Darmang Community School
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 is the construction of a school in Darmang, Easternregion, Ghana that should eventually provide for around 500 kids. We worked in collaboration with the local NGO, VPWA, who are the owners of the land, but were in need of technical and
The school complex is situated in Darmang, a small village in Ghana’s Eastern Region. It’s only 50 km from Accra, but the access is difficult, roads are bad and in order to reach it you have to take shared taxis or vans and do some walking. There is an existing public school for the children of the village and the many smaller surrounding communities but it is severely
over capacity and lacking quality teaching staff. With conditions that are far from ideal, the level of education and social skills that the children are getting is much lower than expected. The proposed school is divided into three parts (early childhood centre, primary and a secondary school). In 2017 we built the first phase, which consists of seven units (six classrooms, each accommodating 45 kids, and a toilet unit).
The idea to do a school project in a faraway land and help out a local organisation make a positive impact in their community is a dream job for many of us architects, even if it was done or 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. It was something many architects have very successfully done before us and they very likely faced similar challenges as we would. But it was hard to anticipate what awaits just by browsing through some pretty plans and photos from various books and internet pages. As we
quickly found out, doing a decent project was by far the easiest part. The whole thing was about constant learning and adjustment to various circumstances – location, climate, materials, culture, prices, workers, expertise, budget, time and so on.
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.
Our design team consisted of three people of which only one spend some time in Ghana (volunteering on the construction of that same youth center). Most of our initial conversations went a little bit like this: “Can we do this?”, “Not really!”, “But what if we
tried something like that?”, “No, it’s not done like that over there”. It sure helped to keep it all simple from the beginning! We saw a lot of examples of local architecture and all of it was
basically the same, regardless of the function. Load bearing concrete structure of columns and beams with walls made of plastered cement blocks (sandcrete), wooden roof construction with metal roofing sheets, ceilings made out of plywood, and if the budget allowed, there were always sliding windows installed. Nothing was principally bad about that way of construction, but we figured it was our job to at least try to make some improvement or show that there are always alternatives.
1. Initial project design
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. The materials, budget, various details and most importantly who was to actually build the school were still unknown at the time. We had to do a field trip to Darmang and do some research
of our own.
2. Trip to Ghana
In December 2015. we spent 5 weeks in Ghana, researching the prices and materials in the vicinity of Darmang, but also travelling and getting to know the whole country a bit better. We did get a clearer picture on the prices of common materials (cement, iron, metal sheets, wood) and their quality. It all required a lot of door to door walking, asking for quotes and then disappointing everyone when they realised we didn’t want it immediately. But we could now do a somewhat realistic budget of the whole construction and adjust our design accordingly. Wood was of a pretty high quality and available for a relatively cheap price.
Roofing options were almost exclusively limited to metal sheets, although we really tried hard to see if we could get anything else after we saw some fibre-cement panels used in other parts of the country. Unfortunately they were almost impossible to get in Accra and very likely had asbestos in them which would exclude them anyways.
At first we also insisted on proper damp proofing for our future school – compared to what is done locally, which is either nothing, or just a layer of PE-film. After we found the one shop
that actually sells the real thing and saw the price, we quickly decided to trust the locals. After all, there is no freezing, and due to the climate, any humidity coming up the walls would quickly dry up.
Initially we wanted to incorporate bamboo in our design to some extent, but after seeing numerous examples of badly treated bamboo attacked by termites we quickly cooled down on the idea. It seemed if one was to use bamboo in the proper way with proper treatment, varnish, foundations and connections, it would end up costing way too much. What we did find, often in the traditionally built houses in the coastal area, was the very common use of raffia (a palm tree) branches for ceiling or wall panels. It was way more resistant to termites, the only potential problem was wether we could actually get it in the region where we were
This is also when we were introduced to Samuel, who did 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
Samuel explained how he fixed and customised his hydraulic machine numerous times, tinkering and improving his technique of block production and we figured – if someone can fix a hydraulic machine himself, he was definitely our man. He didn’t have many examples of the actual work he did, one could say he was in the initial stages of his start-up. It was funny when he explained how his brother was building a new house nearby, and even he didn’t want to use the earth blocks. For us, the blocks looked great and we definitely decided to use them, seizing the opportunity that someone living one hour away from the future school site had the knowledge and equipment to do them.
Other than Samuel we met with few local masons and carpenters, but none of them actually filled us with any confidence that they could do anything even slightly different from the way they were used doing things. This was fine at the time, since we didn’t have any funds anyhow, so we figured to deal with that problem once we get there. One thing that we experienced time and time again, was that most of the buildings had serious problems with heat and ventilation.
Some of these things are a given in a country where the average daily temperature is 30°C and the walls are 15cm thick, but some things could’ve been avoided. The biggest factor here was the ever-present use of sliding windows which can only open 50% of their surface and make the cross-ventilation way less effective. Most living spaces could only function normally with ceiling fans constantly on. It was clear we had to deal with that problem properly within our project.
