Matt Duckett reflects on his nine month sabbatical working in Zambia with Build It International and Gensler, part-supported by the Happold Foundation.
Through the BuroHappold Share Our Skills (SOS) programme and Happold Foundation sponsorship, a team of engineers from BuroHappold have been working with Build It International (BII) and architects Gensler on the design of a new construction skills training centre called the Centre for Excellence (CfE). BII train young men and women in construction skills, typically using the construction of community schools and health clinics as a delivery tool for their training. These are small structures in localised communities, which limit the number of people BII are able to impact each year. The CfE masterplan consists of 23 structures to be constructed over the next five years and, once in full operation, will be training over 1000 individuals per year from all over Zambia.
As the scale of the project is larger than their typical projects, BII wanted someone to provide technical advice during both the detailed development of the masterplan and construction phases of the project. I had been working on the structural design of the CfE buildings from the UK for BH and joined the BII team in Zambia as a volunteer in April.
One of the functions of the CfE is to act as a showcase for new technologies which are not yet developed in Zambia. For example the sanitary system, proposed by BH’s sustainability team, includes ecological sanitation toilets which store solid and liquid waste for use as a fertiliser. These technologies are unfamiliar to our site team (who are used to sceptic tank or VIP latrine systems) and I have had to ensure that implications on project delivery are understood.
Whilst not technically difficult, new technologies can also bring to light cultural issues and it has been challenging to overcome cultural scepticisms associated with the reuse of human waste. These more unique challenges associated with working in Zambia also extend to site, whereby I have been planning site works around regular powercuts and have also had to deal with snakes and scorpions discovered on site!
It has been interesting to work in a technical role for an organisation whose aim is to empower individuals through training. There is little appreciation for how buildings are operating structurally – I have been asked several times ‘why do we need reinforcement in our columns?’. It has therefore been important that I share as much technical knowledge as possible with our Site Agents (who oversee construction). This led to me delivering a two hour ‘Structural engineering for non-structural engineers’ training session to demonstrate basic structural concepts and good construction detailing to enable them to produce higher quality buildings.
As an engineer in a construction role for a training organisation, one of the challenges has been understanding the level of sophistication of Build It as a construction organisation and how to focus myself to be as effective as possible within new organisational systems and culture. There has been a steep learning curve associated with this, however I feel I have been able to provide a valuable contribution to BII. Working in Zambia has been an invaluable and totally unique development opportunity, both professionally and personally and I am hugely grateful to Build It, the Happold Foundation and BuroHappold for their support.