Engineering News Fall 2016
Building a Life
Scott Hanson '14 (BS, civil engineering) was one year out of college and into a lucrative job as project engineer for a respected builder in the San Francisco Bay Area when the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake leveled much of Nepal on April 25, 2015. At that moment he couldn't have guessed that within a year he would be living in a tent in the hills of Nepal, working as construction manager for the nonprofit organization Conscious Impact, rebuilding a school for 75 children in the village of Bimire; but that's exactly what happened.
A lifelong practice of serving others and a trip to Rwanda to build a water system during his senior year at Santa Clara paved the way for his life-altering decision to put his knowledge and talents to work as a volunteer for Conscious Impact. "I originally intended to volunteer for two months, travel for two months, come home for the holidays, and then return to work in the Bay again. I truly planned to return to life as it was before my trip, but once I arrived in the hills of Nepal, it didn't take me long to realize that I would be gone for a while," he said.
His knowledge of sustainable building materials and practices has served him well as he's built with bamboo, stone, steel, and compressed stabilized earth blocks made from local soil, sand, and cement. He's also built a water pump system and several gravity-fed systems to serve the volunteer camp and facilitate the production of the thousands of blocks needed for construction. In June, the Siddhartha Primary School was completed. Conscious Impact is currently raising funds for a second primary school in the village; construction will begin once the funding is secured and permits are in hand. In the meantime, underway is a headquarters and sewing facility for the local women's co-op, which serves women in over 700 families.
"I came to Nepal to help rebuild the lives of those who lost everything, and I've gained so much in the process—both from local Nepalis and from international volunteers from all walks of life. I followed my heart across the globe for what was originally supposed to be two months. More importantly," he said, "I listened to my heart when it told me to stay. I'm honored to be here and to be of service to the wonderful Nepali people."
Enjoy an interview with Scott Hanson below and read his blog buildgoodthings.wordpress.com. Conscious Impact is currently fundraising to rebuild a second school. Every dollar donated provides two bricks. Learn more: consciousimpact.org
Where did you get your drive to serve the global community?
I grew up in a family that was always volunteering. Service has been a part of my life from a young age, and growing up I always enjoyed the feeling I got after using my time and energy to help someone. I carried with me the feeling that it is my honor and duty to help when I am in a position to do so. As I gained valuable engineering knowledge during my time at SCU, I viewed my new tools as ways that I could make a larger impact. I knew that I could make a real difference if the opportunity presented itself.
What building materials work well in Nepal?
Living in Nepal has been wonderful because of the different kinds of building techniques I've gained experience with. Bamboo is my favorite so far because it is so flexible, so durable, and its uses so diverse. Our brick production facility made out of bamboo was constructed in under two weeks. We built the entire structure without any nails or screws: Two simple lashing techniques secure all joints, which are strong but easy to take apart or adjust if needed. (We built with green bamboo which changes size slightly as it ages, so it's sometimes necessary to tighten joints.) In our volunteer camp a five-meter tall tipi is a gathering space for meetings and local festivals. My favorite application of bamboo was for a local festival. The custom is to use four vertical pieces of bamboo stuck into the ground, and bent into two arches, which are brought together to create a giant swing for villagers to use throughout the festival. The structure stood about 15 meters tall and was completed in one hour. Truly amazing material to work with.
Another one we use frequently is cob, which is an ancient earthen material of mixed sand, clay, and straw. We use it for benches, our outdoor kitchen countertops, and our two giant ovens. I'm a fan of cob because it is made entirely out of locally available materials and is easy to work with for small applications. It's also a wonderful option for plastering surfaces.
Our compressed stabilized earth blocks are neat because they are made mostly from locally available earth and sand and can be used to build large multi-story structures. The blocks require a lot of manual effort to make and need to cure for a month and dry for another, but the end result is really great. The blocks themselves are easy to build with, strong, and their shapes allow for vertical and horizontal steel reinforcement in the walls. And the carbon emissions involved in their production are far less than that of standard bricks. [So,] an environmentally friendly construction material, made from materials available all over the world, whose finished products are gorgeous, earthquake-safe buildings.
I am also learning about earthbag construction, a method I’m excited to employ in the village I live in. The concept is simple: Local soil is used to fill sacks that are used to build the walls—kind of like military bunkers. The materials required for this method are extremely cheap, so this could be an excellent building style in the rural villages of Nepal, where families make little income and buying construction materials for a new home seems an impossible goal. I think this style of building could catch on.
Do you anticipate returning to the U.S. to work in the construction industry, or is this your life's work?
I would love to make this my life's work, but volunteering doesn’t help me pay my student loans! I figure I'll have to return to work after our next school is complete. Ideally I can spend my years being paid to work on projects that will help people, but I foresee myself using work in the construction industry to fund my time abroad. If I could find a position with a contractor that does humanitarian work, that would be ideal, but I'm planning to work long enough to pay off my loans and gain some savings so I can volunteer my time on other projects.
What gets you up every morning?
