What Uganda Taught Me About Sustainability — and Life

By Ellen Mitchell-Kozack

I’ve traveled a fair amount, but I’d never been to Africa. So when I got the chance to go to Uganda for the opening of our first Citizen HKS project — a passively designed maternity unit in Kachumbala, located in the rural east about an eight hour drive from the capital Kampala — I grabbed it.

Leaving my 2-year old wasn’t easy. And days before departure, we got notification of a Marburg virus outbreak (causing fever, hemorrhaging and highly lethal, like Ebola) in the Mount Elgon region, about 60 kilometers from where we’d be staying. I couldn’t share that detail with my husband until I returned home.  Sorry, Dave.

Yet I was eager to pack my bags. As someone who has devoted her career to sustainable design, I’d like to think that I have a fairly good grasp of the pillars we wrap design around: environmental footprint, global warming and climate change. I truly wanted to see first-hand whether my contributions to the early phase design for the building’s program, siting and orientation made a difference in a place where there’s no running water and an unreliable electricity supply. Straddling the equator, Uganda’s tropical, humid climate hovers at 80 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.

What was unique about this project? There was no mention of LEED scorecards or the added cost of improved mechanical systems — those bells and whistles were certainly out of the budget. However, the end game was significantly more important than any plaque on the wall — it would determine whether the building was able to fulfill its most basic function for the women of Kachumbala.

Through the course of design, we assumed there would be no electricity or water to either construct the building or to operate it. In the existing ward, the two small, windowless maternity rooms put the staff in the unfortunate position of either choosing to close the door to offer the patient privacy, or open it to bring in light and air. We heard wrenching stories of midwives delivering babies using only the light from their phones to guide them.

To address this issue, we carefully studied climatic conditions, including prevailing breezes and sun angles to maximize natural light and cross ventilation. The new design includes exterior corridors shielded by locally produced terra-cotta rain screens that provide abundant natural light and air while affording a higher level of privacy and security. The interior rooms were fitted with clerestory windows that promote cross-ventilation and daylight but restrict views. In theory at least, these early design moves would help overcome some of the challenges due to lack of electricity by providing good light quality, thermal comfort and passive infection control.

Over the course of three years while working on this Citizen HKS project, I heard many stories about the people of Kachumbala — the mothers and babies, midwives and community members building the maternity unit. I was increasingly drawn to this small rural place and its people, which has come to mean much more to me than a dot on a map, 8,500 miles away. I was personally and professionally “all in.”

Then in November 2017, as I busily scraped paint off corridor floors in the newly constructed maternity unit — set to open the next day with a grand community celebration — I realized a dream come true. That afternoon was hot and sticky, but I physically experienced something wonderfully cool that every architect should:  that designing with passive performance in mind really does result in a well-ventilated, beautifully lit and thermally comfortable space. My experience wasn’t just theoretical this time: amazingly, people were coming in to the building to keep cool, not staying out of it.

These passive strategies were bolstered by on-site systems to provide water and electricity. Three rainwater-harvesting cisterns supply water to the only flushing toilets for miles, as well as sinks in the delivery suites. The old maternity unit had neither. In addition, a small photovoltaic array was positioned on the roof and provides a consistent source of electricity to the critical function areas of the building, namely the delivery suites and a small refrigeration unit that is used for medicine. Battery backup ensures that service will not be interrupted when the sun isn’t shining. When you add it all up, this project is about 95 percent locally sourced (building materials, labor and equipment), net zero energy and net zero water consumption. It is truly a living building whether it earns a sustainability certification or not.

Both the building itself and my visit to Uganda in general got me thinking about  consumption, and what it means to live on earth with a light environmental footprint. This came into startlingly sharp focus when I stepped out of my day-to-day world filled with consumerism, excess and waste, and journeyed to Kachumbala, where even those considered to be wealthy have very little by Western standards.

In rural Uganda, paid work can be scarce and most families survive off the food they can grow in their gardens and the animals they raise for milk and meat. They know where their food comes from and they don’t use more than they need. There is a strong sense of community. Because they have so little, nothing goes to waste and they repurpose what we would consider trash. There is integrity to this way of life that I find lacking in my own culture of big agriculture, an obesity epidemic and endless consumption. Life in Kachumbala is in balance with the surrounding ecosystem.

Traveling to Kachumbala also gave me a better understanding of the very real impacts that climate change is having on our planet. This topic is finally gaining traction on an international scale, but its physical impact on me personally is limited to extreme weather events that are varying degrees of inconvenient — nothing more.  In conversations with the local workers who built the maternity unit, we quickly understood just how vulnerable they are when it comes to unpredictable weather patterns. Living in a tropical region with fertile soil, for generations they have been able to reliably grow a plentiful variety of fruits, vegetables and grains. This assures that most everyone will have enough to eat, even if little else. However, when the “rains fail” as they did this past spring, famine instantly becomes reality as the cost of food skyrockets. It is populations such as these that are truly living on the edge, and will pay the most immediate and biggest price for our collective disregard for fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. The sad irony is that the people who consume the least will undoubtedly suffer the most.

My journey to Kachumbala fundamentally changed my perspective on the world and my unique place in it. Spending time with the people of this far away community showed me that opportunities I take for granted such as access to jobs, education and health care are hard to come by in Uganda. In Kachumbala, people hold a sense of belonging and connectedness to community that is increasingly missing for me back home. I think that connectedness to a greater whole — to one another and the earth — leads to happiness and fulfillment in a way that mindless consumerism never will.

Ellen Mitchell-Kozack

Ellen Mitchell-Kozack is a Principal at HKS and Director of Sustainability and Citizen HKS, the firm's public interest design initiative that she founded. As a sustainability leader, she has managed more than 40 LEED projects and works with various clients and HKS teams to minimize environmental effects of architectural projects.