The school that students built: hands-on learning in Vanuatu

A squatter community on the outskirts of Vanuatu's capital will soon have its first school, thanks to Sydney architecture students and a crowdfunding campaign.

Most students who study architecture probably don’t expect to find themselves wielding angle grinders and digging footings on building sites. But this year, a group of undergraduate architecture students travelled to Vanuatu to build a school for the people of Ohlen Freshwind, a community squatting on the outskirts of the capital, Port Vila.

With support from University donors, students have designed the community’s first school and started building the foundations.

“It was hard work and the students really got stuck in,” says Michael Muir, senior lecturer and director of the Bachelor of Design in Architecture.

Support from crowdfunding

The work was possible thanks to almost 200 donors who contributed more than $30,000 through a crowdfunding effort. These supporters are part of a community of more than 64,000 people who have given $1 billion over the last decade to support research and education at the University.

On 17 September, the University will celebrate its donors with the inaugural Thank You Day. “We couldn’t have done any of this without crowdfunding,” says Muir.

“As design students, a lot of our projects are unbuilt and unrealised. It was fantastic to start to understand the construction side of building.” Rachel Liang, architecture student

A community in need

For decades, the community of Ohlen Freshwind has squatted in the catchment area for Port Vila’s water supply. Driven by health concerns, Vanuatu’s government is working to move the group to higher ground. The relocated community will have roads, water, electricity and space to reconstruct their homes, along with land allocations for infrastructure such as schools and churches.

Muir first visited Ohlen Freshwind in 2016, with several colleagues from the School of Architecture, Design and Planning. They wanted to find a way for students to work with the community, with benefits to both groups.

“The community put a lot of emphasis on the need for a school because there are none nearby,” says Muir. “At the moment, a lot of the kids don’t go to school at all.”

Design through collaboration

The first group of students travelled to Vanuatu in 2017. They visited the site and consulted with the community and local leaders. The information they gathered helped shape the school’s design.

The single-room design nods to the high-ceilinged, well ventilated schools commonly built in Sydney at the turn of the 19th century, while catering to the particular needs of the Freshwind community.

The building is designed to withstand Vanuatu’s weather extremes, from cyclones to earthquakes. “During Cyclone Pam in 2015, there were winds of more than 250 kilometres an hour,” says Muir. “Traditionally, people in Vanuatu have built light and hugged the ground, but once you get to a large building like a school, you have to go to a different level of technology.”

Hands-on learning

This year, a new group travelled to Vanuatu to start building. They dug footings, made steel cages for the slab, mixed and poured concrete and built low walls.

For third year student, Rachel Liang, 20, it was an exciting experience. “As design students, a lot of our projects are unbuilt and unrealised. It was fantastic to start to understand the construction side of building.”

The project has given her a taste for social impact architecture – an area she hopes to explore further after she graduates.

Muir says the Freshwind project gives students a new perspective on what architecture can achieve. “Architecture at university can easily become quite self-indulgent – it’s all about me and my ideas,” he says. “It’s extremely important to propose a more ethical approach – to open students’ eyes to a sense of social responsibility.”

There is more to be done. Further donations will be needed to send a new group of students to complete the building. Muir hopes that eventually they will be able to add more classrooms. “We could even do a playground,” he says. “That would be a really good student project. We could keep building and keep working closely with the community.”

-The University of Sydney

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