willie and Annie Nelson; Nike; Nobelity Project
Cost: $84 150 USD
Area: 451 sq m/4850 sq ft
Water Storage: 30 000 liters/7925 gal

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About the author

Brenda Nyawara

Brenda Nyawara is an editor at Archute. She is a graduate architect with a passion for edge-cutting ideas in design, fashion, art and modern world interests.
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