Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Sustainable Design in Ghana: An Ethical Reflection

Nathan Rogers, SCU '12, and Matt Jensen, SCU '12

Section 1: Ethical Justification of the Project

To introduce our project and the ethical issues involved it is crucial to have a glimpse of the area in which our project is based. Gambibgo is a small village located in the Upper East region of Ghana. The population of the largely rural Upper East region hovers around 1 million 5. As the name suggests, the region lies in the northeast corner of Ghana, about 300 miles south of the Sahara Desert.

The majority of people living in the Upper East region are subsistence farmers. Rice, corn, and millet are three of the primary sources of food and, for those who are able to produce excess,7 income. The annual income per capita is less than $100 USD5, infant mortality rate is 48 per 1000 births,6 and the illiteracy rate is 78.1 percent.3 These numbers are striking when compared the United States' data of $41,6631 sup>1annual income per capita, 5.98 deaths per 1000 births,2 and a 1%2 2illiteracy rate.

Traditionally, residents of the Upper East lived in homes built from mud walls, with local timber supporting a thatched roof comprised of mud, grass, and branches. They were easy and cheap to construct, but could not withstand the heavy downpours and flooding of the rainy season. The structures required frequent maintenance and were often rebuilt after a couple rainy seasons.

Overpopulation and deforestation has since stripped the region of much of the timber required to build their traditional homes. During the dry season large trees are few and far between. The vast majority of the trees left standing are sacred Baobab trees, which will not be chopped down. Thus, rural Ghanaians no longer have access to the timber needed for their thatched roofs.

A "Western" design has been implemented in these regions to replace the traditional design. This design calls for walls comprised of blocks containing a mix of sand and cement, and corrugated zinc sheets framed with timber for the roof. These houses have the strength and chemical resistive properties to withstand the heavy rain, however, there are still many problems with the design in terms of cost, sustainability, and comfort.

The blocks for this "Western" design require a high cement content to withstand the effects of weathering, and cement is not cheap. The cement, timber, and zinc sheets are primarily produced in Accra, and must be shipped 480 miles to the Upper East. The shipping adds to the already high cost of the materials. The framing and installation of the zinc roofs requires skilled and costly carpentry. When built with zinc, roofs are prone to blowing off in high winds.

The materials comprising the "Western" design are unsustainable to both the economy and environment. Overloaded trucks do further damage to the already devastated roads as they travel from Accra with the cement, timber, and zinc. The production of these materials, coupled with the gas required to fuel the transport trucks releases high levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In addition to the above drawbacks, the houses can get excessively hot in the baking sun, forcing many to sleep outside, where they are prone to attract mosquitos. In the rainy season the raucous patter of rain on the zinc roofs is uncomfortably loud for many.

Our senior design project, Sustainable Design Solutions for Housing in Ghana aims to design an affordable, durable, sustainable, and socially acceptable house for the Upper East region of Ghana. For the past four years, students at Santa Clara University have developed the "Catenary Arch" design. Throughout the course of these four design projects, an office, a library, and a house have been constructed in Gambibgo. This arch structure is comprised of blocks made of local soil arranged in an arch and covered in a plaster. The structure has no need for zinc or timber, and the cement content is drastically reduced compared to the "Western" design. By removing these materials from the building, both the cost and the environmental damage are greatly reduced. The design is highly durable, requiring little maintenance. The project's long-term goal is for a sustainable housing solution that people of the region will replicate on their own, without technical or financial support of external organizations.

Much of the motivation to undertake this project comes from the desire to improve the lives of an underserved population. This is in line with the common good approach to ethics, which "calls attention to the common conditions that are important to the welfare of everyone", and asserts that our actions should contribute to these aspects which make up the good in our community. 4 As Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, we believe that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of his family including… housing." 11 Our project seeks to provide this fundamental right to a marginalized population. By continuously evaluating the ethics of our project, we sought to insure that the project is an ethical one and that it is carried out in an ethical fashion.

