NJIT Grad Designs a School in Guatemala

Sara Nordstrom, a recent architecture graduate, designed a school in Guatemala.

Sara Nordstrom uses architecture to help people.

She sees herself as an architect and an activist, two fields that might seem mutually exclusive. But for her, the two are one. To her, architects have a social responsibility to design better lives for people; to use their skills to improve life for the disadvantaged, both here in America and in the developing world.

And ever since Sara earned a master's degree in architecture in 2009, that’s precisely what she’s done. Most recently, she designed an elementary school for a small village -- Santa Maria de Jesus – in the mainly Mayan highlands of Guatemala.  It took her three years of volunteer work – she traveled often to the village and worked with a local civil engineer and an architect -- and the school opened in April (here's a slideshow of the design and build)..

The building is three floors high and has eight classrooms (Pre K-6th grade), a library, a computer room, and a cafeteria that doubles as a community room. It has offices for teachers and naturally-lighted reading nooks for students. It has an interior play courtyard that opens to the sky.  And perhaps most notably the building is  sustainable; it has a rainwater catchment system and grey-water recycling that makes it more than 80 percent independent of scarce municipal water.

Guatemala ranks lowest in Latin America for basic language and math proficiency.  And it’s especially bleak for Mayan girls: Only 10 percent of them attend school.

The school Sara designed is named Escuela Kemna’oj, which in Mayan dialect means “weaving knowledge.” And to her mind, the building is more than a schoolhouse. It’s a dream house.

“Designing the school was the most important thing I’ve ever done,” she says, “and there are no words to describe the joy I felt when it opened. Education can be the way out of poverty for the kids of Santa Maria, and the school building itself can inspire both teachers and students. That was in the forefront of my mind when I designed it.  I wanted to send a message to the kids; that they are valued; that this joyous, bright building -- this special place -- was built just for them."

In this interview, Sara talks about the school and how it was built. She also talks about her education at the College of Architecture and Design, whose professors instilled in her the notion of the socially conscious architect -- the designer who builds homes, schools, clinics and shelters for communities in need. 

Did you design the school  for a nonprofit group?

In 2009 I volunteered to work as a homebuilder for From Houses to Homes (FHTH) a non-profit in Guatemala that aims to alleviate poverty in the highlands, a largely Mayan area, by building houses, clinics and schools.  In 2010 the executive director of the group asked me to design a new school building because the students had outgrown the rented space they were using.  In addition to the  skilled and dedicated staff who work closely with the community, the organization also has donors that support the school. It’s a private school that offers a progressive, Montessori-like education, as well as two meals a day, but the children don’t pay tuition. It’s a great education and it’s free. 

Are there many architects doing this kind of work?

There is a vast international network of architects dedicated to bringing design to communities in need, whether that need is the result of natural disasters like typhoons, or the result of man-made tragedies like war and poverty. It is the movement of architecture away from a tradition of exclusivity and toward grassroots work on homes, schools, clinics, shelters, etc.  I think of Kemna'oj as a part of this movement. Designers have the skills to offer effective, powerful, sustainable, affordable, and beautiful building solutions that reinforce social justice and human rights. I want to continue to offer my services to under served populations, especially by supporting local designers who are best equipped to solve the problems facing their communities.

Did designing the school challenge you?

I was excited, and a little scared, I certainly had never done anything like this before and I wanted to get everything right!  That's why it was important to blend my own expertise with local expertise and input from the teachers and the community.  I did not take the opportunity for granted. Throughout the process, my skills as an architect were tested.  For example, the project reinforced the importance of graphic communication.  I am a proficient Spanish speaker, but still the most effective means of communication between myself and the local engineer and architect was exchanging drawings.  We would do sketches on the spot for clarification and to solve issues, and we’d rely on them even more heavily when my Spanish vocabulary failed me.  I also built a model of the school that proved to be so much more important than I anticipated - it was used to clarify the design to the contractor, to gain the teachers' approval, to explain the new building to the kids and to encourage donations from volunteers.       

How did you feel when the school was completed?

