Santa Clara University


Green Building for Ghana

Ghana villagers and SCU students

Three senior civil engineering students experienced a Christmas break unlike any other they had ever known when they traveled to Africa to help members of Gambibgo, a rural village in Ghana, begin the process of building sustainable housing.

Betsy Leaverton, Jessica Long, and Julianne Padgett took on the task of designing durable and affordable housing as their senior design project. “Villagers currently use a combination of mud and dung and tin or thatched roofs for construction of their homes, which need to be replaced every three to five years,” said Padgett. “Our job was to find an inexpensive alternative that would withstand the heavy rainfall and flooding that causes the mud houses to disintegrate.”

Under the guidance of their civil engineering faculty advisors, Drs. Mark Aschheim and Sukhmander Singh, the students worked all summer researching materials and processes, and determined compressed earth bricks formed by a block press was the best alternative. “In the fall,” said Leaverton, “we tested cement ratios. The current method available in Gambibgo uses 50 percent each of cement and sand, resulting in a prohibitive $3,000 pricetag per house. We came up with a design that uses soil and just 5 percent cement, keeping the cost way down.” Their blocks also dry faster than conventional bricks, within two days, so building can be done quickly. With the material and process decided, the next step was to design the structure. “Our design uses an arched door, windows, and roof, which is less expensive because no permanent wood or steel is needed for headers,” said Long.

After months of hard work, it was time to put their design to the test. Their trip was partially funded by a grant from the Webb Family Foundation. Working through the Industrial Research Institute in Accra, the capital of Ghana, they set about finding a village that was willing to try their methods and soon learned that a collaborative attitude and community buy-in are crucial to bringing change. Having never seen such a thing, the villagers were skeptical of the arched window and roof design, so the students enlisted their help and set to work digging a foundation for a three- by four-meter house prototype, making blocks, and building a gabled wall that proved the strength and integrity of the design. When it was time to leave, the community was convinced. They plan to use the initial structure as a guest house and invited the three students to come back to Gambibgo and stay there.

“We were drawn to this project, not only as engineers, but also because of what we have learned as undergraduates at SCU,” said Leaverton. “It hit us on multiple levels—it presented an interesting engineering challenge that involves social justice and gives us a chance to help others.” Padgett adds, “I wanted a senior project that was more than just engineering. Being able to go to Africa and work on a project like this was a really good experience, not just professionally, but personally, too.”