As American college students, we realize that we occupy a very privileged place in the world. As Santa Clara University students we learn that with this privilege comes the responsibility to give back to the world community in an effort for global solidarity. Solidarity is a crucial aspect of our Jesuit education, and motivation to pursue projects designed to assist an underserved population. The late Father Locatelli wrote, "Solidarity does not mean bleeding-heart sentimentalism; it combines rigorous intellectual inquiry with personal contact and commitment. This means that educating the whole person necessarily includes educating for social justice, because none of us can truly flourish while others are being shattered or excluded. This is the ethical bottom line: I cannot be whole if most of the world is broken."3

Our education gives us the tools to generate positive global change. As civil engineering students, we believe that developing a house design is an appropriate way to use our specialized expertise to advance this positive global change. The Code of Ethics constructed by the American Society of Civil Engineers states, "Engineers should seek opportunities to be of constructive service in civic affairs, and work for the advancement of the safety, health and well being of their communities, and the protection of the environment through the practice of sustainable development."10 Our view of global solidarity as explained by Father Locatelli includes all people throughout the world in the community of the ASCE Code of Ethics. Thus, in order to flourish ourselves, we have an ethical obligation to use our specialized skills to provide this fundamental right to those without it. In essence, we are not complete civil engineers, until we are using our skills for the benefit of humanity.

The utilitarian approach to ethics "emphasizes that the ethical action is the one that provides the most good or does the least harm, or to put it another way, produces the greatest balance of good over harm."4 The positives far outweighed the negatives in our decision to take on this project, and to maximize the beneficial results, this approach was key in our decision making throughout. We intended our design to be safe, sustainable, affordable, and socially acceptable, but these aspects are highly variable, and codependent. For example, we could have built the structure out of reinforced concrete, and added intricate details to ensure it was safe and socially acceptable. However, that structure would be neither affordable nor sustainable. To maximize the net positive impact of the building, we used a utilitarian approach to determine what degree of safety, sustainability, affordability and social acceptability we should design for.

Section 2: Virtues of a Good Engineer

Techno-social Sensitivity
Techno-social sensitivity is defined as a "critical awareness of the way technology affects society and the way social forces in turn affect the evolution of technology." 8 Our project's success was heavily dependent on our techno-social sensitivity. The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a housing system that the people in the region are building without outside assistance. If the design is not acceptable, the locals will not put their time and funding into building and living in them. A primary goal of this project was to find out why locals had not already begun to replicate these affordable, sustainable, and safe structures.

Working directly with the people the project was intended to serve in Gambibgo gave us an understanding of the relationship between the technical and social aspects of the project; specifically whether or not the people had a positive view of the design, and how their current building practices provide additional challenges towards the mass implementation of the current design. Our first concern was whether the people would like the arch design, which looks nothing like their traditional structures. The people of Gambibgo loved the structures. Despite the nontraditional shape, and use of unreinforced masonry in the roofs, our conversations with locals indicated that they viewed them as structurally safe. The structures provided excellent heat insulation, and as a result, the library was a popular hangout spot to escape the intense midday heat. During our stay in Gambibgo, there were multiple groups of people from neighboring villages who visited the structures and asked if we could build them in their village. We came back from Gambibgo confident that the structures were well liked by the people they intended to benefit.

Given that the structures were socially acceptable, we were perplexed as to why there had been no move in the village to replicate them. During our time in the Upper East we noticed that a huge number of structures, ranging from the smallest houses, to large stadiums, were partially completed. For instance, many houses had walls that only partially enclosed an area, and no roof. In the larger cities, many multiple-story buildings had rebar sticking out of the roof, and the start of another uncompleted level. In these cases, it was clear that the project was not currently being worked on. We realized that in the rural regions of Ghana, it is common to start a construction project with whatever funds are available, then be forced to delay the construction when the money runs out; resuming the project months or even years later when additional funding becomes available.

When building their traditional mud huts or the western design, it is easy to fragment the construction process into multiple phases. For instance, someone could start by building a wall, then run out of money. Six months later, when funds are available, that wall will still be standing on its own and the other walls can be completed. Then a year later, after running out of and regaining funds for the second time, the ceiling can be built and installed.

