A school rises from the mud

The past 6 weeks have been amazing! With a lot of hard work by the BI team, our community and our amazing fund-raisers, a beautiful new school is taking shape.

At the beginning of September we welcomed Alan Hughes on board: a volunteer engineer from the UK who has been overseeing the building by our local community brick layers. As you know, we have chosen to build using as much local materials as possible in an eco-friendly way and ensuring that as much of the money is spent within our community as possible. This type of building is still in its infancy worldwide and as far as we know has never been used in building a school in South Africa. So this has been very much a case of all of us learning while doing.

As we mentioned in the last post, we started with the grunt work of digging the foundations in this incredibly rocky soil – weeks of backbreaking, hand bleeding work. Simultaneously the women of the village were making mud bricks by the thousands – 7000 in all.

Bricklaying began and we quickly reached roof level. Two of the innovations introduced by our architect, Malcolm Worby, were the “gringo blocks” as well as lime plaster. Gringo blocks are wooden boxes identical in size to the mud bricks which are laid in the place of a brick in the wall next to the top and the bottom of the door and window frames. These wooden blocks are filled with mud and remain in the wall forever. Now traditionally door and window frames have often come loose as they are screwed or nailed directly into the mud bricks which crumble loose as a result. By using gringo blocks, the door and window frames are now screwed into wood thus ensuring a strong “wood to wood” bond. Our local builders have been blown away by this idea and will no doubt use it from now on in the building of the traditional mud huts.

Plastering with lime

Plastering with lime (two dark gringo blocks can be seen on the right edge of the photo)

The second innovation was the use of crushed lime instead of cement for plastering the walls. Traditionally here in the Transkei people who could afford it, would plaster their walls with the usual cement and sand mix. This is a mistake as the different thermal and expansion properties of mud versus cement results in walls cracking and the development of damp problems. Lime on the other hand is the ideal substance to plaster with as it is very compatible with mud bricks and it allows the walls to breath correctly and flexes and contracts in the same way as the mud walls do. The secret to using lime in this way is to initially soak the lime for 2 weeks in water in a process known as slaking. Once this is done, the lime is then mixed with sand in the normal 4 sand 1 lime ratio. This plaster is layered on 1 cm thick onto the wall, then kept moist for 2 weeks and then covered with a 2nd layer of plaster of 0.5cm thick. This is finally over-coated with a lime wash paint.

School with lime plaster, Hall on left, Grade R classroom on right

School with lime plaster, Hall on left, Grade R classroom on right

The great thing about lime is that it absorbs CO2 throughout its life getting harder and harder until it is almost as hard as stone.

The above process is quite time consuming but the results are fantastic. For the past month we have been plastering and re-plastering as well as fitting door and window frames. We have also completed the crucial steel and concrete ring beam for the Grade R classroom which will ensure that all the weight of the roof is evenly distributed across the entire wall.

Our last major challenge is now the fitting of the roofs. The hall is a truly monstrous rondavel – 16m across – and so the external engineers have been designing an ultra strong pole truss roof.  The poles required are enormous (11m!) so will take another 3 weeks to be treated and delivered. The Grade R is a much more manageable-sized rondavel and so we expect to have the roof on and children learning inside within a month.

This past month has been hard work interspersed with crazy rain storms which have hampered us a little. Alan and the village men have been grafting hugely: transporting sand, water, stone, thatch and cement up and down our crazy roads (the poor pickup!) and digging, mixing, plastering, carrying and packing… all this with the welcome help of the occasional lodge guest eager to get their hands dirty.

On the funding front there has been good news too:

Metropolitan Asset Managers donated R100,000 for the building of Classsroom One, while Shayne Brandel’s Bulungula painting auction managed to raise over R80,000 for the building of the Grade R classroom! Thanks to Metropolitan and to Shayne for their generosity and their support for this vital project. (Other generous donations are listed on our Donations Update post.)

As a result we have begun the foundations for the new classroom and the women of the village are making bricks like crazy!

  1. Tamsin

    aHHHH, this is the school I saw being built… literally from the mud and rocks around it! Great work… looks like it is coming along very well. Well done to the village men and to Alan, it’s bloody hard work (literally in some cases!).
    I hope you are all well and Alan if you are still there I will see you in Jan x

  2. I must say I am so impressed with the progress – I am going to be visiting a school in Squamish to talk about your projects – Squamish is a great town about 40 minutes from Whistler in British Columbia. It is about an hours drive from Vancouver.
    They are learning about Africa and so I am thrilled to be able to share Bulungula with them.

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