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

Learning Objectives:

  1. Outline the steps involved in creating carbon-positive landscapes.
  2. Explain the concepts "One Health" and "Conservation Agriculture".
  3. Describe how the RICA project helped establish supply chains and markets for locally produced, regionally appropriate low-carbon materials.
  4. Discuss shifts in land use in Rwanda over the past several decades and the resulting environmental problems.


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The opportunity to build an entire university campus from scratch, with a mandate to offer solutions to some of the world’s most critical problems, is a rare thing. But in the rapidly developing East African country of Rwanda, a conjunction of groundbreaking design, government support, and philanthropic commitment has led to the completion later this year of what’s expected to be the first carbon-positive university in the world: the 3,400-acre Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture (RICA).

Photo courtesy of Iwan Baan

Underlying the carbon-positive achievement (pulling more greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere than the project’s construction and operation emit) is a way of working that MASS Design Group, the project’s architect, has been developing through its building in Rwanda and elsewhere for the last 15 years. Premised on the understanding that major capital projects represent an investment in a place and its community, and that each design decision offers an opportunity to optimize that investment, the campus exemplifies the holistic engagement with contextual materials and methods that is the hallmark of the firm’s work.

With RICA, that paradigm has reached a new scale. Over 90 percent of the project’s $75 million budget was spent regionally, within 500 miles of the campus. Ninety-six percent of materials, by weight, were sourced within Rwanda. Three-quarters of the project’s labor costs stayed in the project’s district, and 94 percent remained in the country. More than 300 workers were trained in sustainable construction methods, 16 percent of whom were women. About 85 local artisans and cooperatives fabricated MASS-designed furniture and fittings—some 2,500 objects in all—which, by contrast with short-lived imported items (plastic chairs, that’s you), can now be maintained and repaired. The project has fostered local markets—for terra-cotta and timber, for example. And it has modeled new methods of working with regionally appropriate materials—methods that are now informing the development of new trade standards and practices regionally and internationally.

Photo courtesy of Iwan Baan

Land use in Rwanda

“It’s in places that are poor or historically marginalized, or places that haven’t had as much access to resources, that we have to be aspirational,” Alan Ricks, a founding principal and chief design officer with MASS, told RECORD for the magazine’s recent climate-justice feature (June 2022). What he sees in Rwanda is a pursuit of progress that does not seek to emulate the Global North but instead leapfrogs existing systems and proposes contextually appropriate solutions. “For me as an American, this isn’t about imparting anything,” he says. “Rather, it’s a question of: What have we learned from the hunger for innovation and from the social and environmental concern that you see across sectors in Rwanda? How can what is happening in Rwanda set an example for what we should be aspiring to in the U.S. and elsewhere?”

Like many countries in the Global South, Rwanda is transforming rapidly. In the last 50 years, as its population has more than tripled, land use has shifted from more than three-quarters wilderness to more than three-quarters agricultural production, contributing to deforestation, overgrazing, soil degradation, and loss of habitat and biodiversity. About 80 percent of Rwandan households rely on farming for at least part of their livelihood, but a fifth are nonetheless food insecure. Already the most densely inhabited country in sub-Saharan Africa, with 13.6 million people in a nation hardly bigger than Vermont (population 625,000), Rwanda’s population is expected to double again by 2050.

In this context of increasing urgency, RICA aims to reposition agriculture as a forward-looking interdisciplinary and entrepreneurial profession capable of attracting the country’s best young minds to a future in which nature and agriculture become symbiotic. “Developing a future of sustainable food is inherently about figuring out how to address the threats of climate change and biodiversity loss,” says Ricks. “So how does the architecture and the construction of the university embody those same principles?”

Located on the shore of Lake Kilimbi, southeast of the capital city of Kigali, RICA is approached via a MASS-designed road that prioritizes cyclists and pedestrians, with forage grasses for community harvest along the shoulders. The campus includes landscape, faculty and student housing, academic space, barns, storage, and agricultural processing facilities, all connected along an undulating, campus-long path set back from the lake. For the institute’s 250 students—all of whom receive full scholarships—instruction takes place in the classrooms and in the campus fields, with first-year students learning the principles of smallholder farming on five-acre model plots (a size that’s typical for a Rwandan farm), and second- and third-year students participating in enterprise-scale agribusinesses such as irrigated cropping systems and food-processing. There’s an emphasis on leadership and entrepreneurship throughout, and an extension program connects the institute to the community.

Two complementary concepts inform both the curriculum and the design. “One Health,” which is gaining increasing recognition globally, holds that human, animal, and ecological health are inextricably intertwined. “Conser­vation Agriculture,” meanwhile—in contrast to the shortsighted practices of industrial farming that have proven so damaging—centers on the importance of soil conservation and regeneration, actively rebuilding biodiversity and natural processes above and below the surface of the ground.

“There are four steps to achieving radically carbon-positive landscapes,” says Sierra Bain­bridge, a landscape architect and managing director in MASS’s Boston office. “You can apply at least one to any site anywhere, and if you do all of them—as RICA does—then you have the opportunity to make sure everything is going forward in balance.” The first step is to conserve intact landscapes. For RICA, the design process began with a deep site analysis: soil, water, slope, and species, among other factors. Based on an ecologist-generated map of what once lived here and what could live here, a long-range plan conserves the site’s ecologically rich savannah woodland; it’s one of very few intact remnants outside of the country’s national parks and a significant carbon sink for offsetting the development. The second step is to restore ecological functionality wherever possible, which RICA does by stitching the woodland back to the lake with new landscape corridors. Third, proliferate: boosting biodiversity, the project planted more than 300,000 plants propagated from plant material collected on-site. And, finally, sequester carbon through reforestation and plantings, pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and storing it long-term. Assuming the reforestation component of the project goes ahead within the next year or two, RICA’s 64-building, 100-acre campus (within the 3,400-acre site) is estimated to become carbon positive within six years.

Photo courtesy of Iwan Baan

RICA'S buildings rely on local materials, namely timber and earth, as seen in the structure housing the dining hall and offices.

Photo courtesy of Iwan Baan

A crucial aspect of the design that makes carbon-positive status possible is the use of low-embodied-energy construction materials and methods. (Embodied energy refers to the greenhouse-gas emissions that are generated during the extraction, manufacture, and transportation of building materials, and during construction and disposal.) As an allegory for the centrality of soil in Conservation Agriculture, the buildings’ main material is earth: stone for the foundations, rammed-earth blocks for the walls, and terra-cotta for the roof tiles. Finishes, such as plaster and tile, are also made of earth. With the roof structure consisting of sustainably managed regionally sourced timber, the only major components that the entirely off-grid campus brought from outside the region are its wastewater-treatment system and a 2,950-megawatt-hours-per-year solar array.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in August 2022