My Build It International experience

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 has been working with Build It International and architects Gensler on the design of a new construction skills training centre called the Centre for Excellence. The Centre for Excellence master plan 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, Build It wanted someone to provide technical advice during both the detailed development of the master plan and construction phases of the project. I had been working on the structural design of the Centre for Excellence buildings from the UK for BuroHappold and joined the Build It team in Zambia as a volunteer in April 2016.

One of the functions of the Centre for Excellence is to act as a showcase for new technologies which are not yet developed in Zambia. For example the sanitary system, proposed by BuroHappold’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 scepticism 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 power cuts and have also had to deal with snakes and scorpions!

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 Build It’s 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 Build It.

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.