Low-cost high-tech skills to help communities thrive
Over 17,000 new construction workers are needed every year in Zambia, but few school leavers have the opportunity to enter the trade. Build It International (BII) are an NGO who aim to empower young men and women through skills training. The Build It International Centre for Excellence will train 1000 unemployed men and women annually in a diverse range of construction skills – helping transform their impoverished communities and provide a brighter future for their families.
The BII Centre for Excellence will showcase sustainable material choices, building techniques, sanitation methods and more. Numerous people will pass through the Centre including trainees, trainers, visitors and partners and it is intended that the best practice examples at the Centre will be used as inspiration and deployed by others. Every year a BuroHappold engineer volunteers as project manager at the expanding campus, working to help trainees develop their skills and managing the ongoing design and construction of the Centre for Excellence. Some of the innovative, low-cost technologies demonstrated at the Centre include: retaining walls built from recycled plastic bottles, soil stabilised bricks, noise-reducing roofing and toilets that turn waste into fertiliser.
BII approached us for masterplanning structural engineering, building services engineering (MEP) and sustainability advice. Once complete, the campus will include two learning plazas where brick-working, carpentry and work experience placements are held. There will also be a showcase demonstration on how to build a low-income house as well as offices, eco toilet blocks, dormitories, a kitchen and a multi-functional hall.
Working alongside UK architect, Gensler, we created the initial design intent for the buildings and provided technical advice for the detailed development of the masterplan and the construction phase of the Centre.
Working in Zambia presents may unique challenges. Understanding new organisational systems and adapting to a different culture was a steep learning curve, as were the frequent power cuts and tropical wildlife.
As BII is a charity, funding for the project is minimal and the buildings need to be low-cost, so innovative solutions were crucial. The organisation is used to creating simple, standalone structures and don’t have the capacity to integrate more technical aspects such as the water delivery system and infrastructure for a 23 building campus.
While not technically difficult, new technologies also bring to light cultural issues. It was challenging to overcome scepticism associated with human waste for our proposed ecological sanitary system, which was unfamiliar to our site team who were used to septic tanks.
Our masterplanning solutions were particularly useful for BII and included proposals and guidance for power from solar panels. We have also installed simple but effective lighting solutions, such as covering individual solar lights with plastic bottles treated with a bleach and water solution to dispense light more effectively. We also employed our ingenuity to develop a Sustainable Drainage System, a natural, green strategy that improves the visual appearance of the site as well as the natural habitat.
One particularly effective and attractive solution we devised was to use plastic bottles to build a retaining wall for the project. Zambia has a plastic drinks bottles litter problem and we worked to find a way to recycle these as a construction material. By filling the bottles with soil and applying mortar in between, a low-cost, effective, and visually-appealing wall was achieved.
We also provided a novel roofing system for one of the school buildings. Metal sheeting is most often used but the noise it causes in the rainy season makes it very difficult to concentrate. We opted instead for a bitumen mixture. This material has acoustical damping properties, ensuring a much quieter learning environment and significantly improving thermal insulation.
The work our engineers are carrying out in Zambia transforms people’s lives. Sharing our skills empowers people, trains and enables them to build better environments for themselves and their communities. By pushing our knowledge of alternative technology, we are giving people the tools that will help them, and their communities, thrive.
Services and approach
When we integrate our specialist teams around an approach, the benefits to the client multiply