Register or Log in  
Welcome, guest: please register or log in to your account!About Projects Competitions People RSS

Adaptable Hillside Classrooms


The classroom design incorporates two significant innovations: Firstly the cranked plan with opening side walls enables its use as a large assembly or event space in addition to classrooms; Secondly that it steps up the hillside to reduce the amount of excavation and earthmoving. Either of these ideas could be adopted separately elsewhere, although they also combine well to create a form of amphitheatre.

The “Lake Bunyonyi Christian Community Vocational Secondary School” (Bunyonyi Community School for short) is currently a 240 pupil secondary school, with additional vocational training courses. It was set up in 2006 due to high demand in the local area, and is located on the shores of Lake Bunyonyi in the far south west corner of Uganda, close to Rwanda. In this rural community the majority of pupils live too far from the school to travel in every day, so most board. Many are orphans.

Although private, the school charges very low fees and around 50% of pupils are admitted for free, being unable to pay. It is funded by its sister charity the “Lake Bunyonyi Development Company”, which runs a tourist camp on Bushara Island. Both organisations were set up and are run entirely by Ugandans from the local area, with no state funding.

The school occupies a steep, terraced site above the lake, served by a dirt road at the bottom. One year ago (with 140 pupils) it consisted of: one main classroom block with 3 classrooms and staff office; 3 small dormitories (sleeping two to a bed, with triple bunks); toilets; a kitchen and semi-enclosed dining area; a couple of temporary teaching areas. The main building has intermittent mains electricity supply and there is a rainwater storage tank. Over the last year, in collaboration with the school, we have built: a new dormitory block; completed a block of 5 classrooms that had already been started; built retaining walls and a full rainwater drainage system to prevent erosion and collapse of the land; proper steps and circulation through the school; improved sanitation; rainwater collection; and a further dormitory block is underway. By summer 2010, the school aims to have 300 – 350 pupils, dormitories with one pupil per bed, extra classrooms, staff accommodation on site, improved sanitation, solar power, and to be a model school in its district.

The school needs more classrooms, particularly for vocational subjects, which currently have to rent space elsewhere. However, it also wants an assembly, dining and gathering space that can be used for community events and rented out during holidays to provide income. To economise on space and resources, it is proposed that a block of 3 classrooms can open up and combine into a larger, multi-use space. The classrooms are angled round in plan and the outer walls open onto a covered external space that they all face in towards, creating a natural gathering space. Acoustic problems with opening walls between classrooms are also avoided. The site for the new building is towards the bottom of the school, near the road, which gives the school a presence on the main road and provides easy public access when necessary.

The design could equally be applied to a flat site - without the steps and with a raised stage. This therefore allows, at marginal extra cost and complexity, to have a gathering space for the whole school by simply adapting the geometry of 3 classrooms. It is particularly valuable for the economic opportunities it provides - allowing schools to rent the space to the wider community for special events and performances.

In a mountainous, rural area flat land is more expensive. With limited funds, the school has occupied a steep site and needs to make the most of the land it has available. So far, in line with familiar construction methods, classrooms and dormitories are linear buildings along terraces. However this makes inefficient use of the space available, and is very limiting on the school layout and planning. It also requires a lot of earthmoving, and leaves cut banks prone to erosion or in need of retaining.

To address this issue, we propose to stagger levels within the classrooms so that they rise with the slope and form different tiers. Less earth needs to be cut away and moved, so the cut banks are smaller, safer and take up less of the site (it is estimated the design moving 120 tonnes of earth by hand – see section). Rather than straight tiers like a lecture hall, the changes of level take the form of a cascade of staggered platforms that are sized to allow small groupings. The platform arrangement allows more flexible use of the space and more flexible teaching, whilst also instilling a degree of individuality and personal choice. Most teaching in Uganda would be regarded as ‘old fashioned’ in much of the western world, in that the teacher stands at the front and lectures and the students take notes and answer questions. There is very little student involvement, collaborative or group working that has become a key aspect of modern teaching philosophy. Whilst we do not want to impose foreign teaching practices on the school, we are very keen to allow the flexibility to accommodate future changes. The vocational classes necessarily involve more diverse teaching, including role-playing and already require some of this flexibility.

