Darmang Community School
0,8 ha / 6 classrooms & toilets
Design, Construction, Fundraising
Volunteer Partnerships for West Africa
Local workers + training
Sustainable materials e.g. CEB (Compressed Earth Blocks), raffia
Darmang Community School
The project program, or maybe better to call it a “long term dream” set by the local NGO was to build a kindergarten, primary and secondary school together with other service facilities like toilets and the principal office – an estimated 15 units. All that on a big empty plot, slightly sloped terrain and to be completely surrounded with a fence wall. This new school was going to complement the existing Youth center, built only a hundred meters away, that the organisation was already running since 2011.
The idea to do a school project and help out some faraway local organisation make a positive impact in their deprived community is basically a dream job for many of us architects, even if it is done for free. After all, we are a profession that’s used to be underpaid while doing projects that never get built, so it’s not like we were making any big sacrifices on that part. What was the most interesting thing for us, from the architecture standpoint, was how we actually got to the final result. It was a constant learning process and adjustment to various circumstances, up until the last days of construction. Everything was a crucial factor at some point – location, climate, materials, culture, prices, workers, expertise, budget, time… Doing a decent project on paper, was by far the easiest part.
Based largely on the fact that we were building in open terrain, the main decision was to try the “clustered” approach which departs from the common longitudinal school layout present almost everywhere in the region. The final complex would consist of 12-15 identical, 7x7m units, grouped to form inner courtyards, each “belonging” to a certain age group. A project like that would be more flexible and could be built in phases, even altered if necessary, without changing the basic concept. By dividing a typically big school building into smaller parts, a different environment and a sense of scale is created, resembling more a small city than a school.
The circular principle allowed using classroom units as a part of the outer fence wall which greatly reduced its total length and cost. Smaller units could adjust more easily to a sloped terrain and, we hoped, the fact all the classrooms were identical would streamline the construction, allowing local workers to master new techniques through repetition.
The project was split into phases and the plan was to start with 6 classrooms for the primary school then upgrade it later once the school is actually running for a few years.
In December 2015 the team spent 5 weeks in Ghana, researching the prices and materials in the vicinity of Darmang, but also traveling and getting to know the whole country a bit better. It gave a clearer picture on the prices and quality of common materials. Wood was of a pretty high quality and available for a relatively cheap price. Roofing options were almost exclusively limited to metal sheets. We quickly gave up on using the proper damp proofing because of the price and decided to do it the way it’s usually done locally, just with a thin layer of PE-film. After seeing numerous examples of bamboo eaten by termites because it wasn’t treated properly we cooled down on the idea of using it. On the other hand we found out that raffia was a very interesting and resistant material, available locally that can be used for paneling of walls or ceilings.
Most importantly we got in touch with Samuel who was doing his own version of CSE blocks (compressed stabilised earth blocks) and trying to popularise them locally. The compressed blocks were introduced way back in the 1950s in South America, as a slightly more modern earth construction technique. In Ghana though, a country with a rich tradition of earth architecture which was still common in rural areas, building with earth is often associated with poverty. For us, the blocks looked great and we decided to use them, siezeing the opportunity that someone living one hour away from the future school site had the knowledge and equipment to do them.
Upon return, the final design was adjusted to reflect all these new findings, with the special attention given to the natural ventilation of the classrooms. We definitely didn’t want to rely on ceiling fans, as it was common practice, so to be absolutely sure that the inner air flow would work, we added a big opening on the top of the classroom roof for the warm air to go out.
The construction started in September 2017. It lasted roughly 6 months and it was a proper undertaking. Because of the sloped terrain, the 7m span of the classroom walls and a pretty complicated roof structure, we didn’t experiment and simply used a system of concrete columns and beams as the main load bearing structure. All the above-ground walls were done with the earth blocks, with the wooden pivoting shutters as windows. Raffia was used to close the space between ceiling and the roofing metal sheets which was filled with wood chippings wrapped in mosquito nets in order to achieve a slightly better sound insulation when it rains.
The local contractors brought in some of their experienced craftsmen (mason, carpenters, steel bender), but the main working power were the local men from the village who applied for the job. Project management was done from Berlin via Whatsapp and email, where all the budget and design adjustments were done. One or two of our volunteers were always be present on site, with one particular colleague actually staying in Darmang for the whole construction duration. All that was crucial in regards to quality control and to ensure that daily problems could be solved as quick as possible. As on any construction site, various issues happened daily, usually things none of us were used to – water shortages due to the well drying out, various machinery like the cement mixer or concrete vibrator breaking down, local kids walking in the freshly poured concrete slab, common practice of 10mm steel bars being sold as 12mm and so on. It all worked out great in the end to everyone’s satisfaction.
The school opened in September 2018.