More fun than fun.

Someone opined recently that life was divided into work and fun, but that work was more fun than fun.  Designing high schools in remote locations in the Solomon Islands was a totally new experience for me and certainly fell into the fun category. 

In the Eighties when these schools were built the Solomon Islands had a population of around three hundred thousand people, eighty five percent of whom still relied on a subsistence village economy with annual per capita incomes of around A$200.  Growth rates in the order of 3.5 percent combined with a high percentage of children under fifteen formed an explosive mix that can double the population every ten to fifteen years.

The need to cater for such a young population led to a World Bank loan for three high schools.  The schools are boarding schools with two terms of five months.  Each year has four classes of thirty-six students, two-thirds boys and one-third girls.  With eighteen teachers, five auxiliary staff and their families, the schools formed self-contained communities of over seven hundred people. 

Owing to traditional land tenure problems the schools are on remote sites on Guadalcanal, New Georgia and Malaita, and access to all of them is difficult.  To get to the Mbuila site on New Georgia for example, required flying from Honiara by light plane to a war-time grass landing strip at Munda and then travelling for an hour up the Roviana Lagoon in a fibreglass canoe powered by an outboard motor.  Except for the odd half submerged rusting landing barge left over from the war, it was as though the world had just been made, with rainforest hanging low over the beaches of palm fringed islands.

Solomons Photo

Solomons River 2

Solomons Photo

This young man came out of the bush one day wearing a t-shirt proclaiming, 'when I grow up I'm going to be an architect'. Goodness knows where he got it, but it echoed my sentiments exactly.   When I got back I proposed getting some for the office but none of my colleagues liked the idea!

Recurrent operating costs were clearly a major problem once the schools were completed.  Because of erratic funding from the central government there had even been occasions where children had to be sent home because there was no money even for food, so keeping running costs as low as possible was an ever-present goal.

A source of fresh water had to be found at each school, and I remember well our first visit to Mbuila with local villagers hacking a path through the bush to a fast flowing stream on the other side of a ridge from the school;  it was real Dr Livingstone, Boys Own Annual stuff! 

The water had to be lifted up over fifty metres to a storage tank above the school, and then gravitated into break tanks on the roofs of the bathrooms to reduce pressure and conserve water.

Solomons Photo

The water was pumped up using hydraulic rams, an old device that has fallen into disuse since they were first developed to serve upper floor bathrooms in English country houses.  My engineers had never heard of rams and it took a worldwide search to establish that they were still available in the United States.  They are low maintenance and the force of the river, pushes the water up at no cost for 24/7.

All in the earlier schools I had visited exhibited lack of maintenance, so clearly a more radical design approach was needed. The construction budget for each school was only $2.8 million, which was low even in 1985.  Inspection of other schools had revealed that conventional toilets and cisterns, taps and showerheads, door handles and locks were items of heavy use, curiosity and vandalism, and once broken were rarely ever fixed. 

Efforts were made to reduce the effects of Murphy's Law by eliminating everything that might go wrong or required looking after.  Toilets are of the squat type with a bucket chained to a tap for pour flushing.  And as everyone showers during the same slot in the school timetable, we proposed that all the showers should be turned on just for the specified hour by a master valve.  The need for individual taps was thereby eliminated, and showerheads were also made unnecessary by swaging over the end of the pipe, all this reducing both initial and future costs.

This reductive approach was taken further to avoid the recurrent cost and delivery difficulties of gas cylinders for cooking.  Special wood fired, stainless steel cooking pots (below), a bit like my mother's depression-era wash boiler, were developed to use the plentifully available waste wood as fuel.

Solomons Photo

A stand alone, solar powered electrical system using photovoltaic cells and batteries to provide twenty-four volt direct current was also developed.  Recurrent costs would have been eliminated except for the eventual replacement of the batteries.  Alas, diesel generation was still seen as progress and the system was not adopted due to local feelings that they were being fobbed off with a Third World solution!

Fletchers, an old New Zealand firm experienced in working in remote places, were selected as builders by calling international tenders.  The logistics required in a situation where the only contact is by radio-telephone, weather permitting, can be imagined.  With an annual rainfall averaging three and a half metres,  construction delays posed continual problems.  At Mbuila concrete aggregates were not available locally and had to be barged to the site along with everything else.

Solomons Photo

The buildings are timber framed and clad in corrugated steel sheeting and except for the teachers' houses, are not glazed.  For economy all the schools have exactly the same buildings arranged to suit the contours of each particular site.  The kids dig kitchen gardens and grow most of the vegetables needed, and play sport enthusiastically.

Solomons Photo

Solomons Photo

Stephen Joseph, who designed and made the cooking pots, had prevously designed economical wood fired bread ovens in Nepal.  This had led him to take the holistical approach that designing more effficient stoves required the buildings to be better ventilated to protect the health of the women working there, and this led on to afforestation schemes to provide a renewable source of wood for the stoves.

His sustainable approach was clearly the way to go and I had a similar difficulty knowing where to stop.  As the headmaster was in effect the building manager in such remote locations we persuaded the Education Department to select them ahead of time so they could live on site with the builders for the last six months in order to understand where everything was, how they worked, and how to fix them.  Not really our business but we wanted our schools to work well the way they were designed.

There was always a shortage of trained teachers so I also got into the timetable and worked out that a few classes on Saturday morning would enable the school to operate satisfactorily with one less teacher and save the cost of one less house.  However most of the teachers had been trained in Oz colleges and as our schools don't have classes on Saturday mornings they would accept nothing less!

It was difficult to know when to stop, and the whole experience was a useful corrective to architectural practice in Australia.  Raised on the idea that architecture should ideally have a social purpose, I like to think these schools are making a real difference, AND it was fun.  The photographs below shows the teachers houses at Mbuila towards the end of construction, and as seen from the lagoon.  The insulated roofs have wind activated whirly-gig ventilators to induce air flow through the houses.

 Solomons Houses

Solomons Houses 2

Don Gazzard LFAIA

Mid September 2015