Rainwater-harvesting Friendship hospital in rural Bangladesh wins the world’s best building award

A small brick community hospital of 80 beds in a remote rural area of southwestern Bangladesh has been named the best new building in the world, winning the RIBA International Prize 2021.

A model of climate-conscious design built with the bare minimum of resources, the Friendship hospital, a $2 million project, beat off competition from a gallery in Berlin by David Chipperfield, and a cycle and footbridge in Denmark by Wilkinson Eyre, according to a report by The Guardian.

Located in Satkhira, a waterlogged landscape in Bangladesh, the winner of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ award used water as its chief starting point. The canal zigzags its way through the site, collecting valuable rainwater and helping to cool the surrounding courtyards during the sweltering summer months.

It also serves as a barrier between the inpatient and outpatient departments, separating the two sides of the site across shared courtyards, without the need for a dividing wall, the British newspaper reported.

The low-cost building was designed to work with and withstand demanding environmental conditions due to rising sea levels impacted by climate change that transformed the surrounding landscape of grain fields into shrimp fisheries.

“There is water everywhere here,” said architect Kashef Chowdhury, director of Urbana, a Dhaka-based practice behind the project. “But it’s not always the useful kind.”

A series of courtyards bring in natural light and ventilation, while a canal traversing the site collects valuable rainwater, since the saline water under the ground remains unusable for most purposes.

In the rainy season, locals do everything they can to collect and store every last drop of fresh water. Chowdhury has therefore designed the building to be a machine for rainwater harvesting, with every roof and courtyard surface draining into the central canal, which runs into two storage tanks at either end of the site.

It is the first “land hospital” for the NGO Friendship, for which Chowdhury has helped to convert several boats into floating hospitals in the past, designed to serve remote communities in the delta region.

Built for a tight budget of just under $2m, their first permanent building provides a medical lifeline for thousands of people in an area that was heavily affected by a major cyclone in 2007, The Guardian reported.

Using locally made bricks, Chowdhury has developed a campus that has the feeling of a village, with buildings set at angles around courtyards, framed with colonnades that help to shade the wards within. These deep outdoor corridors also provide shelter from driving rain and encourage cross ventilation through the buildings, while bouncing daylight back inside, so no artificial light is needed during the day.

The blocks are angled to take advantage of the prevailing wind direction, meaning that most areas don’t need air conditioning either, except the operating theatres and delivery rooms.

A brick water tower stands as a kind of campanile, providing a civic focal point at the centre of the complex, while every ward overlooks a courtyard, and a long service corridor has been cleverly tucked along one side of the site, freeing the central route for patients and medical staff, and allowing clear views out from patients’ beds.

This channel of water adds visual relief as it provides a welcome distraction from the anxiety and unhappiness related to illness, for both patients and their relatives, RIBA said.

“When somebody is ill or needs care,” says Chowdhury, “one of the most important things is the mental aspect of it, not just the physical care. I think the kind of spaces you inhabit during treatment – with a view of water and trees, the sounds of birds, the feel of a breeze – goes a long way towards healing.”

Winning this global accolade, the hospital was described by the RIBA grand jury as embodying an “architecture of humanity” and as an “exemplar of innovative architecture that addresses critical global issues - unequal access to healthcare and the crushing impact of climate breakdown on vulnerable communities.”

The RIBA International Prize is awarded every two years to a building which exemplifies design excellence and architectural ambition and delivers meaningful social impact. It is one of the world’s most rigorously judged architectural awards, with every longlisted building visited by international experts, according to RIBA.

The biennial prize – delayed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic – celebrates projects from around the world that demonstrate design excellence and social impact. It has previously been awarded to a remote Brazilian school made of wood and a concrete cliff-like university building in Lima, Peru.

The Friendship Hospital in Satkhira was chosen from a shortlist of three exceptional new buildings by the grand jury, chaired by world-renowned multi-disciplinary French architect Odile Decq.

He said, “The hospital is very relevant to critical global challenges, such as unequal access to healthcare and the crushing impact of climate breakdown on vulnerable communities.”

“It is a demonstration of how beautiful architecture can be achieved through good design when working with a relatively modest budget and with difficult contextual constraints.”

The hospital is an inspiring example of how architecture, even on a modest budget, can strengthen and empower remote rural areas, RIBA said in a statement.

Chowdhury said RIBA and the jurors have identified a project from the global periphery to bring to the centre of architectural discourse and be the subject of one of the most important global awards.

“I am encouraged that this may inspire more of us to commit to an architecture of care both for humanity and for nature, to rise collectively to the urgencies that we face today on a planetary scale.”

Runa Khan, founder and executive director of Friendship, a nongovernmental organisation, said, “Having worked with communities most impacted by climate change over the last 20 years, I have seen, time and time again, proof of my belief that ‘The poor cannot afford poor solutions’!”

“Friendship Hospital brings new hope of a better tomorrow to some of the most climate impacted people on this planet,” she said.

Dr Ruhul Amin, resident medical officer of the Friendship Hospital, said, “Bachelor doctors like me stay in the staff quarters. If we lived in rented houses outside we would have to bathe in salty water and would have to buy our drinking water. Here, because of the water treatment plant, we can use salt-free water.”