united➃design was founded last summer while working on an incredible project, the Gohar Khatoon Girls’ School, located in Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan. The project is funded by the Janet W. Ketcham Foundation, and implemented by Sahar and the Afghanistan American Friendship Foundation. What makes this project so special is that it is one of the few schools in the country to be designed by an architect.1 The Afghan Ministry of Education takes the construction of schools very seriously, and all new projects must comply with the International Building Code (IBC). Unfortunately, there isn’t much attention given to the actual design of these facilities, and pretty much all schools are built from generic plan sets that can be downloaded from the Ministry of Education. This system has been very effective in setting life-safety standards across the country, but there’s a lot of room for improvement. One firm whose work we admire, MASS Design Group, frequently uses the word dignity to describe what good design can give to those in need. Design can make a big difference in how a school functions and is experienced by the students–we are firm believers that everyone deserves to live and learn in a comfortable, and uplifting environment.
But many children going to school in Afghanistan do so in less than comfortable conditions, as most institutions are not heated due to lack of funds for fuel. Therefore, comfort has become a top priority for the project, and the sun will be the primary heat source for the school. The main staircase in each classroom block creates a “sunspace” that captures heat in order to keep the classrooms warm in winter. Large seasonal doors at the end of the sunspaces are designed to be opened in the warmer months, allowing cool breezes to move through the building. The school’s south-facing facade has also been designed to control sunlight in the summer and the winter.
Another important aspect of the project has been community involvement. Recently, we’ve been preparing the groundwork for a competition that will be an open call for local women to submit a mural design for the sunspace walls. The students will also be able to participate, and we are excited to see their proposals for the project.
The Gohar Khaton Girls’ School sets a positive precedent for future schools in the city. When it is finished, it will provide 3500 women and girls an education that they would not have had access to just a few short years ago. Ayni Education International estimates that for every girl educated in their schools, seven to eleven family members are also positively affected. Schools touch the lives of many people, and the opportunities offered by these institutions should be designed to reach their greatest potential.
1. Our team supported the head architect on this project, Robert Hull, the founding partner of the Miller Hull Partnership in Seattle. We were deeply saddened by his passing this past April, 2014.