To make our trip complete, while traveling in the north of Ghana and Togo, we saw a number of traditionally done compounds looking almost the same as our concept. It wasn’t our direct inspiration when we started, we got to it gradually while solving some other problems we faced in the design, but we were glad to
see we have ended in the same place as locals have a long time
The general concept was fine and didn’t need changing, but the obvious adjustments had to be made with the units themselves. We adjusted the foundations to the way it was usually done – concrete and cement blocks because of the humidity underground. For a long time we planned to do all the objects only with the earth blocks. They have pre-made holes that can be filled with concrete and a single steel bar to reinforce them so that they can be used as load bearing columns. Same goes for the specially moulded blocks that could be used for beams. Still, considering a fairly large span of each classroom and even more the fact we were building on a sloped terrain, we went the safe way and stuck to concrete columns and beams. In the end the blocks were used only for the non load bearing walls. There would be no glass windows, only shutters to protect the openings against sun and rain. We made them as big as possible and on opposite sides of the rooms to allow for cross ventilation. Most importantly we designed such a roof structure that allowed us to do an extra opening on the top of the room for the hot air to go out. Raffia was to be used for the ceiling and we would fill the space between raffia and the metal sheets with wood chippings wrapped in mosquito nets, to achieve a slightly better sound insulation when it rains.
Then came the most frustrating part. The local organisation had no money or means to raise such an amount, so we figured to try to help and raise it ourselves. This took us on a long journey where we registered a non profit organisation in Berlin (took some time!) and then continued by sending numerous application to various foundations near and far. It was all for
nothing since all answers we got were negative for various reasons. After all it was to be expected, we were a new NGO, asking for around 50.000€ for their first ever project. I wouldn’t give us money either! We figured to scale down a bit and maybe do only one or two classrooms as a start. We gathered a little bit of money through private donations and then decided to do an online crowdfunding campaign to raise the rest. We put a lot of effort in it and did manage to raise some money, but all in all the campaign wasn’t very successful.
And then we got lucky. One day there was an email in our inbox, from Fly & Help Foundation, saying they would donate the money for 5 classrooms. We didn’t really believe it at first, but it wasn’t a scam, they actually meant it. The money we gathered up to that point would be enough for the toilets facilities and we had ourselves an actual budget. Soon, with the money in our account, we were actually expected to do it. It was a bit scary. There were so many more things we didn’t know how to do and we really didn’t want to mess up our first project.
We had the money, construction was to start in 6 months, the design plans were adjusted, but still we had no team that was actually going to build it. Additionally, almost two years would have passed by the time construction started and we had no idea wether our prices were still realistic. The plan was to always have at least two people from our side present on-site as site managers, to coordinate and solve potential problems, but we needed a trusted local partner to actually do the work.
As with many things in this project, by a random turn of events, through some people we met on our trip, we managed get in contact with local contractors, a company named Alconstructs, who have already done some similar work for an established NGO, Sabre Trust, building kindergartens for them in the southern Ghana. Their kindergarten in Dwabor was among few projects we were always coming back to and comparing it to ours, and now we could actually have the people who worked on it on our own team. Besides learning on our own mistakes, which we did quite a lot on this project, we could now at least not repeat theirs.
Next months were spent in endless email discussion with them, discussing, adjusting various construction details, bargaining about their fee, writing up a realistic bill of quantities based on current market prices and basically trying to build it all as we wanted and still fit in the budget. It was obvious from the beginning that it would be hard to manage it all, but we were optimistic. Luckily for us, and not the Ghanaian economy, the inflation made the exchange rate more favourable so that helped a little as well.
Alconstructs also had a few pretty good craftsmen on their team – a proper mason, carpenters and a steel-bender that we would never manage to hire on our own. We even managed to make them find us a guy close by who could get raffia and they brought
in plastic framework for concrete. It was the last thing any of us expected to have, but yes, very soon there we were, complaining that the quality of visible concrete could be even better. You know, architects. Samuel was also on board with his earth blocks, although a bit
disappointed that we didn’t decide to do all the classrooms exclusively with his blocks. The main working power were the local men from the village who applied for the job.
The construction started in September 2017 and finished in March 2018. It lasted roughly 6 months and it was a proper undertaking. Project management was done from Berlin via
WhatsApp and email where we would solve all the budget and design issues. One or two of our volunteers were always be present on site to actually communicate all that to everyone else. Our colleague Masa was the one who actually stayed there for the whole construction duration and really helped for it to be done exactly how we wanted it to. As on any construction site, various issues happened daily, usually things none of us was 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.
Constant budget management and price comparisons probably took the majority of our time. We treated the whole construction budget as it was a multi million investment and really wanted to stay within the budget, which we did manage fairly well, and
ended maybe 5% over the total. Most importantly it all worked out great in the end to everyone’s satisfaction. For us, as the architects we can even say it turned out better than expected. The school opened in September 2018.
6. What we learned
It is absolutely amazing to be the architect, investor and the contractor in one. Which we were, more or less. The speed in which decisions are made is unparalleled. Just that experience was worth all the effort.
One should be careful how to approach the whole sustainability question. Sometimes being too sustainable could actually be unsustainable. Everything should be re-evaluated according to the exact project and location and, of course, available budget itself. Opening a hole in the roof helps way more with the ventilation than you think.
It all required way way more time and effort than we thought and if we knew it all beforehand we probably wouldn’t do it at all. But now that it is done, we’ll surely do it again.
Hopefully, to be more relaxed the next time, because everything manages itself somehow in he end. And as that joke goes, if it doesn’t then it’s not the end.