Designing and Building in Central and East Africa

Building Classrooms in Usalama, Kenya

A few months after completing the library at the Usalama Primary school, I took over the project leader position for our Engineers Without Borders NYC team.  There was still much work to be done in Usalama.  Ideas had been discussed with the community that included the construction of additional classrooms and a school kitchen.

As the 2010 year began, I began meetings with our partner organization, Mwikali’s Gift.  MG had committed to funding these various initiatives (and others) throughout Usalama.  The original plans we discussed involved 6 new classrooms.   At the time, the primary school classrooms averaged 45 students per class – well above 30 per class standard boasted by the Kenyan government.  This 6 classroom number was reached by performing a rigorous census in proceeding years – which our team then used to predict an increase in student enrollment.  Unfortunately, Mwikali’s Gift had reached a point where funding such a large project would not be feasible.  They were however able to commit to funding 4 new spaces.

Therefore the challenge became:  How to build within a budget for 4 spaces– but design structures that could be used as 6 classrooms?

The typical classroom unit, accepted by most development agencies and the Kenyan government, is 6M x 8M (20ft x 30ft).  Further, when the ministry of education commits to build a classroom, roughly $7000.00 USD is granted for the construction.  This figure was used to set our budget of $28,000.  Most classrooms in the Ukambani region of Kenya are rectangular and placed adjacent (lengthwise) to one another in blocks.  This is the most efficient use of materials and space – as a single wall can serve as the enclosure for two spaces.  I have always argued though, that the most efficient use of materials is not always the best use of labor.  Most of the time, you get what you pay for – but with a bit of thought and preparation, sometimes you can get more.

After numerous iterations, our team in NYC settled on a design that built upon the accepted classroom design by adding to the social and educational experiences of the Usalama students.  By dividing the 4 classrooms into 2 structures of 2 classrooms each – then placing each classroom around a small courtyard – spaces emerged that would be able to serve as secondary gathering spaces for meetings and socializing.  This increased the built square footage by over 30%.  Fortunately though, having completed the library a year earlier, I had taken meticulous notes and was able to site the prices of every material that would be needed.  Further, having worked with the community before, I had a solid understanding of labor cost, labor speed, and the community’s dedication to complete a project that would improve their school.  We were able to get our cost estimates (including an 18% contingency) within our 28k mark, and were able to secure a guarantee from Mwikali’s Gift.

Upon arrival in Usalama, the designs changed (as was expected).  We changed site locations and slightly modified the plans according to teachers’ desires and specific site conditions.  Our overall design however, remained largely unchanged.  Structurally, we improved numerous details that not only made the buildings much stronger than our previous design of the library, but also cut down the amount of material used and construction time.  First, we decreased the size of our footing.  In discussions with numerous engineers over the preceding year, we realized that a 3’0” footing trench was excessive for the soil type, and a single foot trench would be sufficient.  We also poured the floor slabs within the walls of a few courses, as opposed to pouring an independent slab upon which we would build the walls.  This eliminated formwork and curing time considerations – allowing for continued day to day progress.  Finally, we worked to incorporate brick into the design.  Brick is substantially cheaper than stone – though also not as structurally reliable.  By strategically placing brick between steel reinforced pilasters, we were able to minimize cost and maximize strength.

Work moved at a feverish pace throughout the three months of construction.  Relationships with material distributors grew strong – and we were soon able to order materials on informal credit.  Moral within the community was high.  The parents of the community and the school administration were coordinated and organized.  We staggered the volunteer groups A, B, C and D which ensured continued attendance for the big days when water was needed and large amounts of concrete needed to be mixed.  Most importantly, our EWB team had established a solid relationship with the teams of local masons and mason’s assistants.  Work progressed smoothly as we held weekly (sometimes daily) meetings, reviewed construction schedules together.  Eventually I promoted Matungi, the head mason, to begin to take on further strategic responsibility and distribution of funds to the other workers.  This vote of confidence and transferring of responsibilities ensured not only that “the guys” knew of their importance and their responsibilities, but that they had a clear understanding of our schedules and deadlines.  This contributed to the high moral, a solid teamwork atmosphere, and to the fast pace of construction that ultimately brought classrooms construction project to completion on time and under budget.  Final costs for the all materials and labor totaled $26,500, a full $15,000 less than the our budget that was dictated by construction trends and standards of the region.

