Sketches, Notes, & Quotes

Drawing in Dissan

Drawing in Dissan

Drawing in Dissan

Design sketch

“Because no two men make the same decisions in similar circumstances, we say that men’s characters differ.  Decision making, choosing, is another word for self-expression- or, perhaps better, is the necessary prelude to all self-expression.

A conscious decision may be reached either by consulting tradition or by logical reasoning and scientific analysis.  Both processes should yield the same result, for tradition embodies the conclusions of many generations’ practical experiments with the same problem, while scientific analysis is simply the organized observation of the phenomena of the problem.”

-Hassan Fathy

“Tradition is the social analogy of personal habit, and in art has the same effect, of releasing the artist from distracting and inessential decisions so that he can give his whole attention to the vital ones.”

-Hassan Fathy

“Schools began with a man under a tree who did not know he was a teacher, sharing his realizations with a few others who did not know they were students” 

-Louis Kahn

Lycée Soumabougou: Design Process

Working model: Aerial image of proposed school for Soumabougou

Working model: North Facade


Classrooms are arranged in a linear manner from east to west to capitalize on the linear path of the sun.  This strategy maximizes the surface area that can be used for capturing indirect light while minimizing the area that would receive the most heat gain.  The main facade includes a gathering area, which is located on the north face to block light during the summer months (around the orange line on the sun schedule pictured below).

Sun Schedule for Markala, Mali


Trees are durable architectural solutions that usually outlast the architecture itself”

The Soumabougou school deviates from the standard design model for Malian schools by eliminating the porch.  The blocks that are spared by removing the porch structure can in turn be used to make slightly raised planters for a row of trees in front of the school.  The planter’s edges can be used as seats (along with the outward facing benches built into the school’s main facade), creating an outdoor gathering area that can be shared with the public.  Like a porch, the trees will shade the main structure while establishing a doorstep for the community.  Because most of life in Mali is lived outside, this area serves the important roles as a community gathering space and a transitional zone between the bright exterior and dark interior conditions.

Trees are also important to the school’s design because they help prevent desertification.  Trees help mitigate soil erosion by breaking up the winds that sweep across the sahel.  The planting of trees outside of the building will help improve the air quality within the school while helping to stabilize the surrounding natural environment.  This is particularly important in Soumabougou, where our site is surrounded on all sides by fields of Sorghum.

There is also the opportunity to integrate living fences of jatropha into the design.  The jatropha would provide a renewable source of biofuel to the community while mitigating soil erosion and warding off unwanted animals


The school’s structure is comprised of a series of “u” shaped walls.  The “u” shape lends stability to the structure, which allows for more generous openings.  This form also creates recessed areas for windows, which are therefore protected from direct sunlight and wind-driven rain.  The unadorned rhythm on the two long faces is emphasized by light and shadow, a quality of Malian architecture which I observed and have come to admire.  The interlocking rhythm of the opposite walls (pictured in the floor plan and image below) allows for each class to have a window adjacent to the chalkboard for better visibility and a door at the front of the classroom (a criteria suggested during interviews with Malian teachers).

The student’s perspective: the head of the classroom includes the main entrance (so that the room fills from the front) and large windows for natural lighting

The Soumabougou school is designed with a shed (or slant) roof to  minimize the materials required to support the corrugated aluminum.  The school’s structure is made entirely of earth block and steel because wood is susceptible to termite damage and is rarely harvested in a sustainable manner.  The additional height created by the shed roof creates a clerestory that is filled by compressed stabilized earth blocks laid on their long, narrow sides with their broad sides exposed (bricks in this orientation are called “shiners”).  This creates a perforated surface that mimics the decorative blocks that are popular in Malian architecture.  The shiner courses also play a vital role in the natural ventilation of the school by allowing hot air to exhaust through the highest point of the roof.  These tall window bays will allow a good deal of light to reflect off the shiny interior of the corrugated aluminum roof.

Working model: the rear of the school.

Working model: main facade with tree

Existing School Analysis


Most Malian schools are arranged in a similar manner.  Rectangular classrooms are traditionally placed in a line that runs from east to west.  This is a passive solar design strategy that capitalizes on the nearly linear path of the sun by minimizing the surface area that receives the most heat gain and maximizing the surface area that can be used to capture indirect light and cooler air.  The linear shape of most Malian schools also ensures ample cross-ventilation within every learning space.  Small windows covered by operable metal shutters penetrate the lengths of the walls.  Most of the schools that I observed had no electricity to light their dark interiors.  Like most homes, there is a step or lip at every entrance to help prevent dust or unsavory critters from joining the students.

Most of the Malian schools that I had the opportunity to see had porches on their facade.  The long, shaded entrances usually appeared as attachments to the school’s main structure.  Porches tended to be so narrow that they resisted the kind of informal interaction that they were originally designed to nurture.  Some buildings, such as Dissan’s older school, include seats built into the porch.  Unfortunately, the benches outside of this school  are on the outer wall of the porch, forcing users to look inwards at the wall about a meter away from their faces.  The porch’s foundation helps act as a sort of skirt for the main building by preventing the primary foundation from being damaged by heavy rains, which can cut deep drainage trenches in the earth.  If aligned correctly, the porch can also help block direct light from entering the classroom (because the sun gently curves to the south for part of each year).  All of the schools that I visited had separate roofs for their porches.  Because most waking moments are spent outside (and preferably in shade), the porch is an important place that can at times become a doorstep for the community.  The shade of a mature tree can be equally if not more effective than many porches I saw.


