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Ilima Primary School


Ilima, Democratic Republic of the Congo


MASS Design group


African Wildlife Foundation


ARUP Engineers


800sqm (building)

1100sqm (plot)



In 2012, MASS Design Group and the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) partnered to implement the Classroom Africa initiative, a network of conservation schools throughout Africa engineered to mitigate conflicts between people and wildlife and facilitate environmental stewardship. The Ilima Primary School was the first school created by this collaboration.

Ilima is located deep in the jungle of the Congo Basin, six hours by motorcycle from the nearest airstrip. The school serves as a community centre for village-level programming to promote sustainable farming and hunting practices for the mutually beneficial integration of villagers and wildlife. With its innovative design, it is the largest and most complex structure many of the villagers have ever seen. The redesigned classrooms, with capacity of 350 (replacing an old lean-to on this site with room for 90) shelter students from the elements and invite focus and curiosity, leading to higher student attendance and retention rates. Ilima Primary School is a building with virtually zero embodied energy, designed for extreme sustainability, redefining what architecture can aspire to in limited-resource states.

General Arrangement

General Arrangement

For the design, the architects staked out two circles, one for a demonstration and conservation garden, the other for a play area. The school building—two arcs that face away from each other—sits between the two circles. The southern arc contains three classrooms and a library; the northern arc houses three classrooms and an administration space. A suspended canopy roof connects the two wings. Classroom doors are staggered and face an interior hallway as well as the exterior of the building—a strategy that distributes wear and tear on topsoil.

Participatory Process

Impact Design Methodology

The project was initiated by the AWF who offered to provide a "conservation school" if the Ilima community promised to protect 600,000 acres of rainforest from hunting, logging, and agriculture. These problems stem, in part, from poverty and lack of access to education, so it was clear from the beginning that a new school building would have a positive impact. MASS designed the school with a view that the architecture should amplify AWF's conservation efforts.

Community Engagement

MASS's design practice hinges on thorough community engagement at every phase of design and construction, beginning projects with a process of pre-design immersion and working with future occupants to identify unique constraints and local opportunities. Forums were held with community leaders, residents, teachers, and students through all steps of design and construction in order to create a finished product with, not for, the community.

Local Fabrication

Ilima has a condition of incredible remoteness, which made it essential that the design did not rely on any imported materials or labour. The school was built entirely by 160-170 people from Ilima and the surrounding villages of Bolima and Lotulo. Labour-intensive processes of hand production were prioritised in order to create opportunities for employment and craft and inspire a sense of pride and ownership of the structure.

Capacity Building

Construction of the Ilima School was a great opportunity for skills-development in the region. The community had virtually no experience reading construction documents, so MASS developed colour-coded graphic representation that allowed often illiterate workers to assemble the building's complex roof frame. MASS also trained two Congolese architecture fellows in high-impact design construction methods, granting them the responsibility and leadership roles they needed to develop professionally.

Research by Design

The architects optimised the construction process by applying vernacular materials in creative ways. Material research and innovation was undertaken to develop and enhance traditional techniques, rather that to prescribe new foreign ones, resulting in a resilient and highly adaptive facility with a low ecological footprint.

Particpatory Process
Impact Design Methodology
Immersion in Context
Local Fabrication
Capacity Building
Research by Design

Sustainable Materials

The issue with using outside source materials is that eventually, sometime down the line, that material will erode and if more cannot be sourced, then the building will ultimately turn into a ruin. Due to difficulty of accessing Ilima by road, the school was purposefully designed and built with 99% of materials sourced from within 10km of the site, so that it could be easily maintained well into the future

Mud Brick

Walls are made of sun-dried adobe brick, comprised of earth from termite mounds, which creates a stronger cohesion. They are plastered with two layers of a clay-sand mix, white clay rendering, and two coats of boiled palm oil, the last ingredient  - an innovation that makes the bricks more resistant to water. They sit on a laterite and compacted-soil foundation.

Hardwood Roof Structure

MASS collaborated with local conservationists to identify appropriate trees within 6km of site, which were hand-sawn, planed, and crafterd into Lifake tropical hardwood trusses, roof framing, furniture and architectural details of the final facility. Lifake performs well in outdoor environments so treatment was not required.

Hardwood Shingles

Local builders and MASS developed a method for transforming local trees by hand into durable and replaceable wood shingles. While wood shingles are not common in the Congo, the architects knew they would be easier to replace and maintain than a metal roof that had to be brought in from somewhere else. The innovation has been repeated on numerous local houses, creating a micro-economy for the community.


The doors are made from Lifake hardwood frames with a peeled Lilian vine weaving which was dried before use to avoid shrinking.

Sustainable Materials
Hardwood Shingles