This year, two Bangladeshi architects, Ador Yousuf and Dr Saiful Islam won the Architectural Projects and Build Works 2020 award of the International Academy of Architecture (IAA) for their eco-friendly, climate-tolerant and sustainable construction projects.
Yousuf won the award in the Education Building category for his Sonadia School project in Moheshkhali. Meanwhile, Dr Saiful Islam's Jamsherpur High School Hostel project was awarded in Residential Building category.
Sonadia School: Bringing together the land and its people
The Sonadia School in Moheshkhali is an unbuilt project, but the idea and the dialogue it wants to create with the land and the people is exemplary.
Architect Ador Yousuf says architecture is not about beautiful buildings or structures only; it is about the relationship between the land and the people living on it.
Ador was born and brought up in Chattogram. He is an alum of Chattogram Collegiate School and graduated from the University of Asia Pacific. His notable works include the mausoleum of Shah Abdul Karim, Cumilla Rup Sagar Dighi, Houseboat katpai, and Hatkhola.
The Sonadia School project was more of a journey for him. So, where did this journey start from?
In 2010, he went to the Sonadia island on a tour. With an area of about nine square kilometres, it is a small island off the Cox's Bazar coast in Chattogram.
It is divided into two parts. The community living in the western part severely lacked basic civic facilities. There was no proper healthcare or education system there. Children walked eight kilometres to go to a school in the eastern side of the island. So, the number of dropouts was huge.
Ador realised he did not want to confine the tour to just travelling purposes. Rather, he wanted to do something for the community.
"I could see that the children there would eventually turn into fishermen. They would go to the sea. But we wanted to teach them about the world. So, we decided to establish a school there," said Ador.
At first, Ador and his team started a school in two small rooms of an abandoned house. But later they decided it could be turned into a community development hub. In 2011, they started the initial design.
An organisation named Youth for Change intended to start a schooling system for the community. The primary target was to educate children as well as their parents by offering night classes, vocational training, etc. The training was aimed at helping the community earn a better livelihood by manufacturing and selling products in tourist markets.
Keeping in mind their health, a weekly medical camp was also set up in the school. So, it was functioning as more than a school. It was developing a community.
"Instead of building a structure that will serve only education purposes, we thought we could build a community hub that could serve the total community as a whole."
Design of the school
The design incorporates a circular structure with a round courtyard in the middle. On an elevated platform, the circular structure stands. It is made of bamboo frames, a straw-thatched roof, wood and mud. The classrooms are separated by bamboo partitions.
It was built using ropes and strings rather than nails and clamps. The roof is made of local thatch deployed over the bamboo structure, which is resistant to heavy rainfall and reduces high wind force.
The primary objective for developing the building in a rural area is low cost of labour and availability of local resources, such as earth and bamboo.
In the exterior wall, windows were designed from floor to the beam with a one-foot sill level. So, light and ventilation are abundant.
The day school can function fully without any extra artificial energy because of the light pouring into the shaded void entrance to the open courtyard. For the night school, solar panels have been used as the source of electricity.
The idea was to create a social upbringing through this school which will aid the life of the local community. Education, climate, shelter, health and community were the prime concern for the design," said Ador.
Low cost and sustainability
All these features allow the structure to be a low-cost maintenance one.
"We have used locally sourced components like bamboo, straw, mud and wood. The structure was kept simple so that local artisans can work on maintenance. We had to make a real-life model to show to artisans before they built it. They are not that educated, but they have the skills to work with bamboo and straw."
"If you can season bamboo, it will last with its shine for more than 20 years. Straw on the roof will have to be changed every five years, but that would not cost a high amount."
But why a circular structure was preferred? It could have been a solid square one, just like those we see around. But Ador emphasises the relationship between a landscape with its people and nature.
He explained, "Being a coastal area, this is a very windy land. If we build a flat surface, it would face more wind pressure on every square feet. But as it is rounded, there is no sharp edge, and the wind bounces in an angular way. It makes the structure more stable."
In his design, Ador followed that of the traditional homes in our villages or elevated structures of homes in hill tracts. According to him, in our traditional villages, everything is connected with an invisible string.
The home has a relation with the trees around it, and the garden or the vineyard raising to the corrugated roof – everything develops a dialogue within itself.
"We have a courtyard in the middle and the homes surround it. It allows residents to have a common ground for everyone."
He continued, "It is an understanding, a commitment among houses and the people residing in them. That is why we wanted to build a structure that would convey this value of sharing, of having a relationship with the place."
Then in dry season, the stairs could be used as gallery seats. After school, when the elders would join vocational classes, they would be able to sit there.
The school has an open entrance without any obstacle of gates. The entrance goes through the courtyard. It is situated right in the direction of tidal wave, which allows boats to reach the school platform so that students can directly step on it.
Ador says, "We also wanted to give the message that it is open for all. We wanted to have an open space for children and women so that they do not feel restrained to enter the space."
For this particular project, Ador and his team took reference from tribal homes in the hill tracts. These homes are built on an elevated platform so that the portion below can be used for domestic animals. The arrangement also saves them from wild animals and floods.
Ador says, "This is a very simple design but highly functional and sustainable. So, we gave our structure an elevated platform because boat is the only transport to reach Sonadia and you can go there twice a day. This is because during tide, boats can run on water but at other times, it is a mud-like situation that interrupts communication for the rest of the day. During monsoon flood, it can be used as a boat ghat."