Our design relies on an arch that makes up the walls and ceiling. The structural strength of the arch is dependent on the full arch being built. It is most effectively built with a team of laborers, who are able to build it in one phase. If it is not fully built, it lacks the level of strength for which it was designed. Therefore the builder needs to have all the necessary funding and materials at once, rather than constructing the structure over a period of months or years. This reality caused us to second guess the practicality of the design in the region. Already deep in the design process, and not convinced that this practical consideration made our design totally unfeasible, we continued to attempt to improve the catenary arch design. We simultaneously looked towards alternative designs that could be built using their current building practices.

An NGO in Ghana's neighbor to the north, Burkina Faso, has designed a house that has already successfully been built over one thousand times. Although it does not use materials as efficiently as the catenary design, its vertical walls and arched ceiling can be constructed in separate phases. Next year's group will be investigating that structure, looking to improve its design, and concluding whether or not it is a better design for the region.

We realized the importance of the "customer" in the design process; and the need to thoroughly investigate the culture and current practices of the society to ensure that the new design fits in with their values and goals. This is especially important when the customer is from a vastly different culture. The habit of continuously reevaluating our preexisting assumptions was necessary. Initially it was natural for us to assume that business and social relations work the same way everywhere as they do in the United States. This is a bad assumption to have when doing a project of this sort, because, as we discovered in Ghana, the business and social workings are far different, and making false assumptions can lead to unexpected results.

Respect for Nature
Our concern for the environment and respect for nature played a large role in designing this sustainable project. The prime cause of the building crisis in the Upper East is deforestation. Trees are few and far between in the region. The remaining trees are primarily Boa trees, which are considered sacred, and are, therefore, left untouched. Along with the lost beauty of the trees that came as a result of deforestation, the local soil has suffered. The heavy downpours of the rainy season erode the fertile topsoil that had been held in place by the roots of trees.

The lack of local timber resulted in a western style house replacing the traditional mud hut with a thatched roof design. This "Western Design", uses large quantities of cement, timber, and corrugated zinc sheets. Not only are these materials environmentally damaging in their productions, but also, they must be shipped from Accra, which is about 500 miles south of the Upper East Region. The overloaded trucks emit additional pollutants into the environment. This project sought to reduce dependence on these environmentally damaging imported materials.

The arch design removes the need for timber or zinc, and reduces cement content. This year, we determined that the blocks that make up the arch had sufficient strength without cement. The current design calls for only local sand and soil in the blocks. Cement is still used in the plaster of the structure, to provide waterproofing, but the overall content has been significantly reduced from the previous year's design. Timber and zinc are no longer used in the design, because the arch shape naturally forms a roof.

Throughout the course of this project, nature, and our impact upon it was a primary concern. By using local sand and soil as the primary materials for this project, the traditional earth building practices are continued, as is the connection of the homebuilders and dwellers to their land.

Commitment to the Public Good
We were greatly motivated by the potential of this project to help a large number of people. It was very exciting for us to be a part of a project that could increase accessibility of housing in an underserved region. The knowledge that this project could eventually affect a large group of people also put more pressure on our performance. Ideally this project will affect people not only in Gambibgo, but also throughout the rural regions of West Africa. This multiplied the impact of even the smallest design changes. We viewed each aspect of the design as if it were being built for thousands of people. The potential to benefit a large number of people significantly raised the stakes of this project for us. We dedicated much more time and care to this project than we have to our schoolwork, or other purely theoretical exercises, because we saw the potential for each of our decisions to affect the lives of many people.

Working with the masons, laborers, village elders, advisors, University, outside organizations, and each other has taught us a lot about operating as a team. Each entity had ideas, motivations, and skills that contributed this project in unique ways. It was tremendously important for us to develop an understanding of the ideas, motivations, and skills of each group, so that we could best utilize them to push the project forward. During the developing stages of the project, it felt like these separate entities were all pulling the project a different way. Finding our concrete vision for the project was critical. As was realizing that this project was now in our hands. That we were the primary people responsible for the success of the project, and as a result needed to be the primary decision makers.

