Kinigi, Musanze District, Rwanda
“From the outset, the mission of this project has focused on creating a space to engage the many stakeholders in conservation—students, scientists, tourists, conservation partners, community members—to advance our collective goal of saving gorillas and more broadly, the planet. It is our hope that people who visit the Ellen DeGeneres Campus will leave inspired to make a difference, just as Dian Fossey did,” states Tara Stoinski, president and chief scientific officer, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
MASS Design Group (Model of Architecture Serving Society) and Ten x Ten Landscape Architecture and Urbanism have completed the new Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, a multi-functional building complex and a $13.4 million investment for gorilla conservation that anchors the region as a conservation hub for ecological preservation and education in Rwanda.
The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is a multi-building, 12-acre campus that models MASS’s “Purpose-Built” methodology, which balances and evaluates capital infrastructure alongside a project’s mission, design, and feasibility.
Founded by the legendary Dian Fossey, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is the world’s largest and longest-running organization dedicated to gorilla conservation.
Its work combines daily protection and study of individual gorillas with people-centered programs aimed at training the next generation of African conservationists and addressing the basic needs of the people who share the gorillas’ forest home through food and water security, livelihood, and education programs.
Once feared by Dian Fossey to be extinct by the year 2000, mountain gorillas represent a rare conservation success story, with the population in the region growing from a low of 250 in the 1980s to more than 600 today. MASS and the Fossey Fund began working together in 2015.
Led through the ”Purpose Built” process by MASS Principal Patricia Gruits, MASS helped the Fossey Fund assess its design needs based on its mission to make gorillas an entry point for a lifetime of conservation activism.
The “Purpose Built” approach considers how an organization can make systemic change and aligns design to support the mission through a capital project feasibility study.
When DeGeneres and her wife, Portia de Rossi, announced the official creation of The Ellen Fund, a nonprofit that works to protect endangered animals, they also named the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund as their first grant recipient.
Their support enabled the Fossey Fund to move forward on the ambition to build a permanent home in Rwanda, accelerating its science and conservation work.
Adjacent to the Volcanoes National Park on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the new campus has three main buildings: the Sandy and Harold Price Research Center, the Cindy Broder Conservation Gallery, and the Rob and Melani Walton Education Center, as well as housing for visiting students and researchers.
An extensive living laboratory was created on the former agricultural site through the planting of more than 250,000 native plants and the use of green roofs, rainwater harvesting, and a constructed wetland for wastewater treatment.
Local labor and materials were used throughout design and construction to minimize the campus footprint, develop an immersive reforested landscape, and ensure job training and economic return to the local community while creating a modern facility for public use and education.
The campus design took inspiration from Dian’s original tent nestled in the forest at the Karisoke Research Center more than 50 years ago.
From above, the buildings’ green roofs blend into the surrounding landscape context.
The buildings’ footprints integrate seamlessly into the landscape topography, encouraging a natural flow from interior spaces to the exterior through a series of covered patios and connected path networks, all taking advantage of the surrounding volcanoes.
The main campus buildings contain different scales of interior and exterior gathering spaces in response to the diversity of programs and are inspired by the campfire gatherings at the original Karisoke Research Center.
Encouraging interaction between visitors, staff, and researchers, the gathering spaces are designed to provide connection to the landscape and increase natural ventilation and daylight in the building.
MASS partnered with the global firm Transsolar on environmental engineering solutions throughout the project to prioritize access to natural daylight and ventilation, together with building comfort and performance.
Green roof canopies hover above thick volcanic stone exterior walls, separated by a continuous glass clerestory that brings natural daylight into the interior spaces.
The volcanic stones found onsite during excavation were crushed and used in the grout for the stone walls and as gravel for the trails across the campus. Volcanic stone is also used in the exterior building cladding.
Regionally sourced pinewood adds warmth and texture to the exterior soffit and interior ceilings of the buildings.
The student housing roofs use clay tiles, while native plant species are used on the main campus green roofs to enhance biodiversity and sequester carbon.
The green roofs also provide research opportunities to study key ecological processes like pollination and reforestation.
The landscape design for the campus transformed the existing site from an agricultural plot to a reforested, biodiverse landscape that showcases four key gorilla habitat ecologies: mixed forest, bamboo, hagenia forest, and meadow.
MASS worked with TEN x TEN, a landscape architecture practice, to design a regenerative landscape and green roofs complementary to the surrounding habitat.
The land upon which the campus was built had been converted to agriculture and grazing space.
As part of MASS and the Fossey Fund’s commitment to the regeneration of that land, more than 250,000 native plants were propagated and planted throughout the campus, creating a reforestation research site that might also inform future park expansion.
MASS’s design prioritized water conservation harvesting rainwater from building roofs for reuse including to flush toilets.
Effluent wastewater is treated naturally in a constructed wetland, which features a series of ponds below the conservation gallery that filter and clean the water before it soaks back into the ground.
The system, the first and only of its kind in Rwanda, is gravity-fed, reducing overall energy use.
The landscape, water systems, and sustainability methods serve as an educational model for students and visitors motivated by conservation, and as a research demonstration for reforestation efforts, the Fossey Fund is undertaking in the region.
Project: The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund
Architects: MASS Design Group (Model of Architecture Serving Society)
Landscape Architects: Ten x Ten Landscape Architecture and Urbanism and MASS Design Group
Civil Engineers: MASS Design Group and Oak Consulting Group
Structural Engineers: MASS Design Group
M&P Engineers: MASS Design Group
Electrical Engineers: BuroHappold Engineering
Environmental Engineering: Transsolar
Construction: MASS.Build, MASS Design Group
Client: The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund
Photographers: Iwan Baan