Handmade school in Bangladesh
© B.K.S. Inan-Aga Khan award for architecture

Two storey school building made with earth and bamboo

Anna Heringer Architecture as Architects

Project goal:

The philosophy of METI (Modern Education and Training Institute) is learning with joy. The teachers help the children to develop their own potential and to use it in a creative and responsible way. The building reflects these ideas in terms of materials, techniques and architectural design.


The aim of the project is to improve existing building techniques, to contribute to sustainability by utilising local potential and to strengthen regional identity.


Detailed Description

Context

Bangladesh is a fertile alluvial land in the Gulf of Bengal and the land with the highest population density in the world.


On average nearly 1000 people live in every square kilometre and over 80% of the population live in rural areas.


Much of the vernacular built tradition uses earth and bamboo as a building material, however, construction techniques


are error-prone and many buildings lack foundations and damp proof coursing. Such buildings require regular maintenance, are often prone to damage and last on average only 10 years.


Project aims

It is particularly important to improve the quality of living in the rural areas in order to counteract the continuing population migration to the cities.


The primary potential for developing building in the rural areas is the low cost of labour and locally available resources such as earth and bamboo.


The project’s main strategy is to communicate and develop knowledge and skills within the local population so that they can make the best possible use of their available resources. Historic building techniques are developed and improved and the skills passed on to local tradesmen transforming in the process the image of the building techniques.


Concept and Design

METI aims to promote individual abilities and interests taking into account the different learning speeds of the schoolchildren and trainees in a free and open form of learning. It offers an alternative to the typical frontal approach to lessons.

The architecture of the new school reflects this principle and provides different kinds of spaces and uses to support this approach to teaching and learning.


On the ground floor with its thick earth walls, three classrooms are located each with their own access opening to an organically shaped system of ‘caves’ to the rear of the classroom. The soft interiors of theses spaces are for touching, for nestling up against, for retreating into for exploration or concentration, on one’s own or in a group.


The upper floor is by contrast light and open, the openings in its bamboo walls offering sweeping views across the surroundings, its large interior providing space for movement. The view expands across the treetops and the village pond.

Light and shadows from the bamboo strips play across the earth floor and contrast with the colourful materials of the saris on the ceiling.


Building construction and techniques

The building rests on a 50 cm deep brick masonry foundation rendered with a facing cement plaster. Bricks are the most common product of Bangladesh’s building manufacturing industry. Bangladesh has almost no natural reserves of stone and as an alternative the clayey alluvial sand is fired in open circular kilns into bricks. These are used for building or are broken down for use as an aggregrate for concrete or as ballast chippings. Imported coal is used to fire the kilns.


Aside from the foundation, the damp proof course was the other most fundamental addition to local earthen building skills. The damp proof course is a double layer of locally available PE-film. The ground floor is realised as load-bearing walls using a technique similar to cob walling. A straw-earth mixture with a low straw content was manufactured with the help of cows and water buffalo and then heaped on top of the foundation wall to a height of 65 cm per layer. Excess material extending beyond the width of the wall is trimmed off using sharp spades after a few days. After a drying period of about a week the next layer of cob can be applied. In the third and fourth layers the door and window lintels and jambs were integrated as well as a ring beam made of thick bamboo canes as a wall plate for the ceiling.


The ceiling of the ground floor is a triple layer of bamboo canes with the central layer arranged perpendicular to the layers above and beneath to provide lateral stabilisation and a connection between the supporting beams. A layer of planking made of split bamboo canes was laid on the central layer and filled with the earthen mixture analogue to the technique often used in the ceilings of European timber-frame constructions.


The upper storey is a frame construction of four-layer bamboo beams and vertical and diagonal members arranged at right angles to the building. The end of the frames at the short ends of the building and the stair also serve to stiffen the building. These are connected via additional structural members with the upper and lower sides of the main beams and equipped with additional wind bracing on the upper surface of the frame. A series of bamboo rafters at half the interval of the frame construction beneath provide support for the corrugated iron roof construction and are covered with timber panelling and adjusted in height to provide sufficient run-off.


The entire budget for the school construction remained within the village and the direct surrounding: the building materials earth and bamboo were all local as well as the construction workers.


The construction workers were all day-labourers from the village Rudrapur. During the construction process they were trained in improved earth- and bamboo construction techniques.


The building techniques were chosen in order to be able to be replicated by the local people and in order to have a positive effect on the existing, poor housing situations.


The school-kids were involved in the building process as well to learn the value of sustainable construction and to reflect on it.


“We already feel that this new ideas of the METI building have raised hope and confidence for an improvement of living conditions for the poor in our rural areas.”


(Paul Tigga, project partner and CEO Dipshikha – Bangladesh)


“Dear Anna-Didimoni, Hello, how are you? And what are you doing? I hope you are well. I am also well. Didimoni, we are very proud of you for making the building. I think no other building is as good as this building. It is very comfortable. In summer it is so cold, so it is very enyojable. O.k., didimoni, next news….”

(Poritosh, METI student, Rudrapur, Bangladesh)


“It was good to do tests and experiments together before starting the real construction, so we could understand it although we did not know the language. And everybody learnt a lot from each other. I learned how to build strong walls, how to use measurement tools and the foreigners learnt, that the best mixing machines are water buffalos.”

(Suresh, loam worker, Rudrapur, Bangladesh)


"All too often, aspirations towards modernity in developing countries have malign economic and cultural effects where construction is concerned.