Our primary motivations were to provide a sustainable, safe, and affordable housing system to the region and to fulfill our Senior Design obligations. Chadory, a Gambibgo resident who has assisted students with this project for the past four years as a guide and translator had slightly different motivations. His primary motivation was to help the people of his immediate community; thus he wanted the focus to be on the continued building of structures in Gambibgo. One of the objectives we tried to convey to Chadory and the people of Gambibgo, was that this project's goal was to develop a better process for them to build their own structures in the future, rather than continually funding and building new structures for them. Because we did not speak their native language, FraFra, it was hard to know how well Chadory articulated this idea to the village elders. When we first arrived, the people of Gambibgo had the false assumption that we would be building another complete structure. It seemed that Chadory's translations would occasionally be somewhat manipulated to make both parties happy.

Working in Gambibgo was also a struggle at first. Each day we had to check in with the village elder, Mohammed, and through translations with Chadory have our daily plan approved. We had hoped to work alongside the masons finishing construction of the house and library, but they did not want us working with them. They took great pride in their craft, and did not trust the workmanship of outsiders. We realized that they were highly skilled in their craft, and that by pushing the issue and requesting that we help, we might offend them, or compromise the quality of the construction.

Chadory's motivation and the mason's skills are only two of numerous situations where we had to recognize the characteristics of our team, and act accordingly. Along with maintaining positive working relationships with groups outside of our Senior Design team, it was crucial that the two of us maintained a healthy working relationship, especially during our five-week stay in Ghana. We disagreed many times throughout the project from issues regarding best course of action on a design issue, to where to eat. Fortunately, the two of us were consistently open to compromise. We realized each other's strengths and weaknesses, and were very open with each other. We were able to get a good amount of work done while having fun, and maintaining our sanity during our five week stay in the Upper East Region.

Initially we were incredibly excited and motivated to work on this project because we thought we could create a lasting, positive impact on many lives. However, this motivation as well as the outside influence and funding made the project very stressful. The frequent roadblocks of the project, and ups and downs of the design process made this a very emotionally stressful endeavor. Early on, the realization that many of our time consuming efforts had led to no clear benefit had begun to wear on us.

Learning to find satisfaction in the process itself, rather than just the project impact and reportable findings was crucial in sustaining our motivation. We took comfort in the Einstein quote, "You never fail until you stop trying." In seeing that many ideas and efforts resulted in failure, it was important to keep an optimistic attitude. We tried to always assume that we could eventually find some thing, or method that would work.

After working for two months on a hand analysis for the structure, we almost burned out and gave up. We had a week before our presentation, and the need to finish and practice our PowerPoint was increasing by the day. At one point, we gave ourselves a limit of two more hours to try and figure out the hand calculations, before moving on to finishing the PowerPoint. At the end of the two hours, we had made a couple key discoveries that we thought could lead to a breakthrough, so we gave ourselves another two hours. This process ended up continuing for two days, until, finally, we had our results. The courage to continue to attempt different methods and reevaluate the problem from different angles without seeing a solution in sight led us to our breakthrough.

In our class problems, there is almost always a predefined answer. In the problems of the real world there is not. It took courage to go out and search for answers that we were not sure existed.

Section 3: Safety, Risk, the Public, and Informed Consent

A primary goal of this year's project was to determine whether or not the structures were truly theoretically stable, and to what degree. Previous groups used a software program to analyze the complex catenary arch under loading. However, this software is not designed to analyze unreinforced masonry, nor arches, and it makes numerous assumptions unknown to the user. By performing analysis calculations without the use of analysis software, we were able to get a better sense of just how safe the structure is. By analyzing the structure and finding the likely modes of failure, we can adjust the design to create a suitable safety factor for the structures that will provide adequate durability and prevent collapse.

Conveying the risks to the people of Gambibgo was not hard. They know that if built insufficiently, the houses could collapse, and although we could not explain in precise technical detail, they trusted our judgment on the particular dimensions of the design.

