With its sustainable and economical school buildings designed by award-winning architect Anna Heringer, a tiny village in rural Bangladesh shows the way forward.
When you think of a school building, what comes to mind? I think of tall, nondescript buildings with long corridors punctuated by classrooms and wooden desks. Architect Anna Heringer had other ideas, though.
At 19, she spent a year in Bangladesh volunteering with a charity called Dipshika. That stint gave her a deep insight into the community and its needs. From that experience grew Heringer’s first architectural project in Bangladesh – the award-winning METI School in the village of Rudrapur, which formed the basis for her thesis as well.
The METI School was completed in 2006 and received immediate acclaim as well as several awards including the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Since then, Heringer has worked on several other projects in Bangladesh including on the one which is the focus of this article – the DESI (Dipshikha Electrical Skill Improvement) training centre for local electricians, which incidentally is also run by Dipshika.
The DESI building is unlike any rural school you have seen. The principles of design were the same as for METI – regional construction, local materials, but here new ideas were incorporated for structural stability and sustainability.
In an interview with the German website Architekturclips, Heringer says, “When you see Bangladesh – all the fields, the rubbish and the energy going into the air, then you know that the choice of material should not be merely an aesthetic one, since it has an impact on the environment, on the climate.”
Anna Heringer propagates buildings made out of clay with traditional materials and crafting techniques. She challenges the modern approach of ignoring traditional materials in favour of mass-produced ones.
The structure of the building in question was designed around a typical Bangladeshi home where all of the household functions – eating, sleeping, washing, etc are performed in separate structures built around a central courtyard.
The DESI building, however, incorporated all these functions into a single structure with two classrooms, two offices and two residences for the school teachers. The teachers have separate bathrooms with two showers and toilets, while on the ground floor a student bathroom has many toilets and sinks.
The toilets have their own two-chamber septic tank. “This is the first time that sanitary units have been built into earth houses in Bangladesh, proving that mud and bamboos are flexible enough to accommodate modern lifestyle requirements.”
For the construction, Heringer and her team used mainly mud and bamboo, but improved the stability with a masonry foundation and damp-proofing. The team tested the soil of Rudrapur and found that it was mainly silt with some clay (referred to as ‘Loam’). They were convinced that this mud would withstand the pressure of a building and would harden well without cracking.
The building is rural, yet contemporary. It is high-tech, yet low-tech. Sticking to traditional building methods, no machinery was used in the construction. Instead, local villagers worked on the site, alongside eight water-buffaloes and made cob walls (by mixing earth, water and rice straw).
The windows received a traditional border of lime plastering, while the rooms were given many windows at varying heights for ventilation and natural cooling.
The lattice-work bamboo wall covering in the first floor gives the area a romantic, medieval touch, and generates criss-cross light and shadow patterns across the floor. Simple cotton saris hang over head – a traditional awning adds another layer of shade. Straw mats cushion the ground and provide seating along with bamboo benches.
The building is also innovative for its use of solar panels, which students helped install as part of their curriculum. 100% of DESI’s energy needs are produced by the solar panels which provide warm water as well.
The residents of Rudrapur are proud of their ‘international’ buildings. “In place of a cement-plastered brick wall, a sophisticated woven bamboo wall becomes a sign of prestige. In that way an independent, local identity evolves quite automatically.”
Heringer’s green projects and evolving architecture proves that by using materials that might be considered ‘rural’ or even ancient, one can make strong, sustainable, modern and beautiful buildings.
“I often hear that sustainable architecture is ugly and I fully disagree with this. A building has to be in accord with the social and environmental context and if these layers are all in harmony then it is a beautiful building and at the same time a sustainable one. For me, sustainability is beauty.”
At the DESI School, there is no compromise with either form or function. There’s texture, shadow and light. There’s movement and energy. And when you have a building that not only teaches but also inspires, you know that the purpose of such a structure has been achieved. What more does a school need?
Text By Chryselle D’Silva Dias
Photographs Courtesy Kurt Hoerbst and Anna Heringer