SHIFTboston blog

Reimagining the Maple Sugar House with the Studio North 2014 Summer Workshop

Studio North is currently seeking applicants for the workshop of June 23rd – June 28th, 2014. The workshop this year will focus on the design and construction of a new maple sugar house. The studio is open to interested students of all abilities. Previous construction experience is not required.

Studio North is a six day intensive building workshop. The workshop will offer students the opportunity to engage with the rural landscape and to imagine, develop and construct inventive design solutions. An architectural education is best experienced through engagement in all aspects of the building process. This workshop will be a fully immersive design experience.

The workshop will take place on a 117 acre farm in Norwich, Vermont. The workshop will investigate a particular interest and respond with the design and construction of a complete prototype structure. The workshop will be limited to ten students and led by architect Keith Moskow FAIA and Robert Linn AIA of the Boston based firm, Moskow Linn Architects.

For more information and to apply visit:

Or contact us at:  617.292.2000 ext. 28  or email


Working Side by Side to Help Rural Rwanda: The Masaro Project by the GA Collaborative

This captivating story landed in my mailbox two weeks ago from Michael Beaman of the GA Collaborative – a non profit organization composed of designers and educators from Syracuse, Harvard and RISD – in Boston and Syracuse, New York.  I was so moved after reading about this compassionate effort to improve living conditions in rural Rwanda that I’m delighted to share it.  I hope this project will inspire more efforts like it around the world and here at home in the United States.

Launched in 1996, the Imidugudu program, which relocates rural and low-income settlement dwellers into planned housing developments, has begun to reshape both urban and rural landscape in Rwanda. Under this program, current land owners can trade their property for housing plots, leaving many renters to search outside cities and villages for shelter. In rural areas, those living in the dispersed settlements are now being congregated to flattened sites, often away from their families, jobs, and the relationship they have developed with the landscape that formed out of an agrarian tradition. The Imidugudu program has been both controversial and transformative. Often left out of the equation however are low-income Rwandans who either do not own land or can not afford to resettle.

The act of planning, designing, and constructing housing in Rwanda is an act of engaging the Rwandans’ right to space. GA Collaborative, a design nonprofit organization comprised of practitioners and educators has been researching viable housing models for Rwanda with this in mind. At the core of GA Collaborative’s mission is that all have the right to benefit from design. Since 2008, GA Collaborative has been working with villagers in Masoro, Rwanda to design housing and accompanying gathering spaces.

The Masoro Village Project was initiated to bring design thinking to Masoro in the form of new housing. The first house built in 2013 used low-impact building materials, engaged both skilled and unskilled local labor, and was a vehicle to test and teach building techniques new to Rwanda.

Committed to reduce importation of construction materials, GA Collaborative introduced EarthBags construction, the first application of its kind in Rwanda. EarthBags, originally developed as a military bunker construction technique, are woven polypropylene bags comprised of three chambers which can be packed with excavated earth and used to form stable load bearing walls. To teach villagers how to construct stable structures using the EarthBag technique, GA Collaborative invited an EarthBag building expert to conduct a month-long workshop. Earthbag construction is comprised mainly from soil on site which reduces transportation and material costs. GA Collaborative also worked with villagers to leverage local weaving techniques to create design solutions at an architectural scale. Beyond generating visual separations between kitchen, front terrace and bath, the woven screens break down many of the gender roles associated with building construction in Rwanda.

To sustain the newly gained knowledge within the country, GA Collaborative worked closely with local architecture students from the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology who were involved with the project at each stage, and worked side-by-side with the villagers. The project has had wide support throughout Masoro where villagers are now planning additional EarthBag buildings and teaching others these new construction skills.

The Masaro Project team has completed one of fifty planned houses and  are currently fundraising for the second house. Please consider donating to this cause. For more information please visit the following link:

Please share this story and this link!

Project Credits

Name and Location:
Masoro Village Project
Masoro Sector, Rulindo District, Northern Province, Rwanda

S 01° 49’ 52”
E 30° 03’ 31”

Architectural Design Firm:
GA Collaborative

Design Team:
Yutaka Sho, designer and construction manager, GA Collaborative
James Setzler, designer and construction manager, GA Collaborative
Michael Beaman, designer and graphics, GA Collaborative
Zaneta Hong, designer and graphics, GA Collaborative
Killian Doherty, KD|AP, consultant

Rwandan architecture student partners from the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST):
Theophile Uwayezu
Doreen Ingabire
Rene Isabane
Patrice Ndababonye

‘Hydra’ Installation by SHIFTboston at Boston’s Landmark Center

SHIFTboston has recently been commissioned to build an installation in the tower of Fenway’s Landmark Center. Hydra – an installation that experiments with soft architecture – is a dynamic, self-transforming, semi-translucent membrane that floats and morphs into a series of different forms within a large light-well.

Hydra’s shape is defined by a shifting 15′ x 15′ surface derived from a simple methodology involving the use of only one basic form. The cellular skin is composed of over 1,000 semi-translucent disks in 4 sizes, each folded into 3 dimensional form. The cells are organized radially across the surface, inspired by the radial symmetry of ocean-dwelling organisms. The benefit to such an organization is that it makes the cells adaptable, by allowing us to connect them in a number of different arrangements.