But there is another fascinating reason for using elevated platform.
Ador explained, "Sonadia remains inundated for almost four months every year. We could have built a dam that would resist water flow. But we wanted to preserve the natural course and did not want to bend nature for us. It is not ideal. We have to go with nature. This elevated structure allows water to maintain its current while allowing us to continue our school operations."
Sonadia School was Ador's dream project. But due to the lack of encouragement from locals and disbandment of Youth for Change group, he had to abandon the project. This was disappointing and depressing for him.
But he believes it is not always the end result that inspires a change. Sometimes, the journey can do that too. He believes the IAA award has given this project another chance.
It could be an example for present-day architectural trend in Bangladesh, conveying the message that architecture is not only about beautiful buildings. It is a language, a dialogue between the land and the people.
Jamsherpur High School Hostel: Widening the scope for education through design
This building in Kasba of Brahmanbaria has a story that revolves around two generations of a family. Md Shafiqul Islam was a student of Jamsherpur High School in 1961. Later in life, he worked at the Unicef and Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development. He got the President Award for his rural development work in 1975.
He never forgot his responsibilities towards his community and the school he had studied in. After retiring from Unicef, he developed a trust with the money he received and dedicated it for education of unprivileged students of his village in Brahmanbaria.
Later in 2015, he decided to develop a school hostel for students whose parents are poor. He donated a portion of his retirement money to build the dormitory for a small group of children willing to pass the secondary school certificate exams.
The group of students under the supervision of a devoted local school teacher Md Moniruzzaman used to stay and study in a dilapidated house.
It was on a 0.35-acre land donated by Mazharul Haque, another philanthropist and a former student of Jamsherpur High School.
But the school authorities were not capable enough to build a good hostel for students, and here comes our architect Dr Saiful Islam, son of Shafiqul, who wanted to incorporate a design that would be sustainable, low-cost and functional. Like his father, he did not take any money from the school authority or even the community. Saiful is an associate professor at the department of architecture at North South University.
This first phase of construction was meant to accommodate the following – four dorm rooms, a room for hostel superintendent, a common study hall, and common toilets. The next phase would add a dining hall and a kitchen. Moreover, the dormitory has to go beyond a standard physical structure.
Saiful said, "It was designed keeping in mind that its environment has to inspire children, especially those who lost interest in education. Therefore, the design was planned with three major goals in mind – i) to minimise construction cost, ii) to minimise utility and maintenance cost and iii) to showcase a cheerful but humble ambience of the dormitory where local children would reside, study and play under the supervision of a dedicated mentor.
The first goal was achieved by adopting an optimised combination of the following: brick walls topped with corrugated metal roof on metal/wood frames, hinged windows of 3mm glass panes on metal frames, doors made of thin metal sheet on wooden frames, and the rugged beauty of local bricks instead of plaster and paint on the majority of walls.
Speaking about the naked brick wall, Saiful said, "We wanted to have this on purpose. We wanted to convey a message to villagers that all those plasters and colours are not necessary to make a beautiful structure. It reduces cost and at the same time, it is so humble."
The second goal was achieved by adopting the following measures – i) maximisation of passive cooling through both cross ventilation and stack effects, and ii) maximisation of daylight by combining top lighting through light/ventilation chimney, diffused side light from north, and reflected side light from the corridor in south.
This allowed them to reduce electricity cost. Although students and the mentor, Moniruzzaman, say it is a bit chilly and windy during winter as the walls are open for cross ventilation, it is very cool during summer. Besides, the unfolding of the foldable doors next to North-Jali walls prevent the northerly winter wind to enter the dorm rooms.
Five students will be staying in a single room. Some of them will be studying and the rest will be sleeping. Therefore, in terms of daylight, each dorm room is divided in two segments – for study, the translucent chimney above study table allow top lighting without creating glare for the students lying on bed; for sleeping, the dark surrounding of brick wall, red cement-finish floor and bamboo made false ceiling help lower the light level to the adequate amount.
So, the natural light source is placed in a way so that from the ceiling, it flows with the white walls directly to the study table.
The third goal was achieved by careful planning of the site. Despite having little noise from the village road on the eastern border, the study hall was placed next to it. This allowed showcasing of the ambience of studying under a mentor which is crucial for the project objective.
Saiful said, "For village people, it is a beautiful view. Because I wanted them to realise how beautiful it is when young children study and have a journey towards a bright future. That will inspire them to send their children to school as well."
Dorm rooms are placed along the north border so that they have the following: i) cross-ventilation by the prevailing south-east wind, and ii) views towards ponds on both north and south parts of the site.
In the design, toilets are placed in the north-west corner to flush out foul air naturally by the prevailing wind. Shower facilities have been intentionally omitted so that traditional bathing in the pond is sustained and preserved for ecological reason.
Currently, the design is an L-shaped structure. But they have plans to incorporate a dining area and a large kitchen in the future. Students have to go to their homes once a day to bring food. But if there is a kitchen, it will be easier for them to study.
Saiful said, "The project has some significant impacts as it houses the future of our country. I think this kind of project should be implemented. I wanted to uphold its ideas and design to the world because it includes the community.
"It has the essence of connecting the people and the children to their roots and surroundings, providing them with the environment for education and building their psychology with the thought that you do not need much to do something good. All you need is good skills and the innovation to incorporate."
Additional reporting by Azizul Shonchay.