While the work that I do most days is extremely strenuous physically, I find that I always wake up feeling eager to start my day. I suppose that's part of what happens when you're working on a project you strongly believe in, that supports people with whom you have close ties. The Nepali people have really blown me away. I remember before coming here, everyone who'd been to Nepal raved about the attitude of the Nepali people, but I really didn't know what to expect until I arrived. The villagers I’ve become close to are all so compassionate, so giving, and so optimistic, even after losing their entire livelihoods. For many people, the homes were just the beginning of the damage. I know several people who lost all of their livestock, whether that was buffaloes to be sold for meat in Kathmandu, or thousands of chickens to sell for meat in the village. Despite losing everything, these people still manage to greet me with a large smile at all times, and they insist on stuffing me beyond full anytime I come for a meal at one of their homes. In the face of adversity and loss, these people don’t miss a beat, and their resilience is a huge motivation for me. Knowing that they haven't given up hope that things will get better forces me to be the best I can to support them.
Did SCU play a role in developing you into a person who devotes time to helping others?
That desire has been part of me since I was young, but there’s no denying that Santa Clara further encouraged me. Through the School of Engineering's chapter of Engineers Without Borders, I got to commit my time toward meaningful projects that could have a lasting impact. Additionally, the School helped me fly to Rwanda to implement my senior design project, which could have easily stayed forever in the theoretical planning stage at any other institution. The university's confidence in my and my partner's ability to design and construct a meaningful project gave me my first taste of overseas volunteering and reignited my desire to help people. That experience of seeing my design taking shape after months of planning gave me a new fire to pursue work in development. After graduation, I joined the San Francisco professional chapter of Engineers Without Borders and helped them with design and fundraising for some wells in a village in Kenya. I liked knowing that my energy was helping someone elsewhere in the globe, but after my experience in Rwanda of being in the field and building alongside locals, this remote way of assisting was not enough for me. I knew I wanted to devote my early years to living in rural areas, working alongside locals to deliver meaningful projects. Without SCU's support of my Rwanda project and the experience I had traveling and working there, I don't know if I would’ve actively sought a role that sent me across the globe to live in a tent. In that way, I think that my time at SCU absolutely played an influential role in getting me to where I am right now. For me, it evolved such that talking about ways to help others was no longer satisfactory. I knew that I had the ability and the tools to go build a tangible product that could meet others' needs.
Why did you choose SCU in the first place?
That's a tough question. I remember my mom mentioned it as a school to consider because my sister had looked into it, and my mom remembered that they had a good engineering program. I didn't know much about the university, or the surrounding areas, but I remember the moment I walked onto campus and felt at home. I knew I wanted that to be my university. I quickly set up an appointment to shadow a student during my senior year of high school, and the people I met during that shadow day became good friends who continued to be dear acquaintances all the way through university. I just remember feeling right at home the moment I walked onto the road up to the Mission. After deciding on it, I researched its programs and found that the engineering school was great, which was a nice coincidence for me. It all really came down to following my gut feeling, which I've always been good at. It has yet to lead me wrong.
What should current students know about your experiences?
I think it's important for current students to know that alternative paths like mine exist. It's not in everyone's destiny to get a good degree and head right into the corporate world after graduation. I do think eventually I will return to "normal" work, but I hadn't even really considered this lifestyle or occupation as an option after graduation. I had my blinders on in a sense and hurried to find a job. I wanted this alternative kind of life but didn't know how to make it happen. I knew I'd be happiest doing this kind of work, but in my mind it was always something that I’d have to do down the road, after establishing myself at a good company and working my way up through the ranks. My end goal was clear to me, I just had no idea how to arrive there. Thanks to some trust in my gut instinct, I took a leap of faith and ended up right where I want to be. I suppose that’s another piece of advice I have to offer: It's important to know where you're ultimately trying to end up. Without a goal or destination in mind, it's too easy to drift through life on a path that does not align with where one is trying to go. That's not to say that I had my path figured out by any means—I knew what I wanted, but I had no idea how to make it happen. By knowing what I wanted though, I was able to identify an opportunity that would put me right where I wanted to be in life. It took a little bit of planning and vision, but it took just as much faith to pull the trigger on my changes. It would've been easy to stay at my high-paying job and daydream about what it would've been like to go to Nepal, but I knew that wouldn't get me any closer to my destination.
Anything else you'd like to share?
Anyone interested in volunteering or donating can visit consciousimpact.org. We host 10-day volunteer trips monthly and always welcome volunteers who wish to stay for a longer time. All of our work is completely funded by donations, and we are currently fundraising for a second school, in addition to a few other exciting projects. We also welcome donations: Each dollar puts us approximately two bricks closer to bringing our projects to fruition. Also, my personal blog describing the work we do and the life we live in the hills is at buildgoodthings.com, where I post photos and a bit more detail and insight into our projects.
This is my first time in Nepal, and I only wish I could've seen the beautiful countryside in which I live prior to all of the destruction. I'm honored to be here and be of service to the wonderful Nepali people.
Sep 15, 2016
Scott Hanson '14, right, on the job in Nepal. Credit: Jonathan H. Lee / ConsciousImpact.org