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Slak Campus in Kenya was built on the model of termites’ mounds

Local materials and labor, little resources can improve efficiency and creativity: the campus is solar powered and passively ventilated

Building an ICT campus in a remote region in Kenya: Slak startup

Lions chose Turkana, a remote north-western area bordering Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda as a region to start building campuses: it is an arid land with virtually no job or education opportunities for local youth. If their model striving for education and empowerment could work there, they thought, it could work anywhere. Turkana has no fertile soil that can be used for sustainable architecture, which means most of the food supply has to be brought in from other areas; the local economy is based on basket weaving, small kiosks and mechanical repairs, but none of this can sustain sufficient growth or opportunities for the younger population, meaning that they often have to move elsewhere to find jobs. The region is densely populated, with around nine-hundred-thousand inhabitants, holding great potential. Learning Lions aims at freeing this potential by building Information and Communication Technology (ICT) campuses that can provide knowledge and foster innovation and growth, without having to move. The building will provide a hundred new workstations as well as a comfortable learning environment. Francis Kéré and Learning Lions’ founder and CEO Ludwig Bayern met in 2019 in Munich and started developing their vision for the higher education campus. «The collaboration», says Kéré «was marked by a mutual desire to build something for a place where there is little educational infrastructure and to do so with limited resources». To be able to achieve it in less than two years, the two worked closely learning the potential of taking fast decisions: «It was an example of how working with little can sometimes unleash efficiency and creativity». Kéré Architecture, founded by Francis Kéré in 2005, has worked with Learning Lions to build the Startup Lions Campus in Turkana, Kenya. The project, named Startup Lions Assets Kenya (Slak), was completed earlier this year. Construction lasted more than one year, and the design phase had begun only in 2019. Learning

Slak Campus design

Kéré is known in the architecture industry for his school designs, starting in 2001 with Gando primary school. Kéré’s peculiarity is his site-specific approach, basing his designs on the local vernacular traditions and landscape. Gando primary school was built to add to the sparse school infrastructure in Burkina Faso. The two main issues to be solved were ventilation and lighting. To solve them, the architect worked with clay, a material that is abundantly found in the region and that allows to build solid bricks that act at the same time as thermal protection. A similar approach was used when dealing with the SLAK design. Though the two projects differ in the specificities of the respective geographic areas and preferences of the clients, the work was carried through with the same principles: firstly an attention to the local, both in terms of sourcing materials and local knowledge; and secondly a determination to include the community, which is essential, says Kéré «to transfer a sense of ownership, as this ensures a building’s longevity». If the community feels the building becoming part of their heritage, they will be more likely to pay attention to its preservation, which is one of the more valuable aspects when looking at sustainability. The Slak Campus was designed by taking inspiration from the local culture and natural landscape. In particular, the design was made by studying the local termite mounds. When approaching the site, the main issue was, once again, that of natural ventilation. 

A termite mound close to SLAK Campus, photography Kinan Deeb for Kéré Architecture

Lampoon reporting: Slak campus wind towers

The region’s climate can be dry and harsh, so they needed to understand how to find a natural and sustainable way to aerate the structure. This is where looking at the work of the termites was helpful: «Nature is the best architect. So we studied the mounds and came to a shape that provides passive ventilation and is really visible, becoming part of the architecture». The building has what Kéré refers to as ‘wind towers’, that allow air to come in and later be distributed in all spaces. «Passive cooling is the defining factor», when looking at the sustainability of the campus: «the wind tower and openings at the base create a cooling circulation that keeps the temperature down. The massive wall works as insulation, further helping to keep the inside cool». The energy needed to light the building and for electricity, kept to a minimum, is obtained with solar panels on the building itself. The Internet is provided by the local infrastructure. As for the materials, the bulk is built in local quarry stone, whose thickness helps maintain the interior temperature constant and isolated; «the exterior of these walls was then plastered to protect against the sun», providing additional isolation. The structure develops on two levels with extensive terraced areas offering a view of Turkana Lake. The terraces are filled with vegetation to create shade and provide students with «opportunities for the informal exchange of ideas».

Slak involving local community 

All materials and labor were sourced locally, but the community was also involved on a deeper level. Learning Lions «worked closely with the local population to decide on location, communicate the building process and figuring out how to utilize it». Local craftsmanship also found its way into the project, in the form of woven room partitioning or stonework. The goal of the building was to provide the local youth with a space where they can find their own path to innovation and technological development, as well as being able to have the space and means needed to do so – such as computers and a connection, which may seem basic but are lacking in most parts of the world. Community had to be involved from the first decision-making steps, to construction, communication and promotion if the campus was to fulfill the purpose it was thought for. 

Design process of schools in Slak campus

«A school» says Kéré, «needs to inspire through its design. If students feel comfortable, safe and most of all inspired they will have their learning experience elevated». The same is also true: «if a building heats up to the point of discomfort it hampers the students learning ability; if it is too crowded, too dark, too damp, too bleak the same applies». It also becomes essential to look at the design of all learning spaces. The campus is composed of five different buildings, a space has been left clear in the middle to encourage student gatherings, exchange of ideas or outdoor teaching. In an area like Turkana, that has little or no educational infrastructure, it is essential to keep organic growth in mind as well: «You may start with a few classrooms and soon find yourself pressed for space as the demand spikes. Schools are also used differently than most other buildings. You also want to make sure that the space can at once be configured to fit the different needs of a school curriculum throughout the academic year, but at the same time not feel anonymous and cold». The inside of the building is divided between classrooms, flexible workshop spaces and space dedicated to the technical facilities. Nets are used to keep insects outside of studying and working spaces, while guaranteeing that the air is left flowing. Plans for the future include housing for students and teachers, and possibly a restaurant on location, and exporting the same concept to other areas where infrastructure for educational purposes and the creation of new job opportunities is needed.

Kéré 

It is an architecture firm based in Germany and founded in 2005 by architect Francis Kéré. It has a dual focus, on design and social commitment, with the goal of sharing knowledge through architecture. 

Learning Lions 

Was founded in 2015 with the aim of improving the infrastructure for education where needed. They promote the empowerment of young women and their chance to achieve higher education. 

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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