Santa Clara University

SCU Engineering News

Students Spend Christmas in Ghana

Laura Skinner '10 carries materials to sustainable building project in Northern Ghana

It was a Christmas break like no other for four SCU civil engineering seniors as they spent a month in northern Ghana helping villagers construct a library and an onion storage facility using sustainable building materials and an innovative design. Spencer Ambauen, Erica Fieger, Brienna Rust, and Laura Skinner teamed up last June to begin work on their year-long senior design project, carrying on the effort begun the year before by a previous group of seniors with the support of Village Projects International.

In the summer and fall quarter, they worked on their durable, yet economical, design for the 800 sq. ft. buildings, which use no timber or metal, studying the benefits of orienting bricks in different ways and investigating how to build by hand with no electricity. They also tested reducing the amount of cement used to make the compressed earth and concrete blocks that are more sustainable and less expensive than the region’s traditionally used bricks. “We learned a lot about masonry and design,” said Fieger. Along the way, they also learned about finance and grant writing as they applied for and were awarded funding from a number of different sources: a Hackworth Grant from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics; an SCU Undergraduate Travel Award; and grants from the SCU Center for Science, Technology and Society and The Webb Family Foundation.

Once in Ghana, the four toiled from 8 a.m. to sunset everyday, except Christmas and New Year’s Day, training masons in Gambibgo and Zebilla to implement their design. “The goal was to get the projects to the point where they could be finished without us,” said Rust. “And by the time we left, the masons knew how to do every aspect on their own—the foundation, bearing walls, vault, and windows.”

The new style of sustainable construction is proving to be quite a draw in Ghana as people have traveled halfway across the country to see the building that was constructed last year, but some wariness exists as well. “It’s a difficult concept and looks different from what they are used to,” said Skinner. “One person said, ‘maybe you should put a zinc roof on it to make it look stable.’”

The four agree it will take time for this style of building to become widely accepted, but they are hopeful that another group of students will carry their work forward next year. “Making an impact by applying what we have learned at Santa Clara was important to us in choosing our senior design project,” said Rust. Fieger agrees. “Going beyond ‘senior design’ to see our design realized was an amazing experience.”