It felt surreal when it finally came to fruition – when the school opened -- and I was there at the opening ceremony. The design was all about nourishing the kids and providing them with a bright, inspiring, healthy learning environment and I think it achieved that in many ways. On opening day, the children looked astonished.  It was a great experience and I’d love to have the chance again. It’s exactly the kind of project to which I would like to devote my career.  

What was the opening day ceremony like?

It was a beautiful ceremony. The mayor of the village came, and an official from the Department of Education came.  Many From Houses to Homes supporters and volunteers were there, too, and the teachers, the staff and the parents. The children performed and danced and a priest blessed the school.  Everyone toured the building and got to see how beautifully the teachers had decorated the classrooms - every student had a little animal sign with his or her name on it -- different animals for each grade. The building felt alive! It was a very joyous day.  It was especially poignant because it was one of the last events that the Founder of From Houses to Homes, Joe Collins, would experience with his beloved organization.  He lost his fight against cancer less than three months after the school opened.            

You and your wife also built a house for a local Mayan family, right?

Yes, my wife, Annie Liontas, and I built a small house for a local family. The family has two daughters and we sponsor the older daughter, Joseline. We send $60/month to help cover the cost of her Pre-K schooling (her sister, Mirza is not old enough for school). We chose Joseline because we built her family’s house in 2009, when she was just a toddler. All the houses that From Houses to Homes constructs are 13' x 19' concrete block with a metal roof, a window, a locking door and a concrete floor.  The family picks the colors for the inside and outside. My dad also paid to have a simple rainwater catchment system attached. There was a party on the last day of the build, when the keys were ceremoniously handed over to the family.

How did studying at the College of Architecture and Design motivate you to fuse activism and architecture?

My background prior to CoAD was in social activism, so even though I had no experience in architecture, I was determined that social justice would inform my designs. I found kindred spirits in some of my classmates, including a small group with which I spent spring break rebuilding in the lower 9th ward of New Orleans. I also found mentors in studio instructors such as Tony Schuman and Darius Sollohub who spurred me on to ask the question, whether I was designing a skyscraper or a science library: what difference can architecture make for this community? It was individual instructors, and other fabulous people like librarian Maya Gervits, who encouraged me and helped me find resources related to my interest.

The Guatemalans suffered through a civil war and a near genocide. Did that sad history make you even more eager to help them?

It is difficult to truly comprehend the horrors faced by the indigenous, mostly Mayan population in Guatemala during its civil war, which ended less than 20 years ago. Guatemala is a country struggling to reconcile this horrific time, and bringing the perpetrators to justice is part of that. The civil war exacerbated existing economic inequality.  Additionally, because the war was so recent, there are so many people with a living memory of the atrocities, who were personally affected, including people in Santa Maria. It is important that they see real efforts toward social and economic justice in their lifetime.  Non-profit organizations like From Houses to Homes work toward this goal. I feel honored to be a part of that effort. 

In your day job, you have had opportunities to work with urban school districts in New Jersey. Can you talk about that work?

I work as a research architect at The Center for Building Knowledge, based at the College of Architecture and Design.  The mission of the center is to create knowledge that will help communities make better-informed decisions about the built environment.  Recently, we have worked with Newark Public Schools to document the physical condition of all the public school buildings in the city, and create online tools that allow district staff to better manage and make decisions about these buildings.  We are also currently working with Camden Public Schools on upgrading existing classrooms with fixtures, furnishings and equipment that encourage a more diversified, technology-enhanced learning environment.  It is my hope that these projects result in a better education for the children who attend these schools.

Is there a connection between your volunteer work in Latin America and your professional work for the Center for Building Knowledge?

Though the contexts are obviously quite different, kids in urban New Jersey and kids in Santa Maria frequently lack access to a quality education. Children from these underserved communities struggle more acutely with poverty and poor health as a result.  The common insight is that, though there are many hurdles to overcome, inadequate school facilities is a critical challenge that architects have the unique skills to address.  Creating inspiring, healthy and safe learning environments can go a long way toward empowering communities and ensuring all children's fundamental right to a good education. 

By Robert Florida