Unique Architecture Program Designs, Builds, Serves

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on the reCover project:

April 6, 2009 — When Anselmo Canfora, assistant professor of architecture at the University of Virginia, began to design transitional disaster relief structures with students in his studio class two years ago, he couldn't have imagined the eventual impact of their efforts.

The course has evolved into a full program — called Initiative recover — with projects that reach as far as Africa.

Initiative reCOVER emphasizes humanitarian design principles. The general idea is to provide free design expertise to organizations that assist people in need. Through the program, Canfora and his students are designing both temporary and permanent structures, from short-term housing to assist with global disaster relief to a primary school in Uganda.

Canfora views one of his main responsibilities as a professor as bridging the gap between academic design problems and applied research. He engages students each spring term with Studio reCOVER, an architectural design studio component of Initiative reCOVER.

In 2008, Studio reCOVER partnered with non-profit Building Tomorrow to realize the Ugandan school project. Canfora and several students followed up with a January Term trip to Gita, Uganda this year to check on the school's construction. The Building Tomorrow Academy, to be completed in April, will serve 325 children and will be the first permanent public school structure in Gita.

Before even beginning to design the school, students spent a considerable amount of time learning about local culture and building methods as well as researching the environment, politics and community. Canfora stresses the importance of understanding context in a project like this in order to counter the tendency to impose Western values or building practices and ultimately to help designers make more informed decisions and facilitate local stakeholder trust.

The students faced some real-world design challenges and limitations. "The school has no mechanical systems," Canfora said. "There's no water, no sewage, no electricity — because of the lack of municipal utilities to the building site, we sited and designed the building using passive design strategies."

Studio reCOVER was able to fundamentally improve some of the construction and structural detailing of the school building, Canfora said. As a result, the classrooms will have better ambient light and air quality.

Ideally, Canfora would like the school to have access to electricity and potable water as well. Through a unique partnership with Studio reCOVER and the Engineering in Context program, led by Dana Elzey, associate professor of materials science and engineering, a solar energy and water filtration system was also designed for the school. Canfora is now trying to secure further funding to enable this second phase of the project.

Initiative reCOVER recently received both University and private funding in order to build its own infrastructure. A new and improved fabrication facility will enable the implementation of more sophisticated fabrication processes to improve the quality of future design/build projects.

This spring, Studio reCOVER is collaborating with Charlottesville's Building Goodness Foundation to design and build a transitional disaster relief shelter prototype with Gulf Coast hurricane victims in mind. This summer and fall, students will continue to develop a working prototype using the new fabrication facility and equipment.

The new facility represents a significant gain for Initiative reCOVER and the School of Architecture in general.

"It allows us to infuse our program and our physical plant with new technology, which is what I believe to be a very critical aspect of an evolving architecture curriculum," Canfora said. "It's important that we incorporate, as best as we can, new and emerging technologies, methods and techniques of designing and building to help advance our research — to help advance the discipline of architecture."

— By Melissa Maki