Architect Erinn McGurn ’94 went from designing high-end residences in New York City to building sustainable schools in Africa. How did that happen?
It started when she and her husband, Guy Baron, originally from Zimbabwe, made a visit to the Chiutika Basic School in the rural village of Mfuwe, Zambia. “The school was in the worst condition you could imagine, with kids sitting on bricks in dark, hot, unventilated classrooms,” she says. “But these kids were still engaged and enthusiastic. We were just so impressed by their efforts.”
Back home, McGurn and Baron sent books and began corresponding with the school’s head teacher. When word reached them that a storm had destroyed the school’s roof, McGurn decided to act, leading a series of projects to add new classrooms, teacher housing, sanitation and provide basic educational materials.
It was, she recalls, "impossible to walk away, given the skills and resources we had.” With her husband, McGurn created SCALEAfrica, with a mission to design and build safe and sustainable schools in this impoverished village and, someday, throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Six years later, there are now more than 2,000 students attending school in SCALEAfrica-designed classrooms in Mfuwe.
As executive director of SCALEAfrica and founder of the architecture firm SCALEStudio, McGurn is at the forefront of a new wave of socially minded architects who are delivering design services to those that need them most. “I truly believe the design profession has a significant role to play in the seemingly intractable global issues of extreme poverty and lack of access to education," she says.
Last year, SCALEAfrica was admitted into the Clinton Global Initiative and launched a commitment to build Zambia’s first sustainably-designed, technology-based primary school just down the road from the Chiutika Basic School. By integrating technology, girls leadership and arts-based education, this new initiative will give students the relevant, 21st-century education they need to succeed and thrive.
McGurn is also an avid Smith volunteer, serving on the Alumnae Association Board of Directors and the advisory board for the Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability. She calls her choice to attend Smith “the best decision I ever made.”