The transmittance of natural light through, and reflectance of light onto, the piece, make the tiny orbs appear to glow from within.

Hydra, incorporates both architecture and technology. A sensor actuator system works discretely behind the installation to perform movement in response to changing light within the light-well. The evolution of the form is intended to reveal the subtle changes of light quality throughout the day. The piece takes a spiny, draped position when the sunlight is direct. The hard light rakes the surface to reveal a sharp contrast along the little protruding polyps. When light is indirect — later or earlier in the day — Hydra floats gently upward to expose the backside of its skin, absorbing the diffuse light to reveal a soft, luminous pattern.

Lessons learned in the construction of Hydra could contribute to much larger responsive design applications. The development of the skin alone provides examples of how to manipulate one basic form – in this case the disk – to build a complex undulating surface.

Hydra will be complete by Tuesday, April 29, 2014. Construction is underway and we are looking for volunteers to join our team right away to help assemble the skin. If you are interested in helping with construction please email: Zach at or

*The Hydra installation is an experiment with sensor technology, which is the focus of our next competition titled ‘Soft Architecture 01’ to be released this September. If you are interested in dynamic architecture please stay tuned .

Project Sponsors :

The Fenway Alliance

Samuels and Associates

Scaffolding: an Environmental Problem in Developing Communities

By Carolyn Lewenberg

Scaffolding is such a large part of our urban Infrastructure – it’s so woven into the landscape we often don’t notice it.  When was the last time you have stopped to take a good look at it?  In January when I visited a friend in Ethiopia I was really struck by the scaffolding methods I saw, and other construction practices.

In America, where people are so terrified of lawsuits from injury on the job, site safety is paramount. In Ethiopia this appears to be less of a concern. Although the construction practices in Ethiopia may seem to have less of an environmental impact because of the lack of site safety features, fewer heavy construction equipment, and the scaffolding is made from Eucalyptus, a renewable resource, I learned that the environmental impact of this plant is a serious problem.

The Eucalyptus scaffolding that surrounds buildings and is sometimes covered with a patchwork of tarps is characteristic of construction sites in Addis Ababa, and other small cities in Ethiopia. The eucalyptus logs are also lashed together to form ramps people can walk up to get to the top of the building (on top of which there are no safety railings). Eucalyptus grows prolifically in Ethiopia because it is very adaptable, fast growing, and when cut down it grows up again from the roots. It can be harvested at least every ten years, and grows very straight, so is ideal for construction. It can be found in roadside lumberyards throughout the country.

The problem with Eucalyptus however is that it is a very thirsty plant, which can dry up rivers and wells, absorbing water that would otherwise allow for grass cover and other native flora. This not only decreases biodiversity it can increase soil erosion, even though initially people had thought it was ideal in stabilizing eroding soil in watershed rehabilitation projects because it grows so quickly.

Eucalyptus was introduced in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s under Emperor Menelik. Addis Ababa was being developed as the capital of Ethiopia, and this necessitated a lot of timber. As the city became deforested due to the construction practices and need for firewood, Menelik endorsed the introduction of eucalyptus to Ethiopia from Australia, and encouraged its planting around Addis Ababa. Many plantations sprung up around the city and the tree spread to other areas throughout the country.

Addis Ababa seems to be experiencing another wave of construction activity, as the city seeks to “modernize” and countries like China are pouring capital into developing the country to gain more access to Ethiopia’s resources. Districts have been designated as focus areas to wipe out all the one story buildings that some would call a “slum” and build multi-story buildings in their places. Residents are being told that if their home or storefront is less than 2 stories then they need to build another floor, tear it down and build a 2 story building, or they would be displaced. The landscape of Addis Ababa is changing quickly.

Needless to say, the need for scaffolding is growing as construction projects continue to grow. No other native plants are known to be able to replace this valuable and important resource. Research on the solution to this problem is pointing in the direction of better education and land management practices. These are some of the recommendations made in a report by the Forestry Department and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations:

1.  There is need for better education of farmers, and other stakeholders, in the selection of the best phenotypes for seed collection.
2.  Fewer trees per unit area should be planted, and existing plantations should be thinned to reduce the water consumption needed by eucalyptus in areas where water is scarce or demanded by other crops.
3.  Arising from the recommendation above, there is need for research on the optimum spacing of eucalypt plantations for different purposes, to ensure soil protection and the development of understorey or ground vegetation without      compromising the productivity of the trees.
4. The foliage and bark of eucalyptus should be left on the plantation floor after harvesting to minimize the impact of Eucalyptus plantations on soil nutrients
5. There should be wider spacing between trees to allow ground cover or agricultural crops to develop.
6. Comprehensive research is required before undertaking projects to determine impacts on soil nutrients, water, hydrology, wildlife and biodiversity
7. Native forest or even secondary regrowth should not be cleared to make way for Eucalyptus plantations
8. Eucalyptus could be tried in mixed species systems, using indigenous tree species and vegetation to minimize adverse impacts on biodiversity and wildlife


FAO (2011). Eucalyptus in East Africa, Socio-economic and environmental issues, by Gessesse Dessie, Teklu Erkossa. Planted Forests and Trees Working Paper 46/E, Forest Management Team, Forest Management Division. FAO, Rome(unpublished).