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Shine On Sierra Leone: Building Sustainable, Permanent Schools And Houses

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It was 2006. While perusing Whole Life Times I saw an article that changed my life. It was an article about famed architect Nader Khalili and his 30-year process of creating one of the planet's most innovative sustainable building methods: earth-bag building. Materials needed: Soil, rice bags and a tiny amount of cement. For the first time, anyone could create a formidable shelter anywhere for their families without the need of expensive cement, bricks and builders.

This method was specifically created for people in "undeveloped" countries, needing basic skills and community members. Could this be more perfect? I began to cry. I had been working in Sierra Leone for a year, supporting education for hundreds of children, 70 of which were being taught under huts next to the schoolhouse, due to lack of space.

Amazingly, seven American teens were at the time raising funds for a trip to Sierra Leone to build another schoolhouse for those 70 kids. I was thrilled that we could use this method to build our new school.

Not so fast.

Simultaneously, there were plans for a futuristic, super cool schoolhouse being drawn up by a world-class architectural firm in Los Angeles. The master builder and design firm were not as excited about the Cal-Earth earthbag building as I had hoped they would be. So we went with the traditional plans and not Cal-Earth methods. Because of this, we underwent a tremendous amount of stress and were not able to finish the building before we left Sierra Leone. The experience was one of extreme growth.

Fast forward to 2009, where we were able to build the first sustainable building in Sierra Leone, a Cal-Earth earthbag building. It was transformational for all involved. The building is formidable, aesthetically wondrous, has permanent furniture (desks) and will be there for a thousand years. At first, the workers laughed at the idea of "building with bags" but very quickly became excited. They took ownership that brought the village together in an unprecedented way. They asked us if they could name the building "Unity Building" because all of the tribes felt united and that they were essential to its success. The roof is traditional, as the intended dome shape took some getting used to in the village. However, due to the success of this building, we will now be able to build the first eco-dome building in Sierra Leone.

This coming year is going to be very exciting. I showed pictures of the eco-dome building to the Vice President of Sierra Leone's wife and she called meetings with everyone at the statehouse to see photos of the building. The government, Unicef and Ministry of Education are thrilled with the design and have been taking back to back meetings to discuss using it as a template to rebuild Sierra Leone and its schools.