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Architecture Students’ Design for Ghanaian School Comes to Fruition

They say it takes a village ­— and for one town in Ghana that couldn’t be truer. Over the past decade, the people of Okurase have been working together to transform their community for a more prosperous future by constructing the Nkabom Centre, the area’s first-ever educational facility.

The 18,000-square-foot structure has electricity and running water and is the first of a 17-building complex completely designed by Clemson architecture students studying at the Clemson Design Center in Charleston (CDC.C). 

Cynthia Swenson, a professor with the Medical University of South Carolina, approached the CDCC for help in 2008. As the co-founder of Project Okurase, a nonprofit that develops sustainable, replicable solutions for disadvantaged villages, Swenson had been working in the Okurase community for several years and following the vision of the community, wanted to help construct a complex that would house educational and medical facilities with water and energy. But money was limited.

“Someone suggested Clemson because the students do hands-on service projects as part of their work,” Swenson said. “I knew after speaking with Ray Huff and Rob Miller that I’d found true partners in the CDC.C for this effort.”

“Everything we designed was built around local craftsmanship and skills we saw on our trip to Ghana.”

It was paramount that the buildings convey the local culture, so before undergraduate and graduate students began to tackle designs, students Kyle Keaffaber and Lindsey Willke traveled to the region to research. “They saw firsthand how the land, water and sun played into the structure’s dynamics. It was fascinating,” Swenson said. “We originally envisioned the medical center at the front of the complex with a school behind it, but our research indicated that would be a huge mistake because air flow would carry communicable diseases through the medical complex and toward the school.”

The trip provided another valuable lesson: The buildings needed to be constructed with compressed earth bricks. “To allow the community to play an active role and become invested in building their own community, everything we designed was built around local craftsmanship and skills we saw on our trip to Ghana,” Keaffaber said. However, the on-loan brick-making machine had to be returned before work was completed. Clemson faculty and staff stepped in and built four manual brick-making machines.

Today, the first structure in the complex stands tall, awaiting students of all ages to take their seats in the coming weeks, and now the community eagerly anticipates construction of the next building.   

“I’ve seen an absolute change. People who grew up in that village are coming back, and things are picking up economically,” Swenson said. “And the people have a level of pride in this building ­— they built it themselves — and they want to leave a legacy for their children.”

Alumnus pledges $1.2 million to support Clemson architecture, other programs

William H. “Bill” Pelham ’77, M ’81 has pledged gifts totaling $1.2 million through the Jean T. and Heyward G. Pelham Foundation to support the School of Architecture, the Clemson Architectural Foundation (CAF) and other initiatives.

These gifts bring the Pelham family’s total donations to Clemson to more than $2.8 million since 2007. The philanthropic Pelham Foundation was established in 2006 by Bill Pelham’s parents, Jean and Heyward Pelham. The Pelhams were strong advocates and supporters of education and the arts and very active in the Greenville community.

“Bill Pelham and his family have been tremendous supporters of Clemson’s academic mission for many years, and we are very appreciative of this latest generous gift,” said Clemson President Clements. “Bill has a passion for both the importance of study abroad programs and for further strengthening Clemson’s outstanding architecture program, and this gift reflects both of these important University priorities.”

The donation includes annual unrestricted gifts and endowments. The unrestricted gifts provide flexibility so that college leadership can be more nimble and responsive. The endowments will provide for lasting funding.

“We wanted some funds to be available now for immediate impact and the rest to be available every year, forever,” said Pelham.

“Bill Pelham and his family have been tremendous supporters of Clemson’s academic mission for many years, and we are very appreciative of this latest generous gift.”

Bill Pelham graduated from Clemson in 1977 with a B.A. in pre-architecture and in 1981 with a master’s in architecture. In 1978, he spent a semester studying in Genoa, Italy, at Clemson’s Charles E. Daniel Center for Building Research and Urban Study, an experience that has informed his worldview and inspired his charitable giving.

“By giving our students a global reach that prepares them to provide design leadership in a flat world, to be global practitioners and regional experts, to understand the unique opportunities of place and the wealth derived from cultural differences, Bill’s gift is truly transformational,” said Kate Schwennsen, director of the School of Architecture.

“Bill Pelham has served as a visionary force for excellence in the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities,” said Dean Richard Goodstein. “While his focus is very much on the School of Architecture and the CAF, Bill has supported the college in many ways, most recently during Clemson’s Will to Lead capital campaign. We are truly grateful to Bill, his wife, Laura, and the Pelham family for their leadership and generosity to Clemson.”