Whilst this is a response to the particular site in question it would be applicable on any sloping site, which will apply to a large number of schools around the world, because it is a common problem that the cheapest and most readily available land is often on sloping sites. Additionally, many rural populations, for whom school construction is most urgent, occupy steeper terrain, as is the case at Lake Bunyonyi.

The main concerns with existing classrooms raised by teachers and pupils were:
• Noise when it rains
It rains often in south west Uganda, and during heavy downpours the tin roofs make so much noise that teaching has to stop. Thatch is traditional but viewed as being ‘poor’ and was strongly rejected by both teachers and pupils. Tiles are too expensive. We propose to lay the tin onto a boarded ceiling of timber planks (cheaper than ply / OSB) which saves on perlins and battens, prevents the reverberation by contact with the tin and offers sound absorption, as well as being cost effective.
• Cold / drafty
The climate is very temperate at the high altitude and pupils complained of sometimes being too cold (but rarely too hot). Current classrooms have open windows and the pupils were very keen to have glass. To minimise the cost of this, much of the light is provided by roof lights where clear polycarbonate is adequate and cheaper. Some windows are still needed for ventilation and views out. The bricks pattern includes small gaps at the top which supply cross ventilation.
• Daylight
So far, most classrooms in the school are considered well lit, but this was still raised as an important issue because only one building has electricity and even that is intermittent. Steep slopes cut out a lot of light from the north, so daylighting is harder than first expected. More roof lights were the most effective solution and help with point two as well.

The types of construction and materials chosen are simple, local and cheap:
• Bricks are made by hand and fired on site – we did soil tests to investigate using compressed earth bricks, but unfortunately the soil proved to have far too much clay content.
• Timber is coppice grown Eucalyptus from adjacent to the site.
• The main roof construction has been described above. The central canopy is a timber lattice with reed matting, woven locally by a widows’ cooperative.
• The faces of the stepped platforms are to be timber fascia boards each individually painted by the pupils as part of their art classes.
• Photovoltaic panels are expensive but provide the only reliable source of electricity. The proposed area of 15m2 could generate around 1.4 kW peak output, which could run 10 computers & monitors, plus 10 light bulbs. Over an average year, it could generate around 3 MWh.
• Rainwater collection is also costly but becomes an essential feature for a school with no piped water supply
• Rainwater run-off from the ground is channelled into a drainage system to prevent soil erosion.
a channel drain is proposed along the back of the classroom building, and above the slope behind it, preventing the slope itself from being eroded or saturated with water. This would be linked to the main drainage channels already installed, which carry excess rainwater to an extensive soakaway.
• South West Uganda is a ‘moderate’ earthquake zone, although community elders informed us there had been no earthquakes in their region in living memory. The lightweight timber roof reduces inertial loads, while the timber inner lining acts as a diaphragm. An elastic approach will be taken to the design of the structure, such that an earthquake might cause minor damage, but no structural failure.


Bunyonyi Community School PO BOX 172


Competition Category Entered

Competition Details

  • Name: 2009 Open Architecture Challenge: Classroom
  • Host: Architecture for Humanity
  • Type: Public
  • Registration Deadline: May 4, 2009
  • Submission Deadline: June 1, 2009
  • Entry Fee: $25 USD Developed Nations , $0 USD Developing Nations
  • Award: $50,000 for the winning school for classroom construction and upgrading, and $5,000 stipend for the design team.
  • Contact: Sandhya
  • Status: Winners Announced

The competition entry ID for this project is 4698.

Project Details

NAME: Adaptable Hillside Classrooms
PROJECT LEAD: Andrew Macintosh
LOCATION: Bunyonyi Community School, Kabale, Uganda
START DATE: December 01, 2009
CURRENT PHASE: Design development
COST: $24000 USD (Estimated)
SIZE: 111 sq. m
PROJECT TYPE: Education Facility - Secondary School, Public Space/Gathering Space
, Architecture for Humanity UK
SPONSORING ORGANIZATION: Architecture for Humanity
, Orient Global

Discussion Forums

Join the conversation!

General Questions
Do you have general questions about participating in the challenge? Post them here, or see if they have already been asked and answered.

Partner Requests
Are you a school that needs an architect to team up with, or a architect that needs a school? Post your information here, and find a partner!

MBI Discussion Forum
Looking for answers to specific modular classrooms questions? Ask you questions on the Modular Building Institute forum.