A school is unpacked in Malawi

How a rural school went from fabrication at a workshop in Johannesburg to erection on a dusty site in the village of Chimphamba.

We reported about Architecture for a Change's design for a prefabricated school in north-western Malawi back in June, when the three-man team were still manufacturing it in their workshop in Johannesburg. We're happy to report that construction of the school has now been completed – a process as innovative as the design itself.

Most elements of the structure for the Legson Kayira Community Center and Primary School were manufactured off site, including four shipping containers that were sliced into, insulated and repurposed into classrooms. When it came time to transport the containers to Malawi by truck, they packed them with all the pre-made elements, including the roof, rebar for the foundations and specially designed screens for the exterior walls.

The architects worked with Youth of Malawi, a US non-profit, to create the environmentally sustainable and cost-effective school where 120 children in the rural village of Chimphamba are now taught. Here, the three architects at A4AC, as the studio is called – Anton Bouwer, Dirk Coetser and John Saaiman – tell us about the process as the school was assembled out of its many different parts.

Before we finalised the school’s design, we conducted a site visit to contextualise ourselves and get the Chimphamba community’s input on what they would require for a school building. We identified a site together and got the blessing from senior community members and the relevant chiefs.
Back in Johannesburg at the A4AC workshop the work on reconditioning and repurposing the second-hand containers began. We sanded and repainted the exteriors. We created a subframe inside the container that would be the school’s office, cut windows and added interior boards and insulation. For the classroom containers we removed were reattached on site in order to save time.
We built a prototype bay on our workshop roof, during which we consulted with an engineer. During the prototyping process we also explored the possible top-hung door/wall. The rebar for the foundations were cut and bent in Johannesburg before the containers were packed. The school benches were also prototyped before production on them started in earnest. Finally, the school structure, furniture, sheeting, electrical system, tanks and other building elements were manufactured and packed into four containers. Then off the containers went to their new home in Malawi!
While the trucks made their way to Malawi, the A4AC team began prepping the site, which had to be levelled with manual labour. Soil, sand and stone had to be moved with the use of ox-carts!
The community got involved early too, manufacturing bamboo mats for the ceilings as well as breeze blocks.
Once the containers arrived, the team unpacked and laid out all the parts of the structure, ready to be put into place. Holes were dug for the foundations.
The construction crew were all locals, including this worker crushing rocks from the local quarry by hand for the aggregate used in the manufacturing of the concrete. The architects worked alongside the labourers to mix the concrete and cast the foundations.
The classrooms’ structures were erected starting with the outer walls. The roof was a combination of solid and translucent sheeting to allow light to filter into the classrooms below.
The outer fin walls were constructed out of bricks.
The local women from the village chipped in helping to keep the water tanks full.
During the final stages local villager Georgie, who suffers from cerebral palsy, visited the site to admire the progress of the school. Here Mr Phiri, who was part of the local construction team, explains to her what still needs to be completed before the school is opened.
One the floor was laid into position, the desks were built and final cleaning and checks were completed, the children flooded in to see their school.
This is what it was all about: the children having fun writing on the blackboard.
Thumbs up from the children and smiles all round for the new school.