NPR station KCLU recently picked up a story about a school I’m providing pro bono design services for in Nicaragua. It’s part of my work as a volunteer for Architects Without Borders and is for GOCARE, Inc. a non-profit that provides youth and adult education. My co-lead on the project is Brooklyn-based architect Lynn Gaffney who is also a good friend of mine from graduate school. Together we are designing the 7,100-square-foot Learning Campus in El Madrono, Nicaragua. When it opens in 2017, the campus will allow the non-profit organization to expand its core mission to help people move out of extreme poverty and into a successful future through education.

GOCARE is a non-governmental organization recognized by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education as an exemplary model for youth and adult education courses. To date, the organization has graduated more than 3,800 students from its programs. Its “Come Back To Give Back” philosophy encourages college students to become mentors and leaders within their own Nicaraguan community and help give back by helping people move out of.

The El Madrono facility offers a new opportunity for the organization to offer certified programs. Previously GOCARE leased space from the government and was not allowed to charge for programs. The non-profit purchased this site so that they can offer vocational and advanced programs where the students will earn INATEC (Innovation y Prestigio Tecnologico Nacional) certification. GOCARE will continue to offer free programs as well as a preschool. The certified programs will allow GOCARE to charge for services on a sliding scale, depending on the students’ ability to pay. This will help immensely with their ability to hire certified instructors and the sustainability of their programs.”

The campus will be composed of seven buildings with four classrooms for children, three classrooms for adults, a computer center, a library and administrative offices. The buildings will surround a central open courtyard. A plaza and amphitheater steps at the front of the building have access to a kitchen in the vocational classroom and can be used for community gatherings or rented for weddings and other occasions.

Our design creates a series of platforms and structures that step up the hillside. A covered arcade links the separate buildings and engages both the courtyard and sheltered outdoor classrooms. The spaces between classroom buildings allow views and ventilation into the courtyard, hold accessible ramps and are secured with custom wrought iron screens.

My co-lead Lynn believes we were lucky to receive such clear requirements and feedback along the way from GOCARE. Their daily experience at their current learning centers informed all aspects of our design. The topography of the site inspired a dynamic campus that will offer varied spatial experiences and social interaction each time students move through its bounded space.

The project incorporates local building materials and construction methods. The exterior walls will be striated brick with a concrete bond beam. In some areas a random, open-brick arrangement will provide ventilation. Corrugated metal-clad clerestory roofs allow daylight to penetrate the center of the classrooms and cane ceilings will absorb sound.

We wanted to find ways to involve local craftspeople and realized that the wrought-iron screens between the buildings are a great opportunity for a variety of artisans to contribute their own designs and accent colors on the doors and other elements are drawn from Nicaraguan folk paintings.