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Malawi schools project by John McAslan + Partners

When John McAslan + Partners was invited to develop a prototype school building in Malawi, the team went back to basics in its approach. Photography by Eldson Chagara

Malawi, in south-east Africa, is one of the world’s least developed, most densely populated countries. Its severe schools shortage caught the attention of Scottish philanthropist Tom Hunter who, with former US president Bill Clinton, formed the Clinton-Hunter Development Initiative (CHDI) to support developing communities.

A chance meeting between architect John McAslan of John McAslan + Partners and CHDI’s Robert Stoner in 2007 led to the firm being invited to develop a prototype for schools in Malawi. There are now four schools, one in the Mzimba district in the north and three in the Dowa district near Lilongwe, the capital. The firm is also waiting for approval for its plans for teacher training colleges.
Project director Hannah Lawson explains how the practice approached the project

When John McAslan met Robert Stoner, Malawi’s school buildings were unsustainable due to the excessive amount of concrete they used and poor environmental conditions – daylight was limited and temperatures fluctuated. Our brief was to improve the quality of the light and environmental performance for the cost of an existing school at US$10 (£6) per sq ft. This totalled US$25,000 (£15,000) per school catering for about 170 children. 

The project was a huge challenge, particularly given the remote locations, limited water supply, available materials, and varied climatic and geographical conditions. With no design standards or performance benchmarks for schools in Malawi, we worked with Arup to established criteria using local thermal and solar data, ultimately reducing the temperature by about 3°C compared to Malawi’s current school buildiongs. We designed a simple ridge ventilation element that provides both daylight and ventilation, achieving daylight levels in the region of 3 to 5 per cent, even in the winter months.

Arup’s Adrian Campbell analysed what materials were needed and created a simple new solution, including stabilised soil blocks for the main wall elements. There are now established methods to make these on-site, providing jobs for local workers which also increase their skills. The floors and foundations use less material, which saves money, and the roof utilises roof sheeting to eliminate bracing, resulting in a robust structure that is cheap and easy to build.

We aimed to re-establish the school as a focal community building for all family activity – education, health and social

Overall, we aimed for transformational schools, moving away from the two-classroom format by creating a central space in-between, with double doors opening into each room and two overhanging spaces at either end. This creates a total of five teaching spaces. We also aimed to re-establish the school as a focal community building for all family activity – education, health and social.

This association and familiarity with the building encourages parents to send their children to school. This is much needed in many areas. When we last visited, the mothers were standing in the community spaces watching their children being taught and were learning too, while pre-school children set up camp in one of the end bays and mimicked the learning of their older siblings.

Hannah Lawson is director of education, arts and culture at John McAslan + Partners and its Malawi school programme project director

Project data

Start on site August 2008 for the three built sites
Contract duration 7 months for most buildings
Gross floor area 232m2 (including covered terrace area)
Form of contract Tradtitional
Total cost £15,000 per classroom building
Cost per m2£65
Client Clinton-Hunter Development Initiative/Malawi Ministry of Education
Architect John McAslan + Partners
Structural engineer Arup
M&E consultant n/a
Main contractor Local contractors selected for each site employing local community hands for substantial labour on site (typically farmhands)
Annual CO2 emissions 0kg/m2 (no power)

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