During our site visit we assessed the existing structures for any damages. We saw that cracks had formed on the exterior plaster of each structure as a result of temperature variations. This posed no immediate threat, but if left unmaintained, they could continue to grow, and water could seep in and damage the structure. To remedy this, the masons patched the cracks with additional plaster. In our new design, we include chicken wire in the exterior plaster. The chicken wire will provide tensile strength that will reduce plaster cracking, which make the house more durable and require less maintenance.

We also noticed slight deformation in the roof of the 2009 Office, the first structure built in Gambibgo. This structure was built using vertical walls and an arched roof, supported by a stepped buttress. There are two explanations for the deformation. When constructed, masons did not pre-wet the blocks before applying the mortar. If not pre-wet, the blocks will suck out the moisture from the mortar. This weakens the mortar and the connection between the mortar and block. Also, the stepped buttress that supports the horizontal force of the roof was not continuous down the length of the structure. This could have led to insufficient support of the roof at the sections that were not directly supported by the buttress. Spencer, who worked on the 2010 Library and had recently visited, as well as the people of Gambibgo believed the structure was not at risk of collapse, despite the deformation. However, our lack of certainty led us to recommend that the building be closed until repairs could be made. The possible injury to or death of children, who frequently play inside the structure, was too great a risk for us to accept, given even a shred of doubt on the structure's stability.

After assessing these risks, we called a meeting with the masons, laborers, and village elders to discuss the appropriate action. We were all on the same page in regards to the cracks, and the masons indicated that they had been, and would continue to monitor the cracks and patch them as needed. They were initially upset to hear that we wanted to temporarily close the 2009 Office, but were also appreciative that our number one concern was their safety. The presiding village elder, Mohammed, voiced his appreciation for our transparency and agreed to close the structure until the roof could be rebuilt.

Opening the lines of communication and keeping the community in the loop was crucial to this project in a number of ways. By maintaining full transparency we developed a mutual respect with members of the community, even some that were initially wary of our presence. When we first came to Gambibgo, many masons had expected that we were there to build a new structure. They hoped for many days of paid labor and were disappointed to find out that we would only contract them to finish the existing structures. Our initial labor talks were very tense, as both sides came in with far different expectations of the magnitude of the work. We clearly laid out our expectations with Chadory, who relayed them to Mohammed, who spoke to the Masons. The previous Santa Clara University groups had worked up a supremely positive rapport with Chadory and Mohammed. They argued on behalf of us, and explained to the masons and laborers that we did not have unlimited resources, and that our time was volunteered. When one temperamental mason raised his voice in disagreement with the terms we had proposed, Muhammad firmly stated something along the lines of, "I am the one in charge here." We finally agreed to pay for three days of labor for the masons and laborers. At the end of the three days, with some work left to be finished, the majority of masons and laborers agreed to continue working without pay. Chadory and Mohammed had convinced them that the work was benefiting their community, and that they should help. Even after the construction was complete, many stayed around to help us with our materials testing. This relationship was extremely rewarding for the project, as our time working with the people revealed more about their perceptions of the structures. It was also very rewarding for us, as their friendship made our time in Gambibgo much more fun. By making their safety our number one concern, and effectively informing them about the risks of the project, we were able to create and maintain these positive working relationships.


We hope this project will improve the living conditions of an underserved population by introducing a safe, sustainable, affordable and socially acceptable house design. The motivation to pursue this project in the first place, and our ongoing commitment to our performance came from knowing that this project had the potential to help the common good. To maximize the common good brought throughout this project, a utilitarian process was used to evaluated the design and ethical decisions throughout. Working in a culture different from our own posed many previously unencountered issues. It was critical to maintain good communication and a high level of transparency between our team and the locals, so that we could best help each other. Above all, we made sure to consistently put safety first, and keep the public informed about any risks associated with the project.

This experience has been truly remarkable for us. It has increased our technical proficiency, global perspective, communication skills, and project management prowess. It has instilled within us the process of consistently evaluating the complex ethical implications that our actions have.

Nathan Rogers and Matt Jensen were Hackworth Grant recipients; the grant provided them with partial support for their on the Ethics Section of their School of Engineering Senior Design Project focused on the construction of a house in a village in Ghana. Their Senior Design Project was completed in Spring 2012.
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