How massive fans promote good health in the developing world

Big Ass Fans at the Butaro Cancer Center

A major focus of MASS Design Group’s groundbreaking medical centers, including this cancer center in Butaro, Rwanda, is the ventilation and air-scrubbing strategy backed by Big Ass Fans,

In this story from AIA partner Big Ass Fans, find out how a celebrated non-profit design group put "fresh air is good for you" to the test

In the mountains of northern Rwanda, a small village has been transformed over the past few years into a healthcare hub for the region, and the use of innovative building designs and components is playing a key role.

Butaro’s transformation began with a hospital, a first for the district. A project of nonprofit architecture firm MASS Design Group in collaboration with Partners in Health and the Rwandan government, the six-ward clinic quickly won acclaim for its design. It wasn’t long before Butaro Cancer Center, an outpatient treatment facility adjacent to the hospital, followed. The first of its kind in Rwanda, the center was designed by Partners in Health, leaders in the treatment of non-communicable disease care in sub-Saharan Africa.

Using fans to take out pathogens

An essential part of the design of both clinics was the use of large ceiling fans, which not only enhance ventilation but also aid ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) lights in killing airborne pathogens. MASS Design Group was founded on the belief that architecture can advance healthcare. Central to this idea is the optimization of air circulation, which Butaro Hospital project architect Garret Ganter called “the most important factor in preventing disease transmission.”

In the Butaro hospital and cancer center, large windows and doors that open wide take advantage of natural cross-ventilation, and large-diameter ceiling fans donated by Big Ass Fans ensure the air is always moving. The model of fan used in the facilities was specifically designed move large amounts of air gently, silently and efficiently—important considerations in healthcare projects, especially those in rural areas where power is at a premium.

In fact, when the fans were installed, the hospital was still off the grid and running on generators, so a traditional, energy-intensive HVAC system would have been impossible. Since then, largely as a result of these projects, a hydroelectric dam has been built and the fans can operate 24 hours a day, if necessary, using minimal amounts of electricity.

Designing for patient and doctor alike

In the cancer center, the fans contribute to overall comfort and air quality in the chemotherapy hall, where patients often spend six to eight hours a day receiving treatment. The large open space features a butterfly roof and infusion chairs are positioned in several pods, making it easy for doctors to monitor treatment. Seating for patients’ family members is beside each infusion chair, and along both sides of the hall are glass-paneled doors that afford expansive views of the green hills outside and let the natural breezes in.

Strategically located UVGI lights and several Big Ass fans on the ceiling maximize airflow for comfort and to aid in decontamination. The fans run at a speed that’s slow enough to deliver the optimal air turnovers without causing patients to feel a draft.

The donation of Big Ass Fans to healthcare facilities worldwide is part of a new approach to increase air circulation and promote sustainable, healthy design efforts.

With Butaro as a proving ground, large fans are proving to be a valuable component in sustainable designs worldwide, working in conjunction with or even providing an energy-efficient alternative to traditional HVAC.

After the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, MASS Design Group built a tuberculosis center that treats the most drug-resistant forms of the disease. Architects again used open spaces and natural airflow, building around a courtyard to expose more areas to cooling ventilation. Inside, Big Ass Fans, again donated by the company, pull air up so that it passes by the UVGI lights. And on the other side of the capital of Port-au-Prince, a cholera center uses similar fans to optimize airflow for patient comfort and better overall air quality.

In a discussion of the Butaro projects, MASS Design Group co-founder Michael Murphy pointed out that natural ventilation and “leveraging the environment ... have been largely designed out of U.S. medical facilities.” As more projects demonstrate each year, good air circulation can play a big role in creating healthy, more energy-efficient medical facilities that dignify the lives of those they serve while making the most of the natural environment in which they’re built.

Vicky Broadus is a writer for Big Ass Solutions, the parent company of Big Ass Fans, Big Ass Light and Haiku Home.

The AIA does not sponsor or endorse any enterprise, whether public or private, operated for profit. Further, no AIA officer, director, committee member, or employee, or any of its component organizations in his or her official capacity, is permitted to approve, sponsor, endorse, or do anything that may be deemed or construed to be an approval, sponsorship, or endorsement of any material of construction or any method or manner of handling, using, distributing, or dealing in any material or product.

Image credits

Big Ass Fans at the Butaro Cancer Center

Big Ass Fans

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