Most schools are built using little or no wood because of problems with termites and sustainable harvesting.  Classrooms are entirely composed of acoustically reflective materials.  The corrugated aluminum roofs, metal shutters, and hard adobe floors and walls make hearing very difficult in group settings.  During the rainy season class has to be stopped because of the deafening noise of the downpour on the  aluminum sheets.  Slices of light can also be observed at some of the roof’s structural connections, indicating that the students are more than likely to get a little wet when it rains.  The schools usually use parapets to help hold down their shed or gable roofs.  If the parapets do not terminate on the low side of the roof, they are punctured by long, often charismatic and/or decorative spouts.  Cracks commonly form along the bottom edge of the parapets.  Smaller buildings in Malian villages usually hold down their aluminum roofs with large rocks that are simply placed upon the metal sheets.  I have come to understand that a less leaky corrugated aluminum roof is preferable to a traditional thatched roof (despite its advantage of thermal mass).  The prevalence of corrugated aluminum over thatched roofing may be partly attributed to the fact that thatching requires frequent maintenance.  Glass is rarely used on private or public buildings in rural Mali.  Finding appropriately sized panes may be as challenging as finding a way to protect them from the soccer balls and stones that will inevitably be hurled their way.

Interior Arrangements

Classrooms are arranged around a chalkboard at the head of the space.  A slightly raised platform along this wall allows the teacher to more easily command his students.  Additional space for the teacher is preferable so that he or she can have a desk overlooking the class.  Desks are long, heavy pieces of furniture made of wood and steel.  The desks are extra long so that they can seat 2-4 students at a time.  I observed that the desks are almost all the same inconvenient size, which is too small for teenage students and too large for younger ones.  They usually have no storage space, which would be particularly important for the teacher’s desk.  The most successful classrooms that I visited had windows near the chalkboard and entrances near the front of the class.  Interiors painted with light colors were far more functional that those with darker palettes.  Due to a lack of educational materials such as writing utensils and paper, most learning is done through observation.


Shutters and doors are often the only decorative elements of Malian architecture.  Their level of detail, reflectivity, and color starkly contrast the monolithic earth colored walls that they penetrate.  Both shutters and doors have the responsibility of admitting as much natural light as possible into the classroom while protecting students from the dust outside.  Because each building usually has hand-made metal shutters, I had the opportunity to observe several designs that attempted to achieve a balance between these two criteria in a variety of ways.

Windows in homes are very small for security and functional purposes.  Their doors are often given an extra layer of protection from the sun and dust by a semi-transparent textile hung inside of the doorway.  Schools with securable shutters have larger windows (though they are still relatively small).  Malian teachers informed me that dust has the greatest impact on their classroom’s air quality during the rainy season, when winds pick up so significantly before downpours that they are forced to seal their classrooms and teach in the dark.  Because of this, many shutters are solid pieces of metal.  Others had only 3 horizontal slats, like a window on WWI tank, for letting light in.  The more successful schools that I visited had fixed louvers on their doors and shutters.

Site Analysis: Soumabougou

Soumabougou is a small fishing village to the north of Bamako.  The village is approached from a dirt road that heads west until intersecting the Niger river, which the village is built around.  The school’s site is along this dirt road, slightly removed from the village itself.  The site is a large, rectangular, clearing surrounded by sorghum fields.  Part of the area is currently used by the children of the village as a soccer pitch.  The land appears to be entirely flat for as far as the eye can see, though the ground gently slopes towards the village and the Niger river (west).  Mature trees dot the landscape around Soumabougou.  The scarcity of the trees draws the eye towards the hardly obstructed horizon that vanishes beneath the foliage.  The natural horizontality of the vistas on site can hardly be captured with a regular photograph.

The variety of colors in  nature lends a dramatic touch to the regions aesthetic. The orange-red ground recedes into a band of green foliage which subtly turns blue in the distance due to atmospheric distortion.  At this point the blue-green of the trees gently transitions into the rich blue African sky, completing the broad range of color which can be perceived almost anywhere in Mali.

The village itself is a composition of flat and low-sloped roof buildings.  Shorter exterior walls connect these singular structures to form family compounds as well as the outer of edge of the village. This configuration helps protect the villagers from the sun, dust, and unwanted critters or animals.  Buildings are unpainted, which emphasizes their geometry while enabling their bare walls to become canvases for light and shadow.  The only applied colors can be found on doors, shutters, clothing, and/or everyday objects.  In addition to sorghum, jatropha can also thrive on-site in Soumabougou.  Jatropha can be instrumental in mitigating soil erosion by using “living fences” around the school area.  This tactic is very important because 98% of Mali is subject to desertification (FAO AGL 2003).  The plant is also toxic, so it may also be used around the sorghum fields to prevent unwanted animals from trampling crops.  Most importantly, jatropha can be a source of biofuel for the people of Soumabougou.

Weather Data*

*Table shows weather patterns in Markala, Mali (the nearest large village to Soumabougou)