Traditional materials and techniques are abandoned in favour of the import of expensive and sometimes energy-inefficient materials and products, benefiting only manufacturers in more advanced economies. The outcome can at worst be the imposition of alien buildings, forms and materials which don’t last long and are difficult to maintain. Their only merit is to look new for a time. By contrast, this joyful project, in a poor rural area of Bangladesh (said to be the world’s most densely populated country), shows that new and refreshing local identity can be achieved by exploiting the immediate and the readily available (...)."

(Paul Finch, Architectural Review, UK)


“Learning with joy is the school’s philosophy – the best for me is to see the building crowded with sprightly kids, who are really happy to go to school. It is primarily not the architecture that makes something special – it’s the people: everyone who worked on it with all efforts and potentials and all who live in it and fill the space with atmosphere.”

(Anna Heringer)


From the Diary …

Rudrapur, 9th October

Finally, although we can still not see the sun, the heavy rainfall has subsided to a light drizzle and at times even the drizzle takes a break. We can begin to work again. Some of the workers arrive with their heads hanging low. The heavy rain has caused some of the dwellings to collapse and the condition of the houses is the main topic of conversation. Our project it seems has taken centre stage.


To build a school and at the same time train 25 workmen is a good and important cause. However to effect a fundamental improvement in the living conditions in such rural areas, we must develop and show further approaches that can be built by the population themselves. A transfer of knowledge and information is necessary in order to help the people become independent of materials and loans.


During the day more visitors arrive at the building site than usual. The heated debate continues in the evening in the tea stall. Bongkim, an old acquiantance from a Brahmin family complains vehemently about how little the “stupid earth” can withstand. His house also collapsed the night before after only 8 years. His exclamations serve only to stimulate the discussion... “Bongkim, if you can’t built properly, how can you fault the material?” Half-stung and half taken aback by the young girl`s retort the Brahmin wades into the discussion with a BUT to counter each of my arguments. Cost effectiveness is of little interest to those better off: “cost-effective is gut, BUT better still is a house that doesn’t fall down every few years...”, “It’s all very well if its good for the environment BUT why is it down to me to...”, “It may be that houses made out of earth are better to live in than brick houses, it may be that they don’t get so hot, they don’t rot so much, the food reserves hold longer... BUT how does that help me if I have to build a whole house again and again.” Bongkim concords on only one argument: that the villages will lose their beauty and their face if houses were only built of bricks and tin roofs. BUT. Bongkim won’t be convinced too quickly. “So, if it really is possible to make buildings out of earth that last ten times longer then that would be a major improvement. I will take a look at your tinkering about tomorrow when it’s light ... BUT be warned, I will check it very carefully.”


The next day at half past eight, Bongkim appears next to me on the wall, takes the spade from my hand and tries his luck. He trims the wall a little, checks the foundations, the damp-proof course, the straw-clay mixture. Finally he goes to his motorbike, mounts it, drives a few meters, then turns around grinning: “Anna - Di, from today on there will be no more BUTs!


12th November

“It is very difficult to work on development strategies in a miserable, stinking and stiflingly hot tin shack. Good thoughts need a nice environment and it is these good thoughts that enthuse us, that give us hope and strength to build for a common future.”

Most of the time when building in developing countries, the aesthetic component is left out. Is beauty a prerogative of the rich? Beauty is surely valuable but not necessarily expensive. It can often be seen in the villages of Bangladesh: in the simplicity of form, the sensual nature of the materials, in the bright array of colourful robes... it is a quiet beauty that has to be handled and preserved with care. Our aim is to refine building culture and not replace it so that the culture and beauty of life remain and keep us alive.


2nd December

Final stages: only two weeks until the official opening and an end to the work is not yet in sight. We feel the time lost during the rain in October now sorely. Everyone with some extra time on their hands ‘mucks in’: teachers, friends, relations help out and the schoolchildren have already become enthusiastic regulars anyway. From time to time they leave to practice their songs and theatre performances. It has come to our ears that we will be the subject of quite some parodying...


And every now and then there are special moments of happiness: the building site is so beautiful and the good mood persists despite three rice meals a day and cold showers (it is 5°C outside) ... and because on St. Nicolaus’ day imported chocolate Father Christmas figures appear and our toothless bamboo workman enjoys the first chocolate of his life.


14th December

The disc of the sun has now disappeared and only a golden-red stripe still glows over the horizon, the call of the Muezzin mingling with the song of the Hindu-women. Today a Muslim, a Hindu and a Christian priest have blessed the school with Sura, Mantras and Psalms. I hope with all my heart that despite the political tensions this school can remain a place of peace, of freedom and of dialogue.

(A. H.)


Workers by trade

8 bricklayers

12 – 20 labourers for earthen building

8 labourers for bamboo construction

1 foreman, 2 apprentices, 5 trainees, METI training workshop for joiners

5 plasterers (interior plaster)

1 local foreman

2 architects, 2 crafts experts (Team from Germany)

4 – 6 volunteers, (students, teachers, workmen from Germany and Austria)

students and teachers ever afternoon


Materials used

83 m3 masonry brickwork for foundations and veranda

270 m3 cob for walls, ceilings in the ‘caves’, rammed earth floors

400 tonnes wet earthen material

2,300 bamboo canes for ceilings, upper storey, facades

12,500 bamboo strips for upper storey bamboo facades


Construction

Foundations: Brick masonry with damp proof course

Walls, ground floor: load-bearing cob walling (wet earth technique, straw-earth mixture)

Ceiling: Bamboo ceiling, triple-layer with cob fill

Upper floor: Framework of thick bamboo members

Facade upper floor: Timber window frames with bamboo cladding

Flat roof, corrugated iron roofing

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