Lessons from Nicaragua


DENNIS KOWAL ARCHITECTS designed this new health care facility in the village of asaya, Nicaragua outside of the capital city of Managua using strategies for resilient design. This approach allows the facility to function without electricity while relying on natural building systems.

DENNIS KOWAL ARCHITECTS designed this new health care facility in the village of asaya, Nicaragua outside of the capital city of Managua using strategies for resilient design. This approach allows the facility to function without electricity while relying on natural building systems.

Designing a new healthcare facility in Nicaragua is much different than in the United States.  But the US can learn lessons from a third world country where electric is spotty, contamination is likely, and water is untreated. When a disaster like Superstorm Sandy strands eleven States without power, many US healthcare facilities like the NYU Medical Center were crippled and couldn’t function. However, Dennis Kowal Architects (DKA) applied the principals of “resilient” architecture to their healthcare facility design in Managua, Nicaragua.  Since power failures are common, DKA designed the facility to use natural ventilation and natural lighting. To reduce the risk of cross-contamination, another very common occurrence, DKA created outdoor waiting rooms open to the air but covered from the sun thus reducing the chance of contact and airborne contamination. The interior walls have an application of plaster that naturally contains calcium hydroxide, a mineral that resists the growth of bacteria while providing a durable and easy to clean surface. Kowal explained: “in essence, the facility takes care of itself, especially during a natural disaster”.

Vida-Maysay-Perspective-5vert_web.jpg
Vida Maysay Perspective-3.jpg

High  window openings in the exam rooms ensure privacy yet allow light and air to naturally circulate. A large covered, but open,  atrium at the center of the complex creates a natural ventilation stack for all of the surrounding rooms. The atrium brings light and air into the rooms that ring the courtyard and simultaneously creates an outdoor waiting room.  A landscaped courtyard surrounds the facility to allow the families a place to play while a family member is receiving treatment; at night the same wall provides security.

pics2087.jpg

Some of the children that have been treated by the doctors of Caring Partners International using temporary facilities,  pose for the camera. Others may walk all night (as did this woman assisted by her grand-daughter) to get to a care center. Existing conditions can be dirty, dusty and contaminated by animal waste and garbage dumps. Ubiquitous volcanic ash often covers the village in dust (see photo of girl in dress). The new medical facility provides a clean, healthy, and resilient environment as well as a model of sanitation for the villagers to follow.

Planning the healthcare facility on-site in Nicaragua is only the first step in a master plan for a new village. Dennis Kowal Architects met with local doctors to select the site, visited with the mayor to solidify support and caucused with nurses and staff to design the facility. Local Architectural student, Maria, helped with translation of the complex medical and architectural terms.   Since the site is near an active volcano, resistance to earthquake forces factors into all of the reinforced concrete construction in the area.

2004041adj.jpg

DKA worked with local architects to assess the building materials, climate, and standards of construction.  A low impact design was desired that could operate during a disaster. Above, Maria (a student of architecture) was also a translator for Dennis Kowal Architects as they interviewed the doctors and patients to design a facility that would meet their needs but also provide a resilient design. 

While many developed countries are still reeling from the many natural disasters that have occurred, lessons can be learned from our third world neighbors who daily face a world without power, public transportation, or central air conditioning.  Beyond sustainable design which minimizes the impact on the environment, DKA understands the simple principals of natural systems that can adapt and survive during periods of stress, loss and disaster.

“Dennis Kowal Architects designs buildings that are resilient
and 
can take care of themselves in a disaster.”

Design for the Blind


DENNIS KOWAL ARCHITECTS has been designing for the blind, physically handicapped, handicapped, autistic, developmentally disabled, and learning disabled for 30 years and their completed work creates a friendly environment without shouting “special needs”. "I learned a long time ago that blindness for most is just a characteristic like short or tall and it comes with its own challenges and limitations; but it is not necessarily a disability” says Dennis Kowal about his experiences with the many blind professionals who conduct rather normal lives.   The majority of the visually impaired get around without a white cane (less than 35% use a cane) or a guide dog (less than 3% use a guide dog).   As a person ages, there is a one in ten chance of major vision loss but then their needs may be different as they may no longer drive, go to school or work.

At the National Headquarters of Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), Dennis's design was based on orthogonal geometry, the easiest navigation system. Curves can disorient whereas ninety degree turns are easier to follow for someone with no vision. That same person  composes a picture of the space from sensing the perimeter as opposed to walking into the middle and looking around as a sighted person might.  Therefore, the placement of furniture and removing obstacles at the perimeter became important to the design process.  Finally, acoustics also help compose the picture.  Large volumes sound different than small spaces or lower ceilings.  And just as too many colors is garish for the sighted, too many sounds can be annoying to the visually impaired.

Cleanly designed edges with the minimum of obstacles are friendly to both the sighted and unsighted.


Cleanly designed edges with the minimum of obstacles are friendly to both the sighted and unsighted.

The visually impaired enjoy the same things as everyone else;  fresh air, the warmth of the sun on their face,  and a glare-free environment. Mechanical shades reduce glare and control the natural light in this lobby.


The visually impaired enjoy the same things as everyone else;  fresh air, the warmth of the sun on their face,  and a glare-free environment. Mechanical shades reduce glare and control the natural light in this lobby.

Since many will enjoy the cafeteria, a connection to the beautiful site through full height windows can still be enjoyed by many. Overhangs and the nearby woods itself provide natural shading and sound panels in the ceiling control noise. 


Since many will enjoy the cafeteria, a connection to the beautiful site through full height windows can still be enjoyed by many. Overhangs and the nearby woods itself provide natural shading and sound panels in the ceiling control noise. 

Operable windows bring in fresh air to the office area and exterior shading devices allow  Daylight to brighten the interior without glare.


Operable windows bring in fresh air to the office area and exterior shading devices allow  Daylight to brighten the interior without glare.

The wetlands were protected by separating the building from the parking lot with this boardwalk through the woods. Both the sighted and unsighted enjoy a walk in the woods and the wide berth allows guide dogs to pass.


The wetlands were protected by separating the building from the parking lot with this boardwalk through the woods. Both the sighted and unsighted enjoy a walk in the woods and the wide berth allows guide dogs to pass.

The building wall embraces an outdoor eating area providing a sense of enclosure with the freedom of a wall-less room.


The building wall embraces an outdoor eating area providing a sense of enclosure with the freedom of a wall-less room.

The bottom line is always the happiness of the occupants even in the processing areas where books on tape are distributed across the nation to the visually impaired.


The bottom line is always the happiness of the occupants even in the processing areas where books on tape are distributed across the nation to the visually impaired.

This 83,000-volume Master Tape Library is the largest educational resource of its kind in the world and Dennis designed three continuous movable shelving systems to handle the product. These 12’ tall carousels are 80’ long and rotate by computer signal to bring the selected audio master tape to an operator for duplicating.


This 83,000-volume Master Tape Library is the largest educational resource of its kind in the world and Dennis designed three continuous movable shelving systems to handle the product. These 12’ tall carousels are 80’ long and rotate by computer signal to bring the selected audio master tape to an operator for duplicating.

DKA created custom designed conveyor systems that recognize specific tapes and automatically distribute them.

DENNIS KOWAL ARCHITECTS designs for the blind, dyslexic and physically handicapped.