During a recent trip to Usalama in mid 2011, I was able to meet with the Primary school students, teachers and administrators.  The 4 new classrooms built in 2010, as well as the library built in 2009, are still being used daily and show few signs of wear. Structurally, there were no apparent cracks in the concrete, and the roof systems showed no signs of sagging or splitting.

During conversations with the school administrators, we reviewed the school’s test scores from the past 5 years. Since 2007, when our Engineers Without Borders team began working there, the student’s scores have risen by 15%. This can be due to various reasons. The new classrooms have enabled the administration decrease the class sizes – increasing the students exposure to the curriculum and individual attention. The classrooms themselves also provide improved lighting and a ventilated environment conducive to learning and studying. The library has also had a positive effect. Not only do the students now have access to over 4000 books, but the school administration has initiated partnerships with neighboring libraries to start book lending programs.  This collection of constructions and programs, it can be argued, are the reasons for the increased performance of the students.  What cannot be quantified however, is the pride that the community takes in their school – one that is unique among others, and was built by their own hands.  Students have begun planting trees, and regularly socialize in and around the campus long after classes have let out.

In July, 2011, the Usalama Primary School received 3 major awards: 1st in the district for most high test scores, 3rd in the district for highest average score, and 3rd for best school administration. I cannot be happier for the community, their hard work, and their continued dedication to improving the lives of their young students.

EWN-NY has continued to work with the Usalama community and our partner organization, Mwikali’s Gift.  The final challenge in Usalama is to repair a faulty water system that was built years earlier by another NGO.  In October 2011, I transferred leadership of the project (via formal introduction in Usalama) to Monica Louie.  She is accomplished water engineer and will be overseeing the additions and modifications to the existing system over the next two years.  I still stay in touch with many of my friends in Usalama – and I am looking forward to staying involved with the water system project until it is finished.


7 responses

  1. I like the design, simple and economic with lots of cross ventilation. I presume that it faces north/south to reduce solar gain? A couple of comments: why bother to reinforce the stone piers? There are appear to be no horizontal loads as the roof is supported on trusses and the piers are very large so I think that the reinforcement is just adding to the cost. Similarly I doubt whether the RC ring beam is really necessary and could also be omitted to save money.

    I am enjoying your blog. Its good to see that there are some young architects prepared to take up the challenge of constructing low-cost appropriate buildings in the developing world.

    September 29, 2012 at 11:12 am

  2. BushArchitect – Happy to have you as a follower!
    These buildings were engineered into tanks. The design and construction of this project began only a few months after the earthquake in Haiti, so my engineers designed the heck out of it. While perhaps the seismic considerations are a bit out of context, I’m still proud of the design. The community is also very proud – boasting that their primary school looks more like a secondary school 🙂
    The two sets of classrooms face SouthWest and NorthWest – so not perfect when considering solar gain. This choice was made by the community within the context of the existing classrooms.

    September 29, 2012 at 5:58 pm

  3. Shaz

    I would like more info on the same. Im mobilising funds from friends to build two classrooms for a start up school in KAjiado

    August 28, 2014 at 4:55 pm

  4. Rebekah Green


    I am working Save the Children and World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction on developing guidance on safe community-based school construction. We are developing a global reference group of individuals with expertise and experience in this area. We would like to talk to you about joining the reference group. If interested, would you send me your contact info so that I might send you more info on the process and ToRs.

    October 23, 2014 at 6:24 am

  5. I am in a group that intents to put up similar classrooms in a rural school in Mwingi. We would greatly appreciate insights in costs, BOQs and assistance with designs. Pleae get in touch.

    July 14, 2016 at 9:52 am

    • Lazarus – Thank you for stopping by. These classrooms were custom designs and I do not have the complete BOQ on hand at the moment. I can tell you that the 2 classroom blocks (each consisting of two classrooms making a total of four, with two gathering spaces) came tot a total of about $22,500 USD. That was back when the exchange rate with KSH was about 75ksh to the dollar.
      I do however have a similar BOQ for three classrooms that I designed with the IRC in Congo. You can read about it in detail here. Perhaps this will get you started.
      If you would like to open a further discussion about your project and how it can be tailored to your community’s specific needs, feel free to email me at
      Best of luck with your project!

      July 17, 2016 at 1:51 am

  6. Titus

    This is a wonderful work done to this community.I have just stambled to this while looking for info on cost of construction of classrooms here in Kenya.We are beginning a new Secondary school i have learnt a lot to share with my fellow leaders in our next meeting.Thank you for giving a hand to our people.Your efforts bore fruits.

    December 21, 2017 at 5:11 am

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