By Stephen Dixon

In early November my wife Kate and I embarked on a two week visit to St Joseph’s School for the Hearing Impaired in Sierra Leone. Our mission was to begin the project management for the construction of a new sanitation block, based on the client’s brief of “we need a new one”.

It was 8:30pm in Makeni, the sun had set and we were discussing the project options with the client: a 70 years-young Irish nun that runs the school. Suddenly Sister Mary jumps up and says, “Have you not seen the current block? It’s been there since 1956!”. And so the project changed completely: from the design and construction of a new block to the renovation of an existing block!.

Our trip was fact finding: to get as much information as possible to aid the most durable, sustainable and appropriate design. The current sanitation blocks contain short-drop toilets in two groups of four, one block for each gender. Stinky, dark, dirty, unsustainable, unsafe and unlit: these are hardly suitable facilities for the 100 hearing impaired students that live at St. Joseph’s.

Kate is on the board of trustees for the Friends of St. Joseph’s School for the Hearing Impaired, the UK charity for the school. We met at the school in 2013, when she was working with the charity, and I was visiting my friend who also worked there (later to be the best man at our wedding). Earlier this year Kate was helping the charity with designs for a new sanitation block. Initially, only my wife was going to go to Sierra Leone to do the research for the design. However, my experience as a Geotechnical Engineer proved invaluable, and the board of trustees voted unanimously to cover the cost of my flights and visa!

The pressure was on to make sure that I collected as much information as possible during the two weeks, and my research began in earnest. I chatted to various contacts, and many kind and helpful people at Cundall, who pointed me in the direction of several pertinent British Standards and Building Regulations. These documents became my lunchtime and, embarrassingly, bedtime reading material.

During the two weeks at the school we dug trial pits, got the existing block surveyed, visited multiple contractors and suppliers, sought advice from project managers in Makeni and gained some useful information from a UNICEF representative.

Before we left the school we ensured the construction project was set up to begin as soon as funds are released. The building contractor will manage the plumbing contractor, the roofing contractor and his own building team. There will be representatives of the school acting as site supervisors, site security for the children and the building materials, and will be reporting the project progress on a bi-weekly basis.

We were really pleased to be able to do so much in our brief time there, but that would not have been possible without so many people being generous with their time, not only at St Joseph’s School for the Hearing Impaired, but also at Cundall.

By the end of the dry season (April 2017) there should be improved hand-wash basins, functioning showers and toilets, new urinals, a higher roof with a ceiling and rows of ventilation bricks to make for cooler and better lit rooms. There will be more security for the students belongings, laundry facilities and a second dining hall. All this was condensed into a report that the board of trustees are all pleased with: so thanks to everyone that has helped. Please let me know if you have any ideas or have experience on similar projects, as I found plenty more projects to help the school whilst I was there!

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Stephen Dixon, Volunteering

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