The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund 

1811_N106_indd.jpg_credit Iwan Baan

The entrance at The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of
the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Musanze,
Rwanda. Photographer: Iwan Baan

Completed: 2022  

Cost: approx. R300 000 – R500 000 

Size: [Built]4 500 Site: 12 acres 

Location: Kinigi, Rwanda 

The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is a multi-building, $13.4 million (USD) investment that anchors the region as a conservation hub for ecological preservation and education in Africa.  

As an extension of the Volcanoes National Park, 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 Minneapolis-based 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. 

1811 N53 indd.jpg credit Iwan Baan
Spanning multiple buildings and 12 acres, the
campus anchors the region as a conservation
hub in Africa.

The campus design also prioritized water conservation by 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.  

Engineering solutions for tectonic shifts were also required, as the campus is built adjacent to the Virunga Mountains, a chain of volcanoes formed by the Great Rift Valley. Tectonic activity makes this area among the most seismically hazardous in sub-Saharan Africa. The ground below the buildings was formed through volcanic activity and contains large volcanic stones. MASS’s Rwanda-based engineering team developed a robust structural solution to respond to this context. The seismic forces were managed through engineered ductile reinforced concrete cores. The excavated volcanic stones, often considered a waste product, were used as material within the campus, reducing waste and the need for new quarried material.  

1811 N115 indd.jpg credit Iwan Baan
The campus represents an expansion of
teaching, engagement, and laboratory spaces.

The brief 

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. 

1811 N95 indd.jpg credit Iwan Baan
Local labor and materials were used to minimize
the campus footprint and develop an immersive
reforested landscape.

How the brief was realised 

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 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. 

The campus utilizes locally sourced materials to embody the Fossey Fund’s mission to conserve and limit its impact on the environment, as well as to enable it to blend seamlessly into its natural surroundings. 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.  

Build materials 

The Fossey campus marked MASS’s first project with MASS.Build as general contractor, giving MASS agency over how resources are deployed, and improving ability to promote social, environmental, and economic impact through the construction process. MASS developed a measurement framework for the campus that evaluated mission-driven impacts, which are unique to each project, as well as indirect impacts related to environment, education, equity, economy, and emotion. The project provided significant investment in the communities around Volcanoes National Park. More than 2,400 people were employed in the project´s construction process with 23 percent of the team being female. In order to train such a robust workforce, MASS.Build partnered with the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the Integrated Polytechnic Regional College (IPRC) Musanze, training employees in the fields of masonry; carpentry; steel-fixing; health, safety, and environment; electrical; green roof installation; and plumbing. 

All of the campus furniture was designed by MASS.Made and made in Rwanda by artisans and design cooperatives. Over 1,600 items were produced, from tables, desks, chairs, stools, benches, shelves, credenzas, and beds, to accessories including pendant lights, rugs, pillows, handles, and hooks. The furniture upholds the same values as the buildings: to maximize high-quality local production that celebrates craft, leverage regional materials, reduce carbon footprint, and contribute to the local economy. MASS.Made also found the opportunity to embed design details that drew inspiration from the history and work of the Fossey Fund, including batik throw pillows that feature nose print patterns of seven gorillas featured in the exhibition. 


Architect: MASS Design Group 

Landscape Architect: TenxTen Studio and MASS Design Group 

Civil Engineers: MASS Design Group and Oak Consulting Group 

Structural Engineer: MASS Design Group 

M&P Engineers: MASS Design Group 

Electrical Engineers: BuroHappold Engineering 

Environmental Engineering: Transsolar 

Construction: MASS.Build, MASS Design Group  

Constructed Wetland Consultants: Sherwood Design Engineers, Jacques Nsengiyumva 

Furniture Design & Fabrication: MASS.Made, MASS Design Group  

Exhibit & Wayfinding Design: MASS Design Group 

Exhibit Fabrication: Formula D Interactive 

Immersive Theater: HabitatXR 

ICT & Security: Techno Engineering Company 

Wayfinding & Signage: MASS Design Group 

Media: MASS Design Group 

Furniture Design & Fabrication: MASS.Made, MASS Design Group  

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