Mzuzu University Medical Centre, Malawi

Overview

The Mzuzu University Medical Centre in Malawi was designed by Feilden Foundation volunteer architects in a two-phase project that commenced in 2004. While the initial brief specifically called for a new health clinic, the wider objective of the project was to design and prototype an affordable alternative to the university’s then practice of importing expensive and environmentally inappropriate prefabricated buildings.

 

The architects’ aim therefore was to provide the university with their own modular self-build system which would utilise locally sourced and sustainably produced materials, and more significantly employ and develop the skills of local people. Phase 1 was completed in 2005, providing the university with an initial pavilion building housing the main entrance and waiting area, consultation rooms, and an HIV and malaria testing laboratory with associated services, staff offices, kitchen and toilet facilities. This Phase was also used to develop and refine the modular “kit of parts” construction system which is capable of being fabricated and erected by a small team of artisans without the need for cranes or scaffolding.

 

Phase 2 of the project was instigated 10 years later to relieve pressure from the existing clinic. Located to the south to create a linear circulation spine, the new building adapts and enhances the sustainable modular construction system developed during Phase 1. It houses a larger and more welcoming entrance area, additional examination and treatment rooms and an autoclaving facility. Both simple micro-budget buildings provide an environmentally sensitive approach to design, utilising various passive design principles while minimising the use of cement and hardwoods.

Geographical and Topographical Context 

Malawi sits south of the equator within the tropic of Capricorn. It largely has two seasons, dry and wet. The dry season runs from May to October. Within this, May to August is a cooler time of year with bright sunshine and fresh evenings. Temperatures start to rise in September and remain high throughout the rainy season, which runs from November to April.

 

It was in response to these changing climatic conditions that some of the key initial design decisions were made. Incomplete buildings often fall prey to the heavy rainy season, therefore the softwood timber frame solution was selected to enable the roof to be lifted into place early on in the construction process, ensuring that subsequent infill construction trades could carry on underneath protected and undeterred by thunder storms. Limiting the structural module to ensure the longest piece of timber needed is only 3.6m allows the use of smaller tree sections that can be easily transported to and stored on site.

 

The choice of soil stabilised blocks for infilling the frame was in direct response to tackling deforestation and climate change within the Malawian context. Traditionally, clay fired bricks are used in construction, and these rely heavily on a firing process that typically uses large volumes of hardwood. It is this process that has been the main contributor to large scale deforestation in Malawi. It is hoped that advocating the use of stabilised soil blocks will filter through the local community, offering a more sustainable and less climatically harmful masonry construction solution.

Sustainability Impact 

Although completed before the implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in 2016, both buildings

pre-empt and offer opportunities for addressing these goals, namely:

By focussing on the use of locally sourced materials and construction techniques, the scheme aims to provide and promote local employment and job opportunities

Bioclimatic Design Principles 

Designing in response to the dry to wet and hot to cold extremes of Mzuzu’s climate was challenging. Five key approaches were adopted to reduce heat gains and maximise cooling within and around the buildings:

 

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Solar Shading The positioning of the buildings was calculated to keep the clinic as cool as possible, and in response to the location of large deciduous trees that populate the site providing large areas of shade. Each of the buildings, including the future Phase 3 ward, are orientated on an east-west axis with openings predominantly to the north and south in response to the daily movement of the sun. Large roof overhangs shade the north and south facades from summer solar gain from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, and the buildings are offset from one another to ensure the free-flowing movement of air between them.

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