Architecture Students Help Design a Girls' School in Ghana

Children play in a modern schoolyard in rural Ghana
A rendering of the Voices of African Mothers Girls' Academy in Sogakope, Ghana. rendering / provided
A child and a woman play with gravel at a construction site
Anamika Goyal (M.Arch. '17) and a child interact at the construction site for the school. photo / provided
A rendering of the Voices of African Mothers Girls' Academy in Sogakope, Ghana. rendering / provided Anamika Goyal (M.Arch. '17) and a child interact at the construction site for the school. photo / provided
News
October 20, 2017

About 5,287 miles from Ithaca, near the banks of Ghana's Volta River, a primary and junior high school for girls is rising from the collective imagination and brain power of the Cornell University Sustainable Design (CUSD) team, under the university's Systems Engineering program.

With a thoughtful blueprint and an allegiance to sustainability, the Voices of African Mothers Girls' Academy soon will educate, nurture, and inspire about 500 girls annually, beginning in early 2018.

"It's not just concrete blocks. We're not just putting up a building. Care went into the building's design for education; it was designed for the students," said Claudia Nielsen '18, who led the Sustainability Education Ghana project team with Arielle Tannin '18. Voices of African Mothers, a United Nations–affiliated nongovernmental agency, funded the project.

On a 200-acre tract in Sogakope, Ghana, the group sought collaboration to design a school that could allow children to advance economically.

Through the networking of Sam Ritholtz '14, who led Big Red Relief as an undergraduate, CUSD connected to Nana-Fosu Randall, president and founder of Voices of African Mothers.

In the summer of 2015, Nielsen, Tannin, and Daniel Preston (B.Arch. '17) traveled to Ghana, funded by Engaged Cornell.

Team members conducted in-depth interviews with students and stakeholders to tailor the school to their needs. More than two years later, with blueprints in hand, local contractors are building the academy, which is expected to be finished in phases. It may be occupied as soon as January 2018.

In building a school an ocean away, the Cornell group faced hundreds of challenges. The team members, all with different talents, morphed into a tightly organized group and functioned as a unit, rather than separately, Nielsen and Tannin said. This semester, as Tannin and Nielsen finish their undergraduate work, Ana Moura-Cook '19 became the project director.

One important school feature: a quiet tin roof. When it rains, tin roofs are notoriously noisy, making it hard for students to pay attention. The CUSD group solved the problem by baffling the roof with locally sourced coconut shell fiber, in compliance with the local fire ordinances and building code.

The school will take advantage of wind for cooling, and the roof is oriented to prevent dust from rushing into the classrooms. It will feature learning gardens, a neighborhood health center (for easy community access), and natural light.

In addition to Preston, fellow architecture students Anamika Goyal (M.Arch. '17) and Isabella Hübsch (B.Arch. '19) helped develop the plans, and student engineers conducted analyses, calculating truss and beam loads, assessing structural integrity, all while meeting frequently with architects and engineers from Tetra Tech of Ithaca.

The academy's importance cannot be understated. Goyal spoke about the Ghana school project last spring at the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women gathering in New York City.

Goyal — in a seemingly tiny but crucial detail — designed the bathrooms at the school. "So many girls in developing countries drop out of school around age 10 to 12, right when they begin menstruation," she said. "Providing a safe, clean, adequately private bathroom facility that can help girls stay in school will have a tremendously positive ripple effect at a national level."

Excerpted from an article written by Blaine Friedlander for the Cornell Chronicle.