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Working in Malawi

JMP director Hannah Lawson gives an account of developing schools in Malawi.

In 2007, we were invited to develop the prototype Malawi Schools because of a chance meeting between John McAslan and Rob Stoner from the Clinton Hunter Development Initiative at Nairobi Airport. Rob was looking to improve on the concrete block school buildings being built in Malawi at the time, which were both unsustainable due to the excessive amount of concrete used whilst also providing extremely poor environmental conditions - daylight was very limited and temperatures fluctuated from very hot in the summer to cold in the winter. Our brief was therefore to improve the quality of the light and environmental performance for the cost of an existing school at US$12 per sq.ft. or US$25,000 per school, catering for about 170 children. 

The project was a huge challenge, especially given the remote rural locations; limited water supply, local skills and available materials; and varied climatic and geographical conditions.

With no design standards and performance benchmarks for schools in Malawi, working with Arup, we collated and established criteria using local thermal and solar data, ultimately reducing the temperature by about 3°C compared to current designs. We designed a simple ridge ventilation element that provides both daylight and ventilation, which proved to be the major difference, achieving daylight levels in the region of 3 to 5% even in the winter months.

Adrian Campbell from Arup used sophisticated engineering logic to create a simple materials solution, justifying all building elements to decide what was needed rather than just what had just been used before, including stabilised soil blocks for the main wall elements. There are now established methods to make these onsite, providing jobs for local workers and increasing skills. The floors and foundations use less material, saving money, and the roof utilises roof sheeting to eliminate bracing, resulting in a very lean, but robust structure that is cheap and easy to build.

Overall we aimed for transformational schools, moving away from the two classroom format by creating a central space in-between with double-doors opening into each and two overhanging spaces at either end, creating five teaching spaces in total. We also aimed to re-establish the school as a central community building embraced by the village for all family activity - education, health and social; historically this occurred as schools were built by the local villages as opposed to by the government and therefore ownership was ensured. This association and familiarity with the building encourages parents to send their children to school - much needed in many areas. When we last visited, the mothers were standing in the community spaces watching their children being taught and were learning too, while preschool children set up camp in one of the end bays mimicking older siblings learning.

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