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Engineering aid | Syria


How can engineers make a difference to refugees and what are the challenges of working in a refugee camp on the Syria-Lebanon border?

Jarahieh’s school is a unique community project set in the heart of the Syrian refugee crisis. Jarahieh is an informal tented settlement near the Syria-Lebanon border. The ongoing conflict in Syria has so far displaced 1.8M people from Syria into Lebanon, increasing the population of Lebanon by almost one third.

The huge movement of people has resulted in the appearance of many temporary settlements and refugee camps.

In 2014 a temporary tented school was erected as an emergency solution to provide education to around 320 Syrian refugee children aged between five to 14 years, living in the Jarahieh area.

Timber structure

The school was built using a wooden structure covered by poly-cotton fabric. It had major flaws that were affecting the learning environment and therefore impacting behaviour and attendance. There were no windows and it was lit using small lightbulbs that had to stay on all day. The climate in the Bekaa valley varies greatly throughout the year, with lows of 0˚C in the winter to highs of 38˚C in the summer, often making the temperature in the classrooms uncomfortable.

In 2015 an opportunity to transform the school arose. Save the Children had designed and constructed seven buildings to be used as exhibition pavilions at Expo 2015 in Milan. After the Expo, the charity donated the materials from the pavilions to Lebanon and sponsored their shipping so that they could be used to improve the Jarahieh school.

CatalyticAction, a not-for-profit design studio, was brought on board to coordinate the works. This included engaging the local community in the design and implementation of the new school.

Reused pavilion

The Save the Children pavilion structures were predominantly timber with some steel elements. They were designed to be modular so that they could be reused, although the fact that they would be reused as a school was not known until after they were built in Milan.

As the Milan Expo took place in the summer, the pavilions did not have adequate insulation for the winter months. They also lacked windows so adjustments had to be made to provide natural light.

CatalyticAction approached Arup to provide technical advice on how to transform the exhibition space into a fantastic learning environment that met the requirements. It was quite a challenge, explains Arup associate Sachin Bhoite.

“Technical rigour, agility and empathy are all put to the test when working to improve social and physical environments in refugee contexts,” he observes.

Initial advice was given on building and classroom layout, foundation design, building envelope design, toilet design, fire safety, seismic hazard assessment and structural analysis.

Key challenges

Although these activities are common to building engineering projects, the key challenges came from creating a design that was right for the community and which could be executed within the time scale and budget and with the expertise available.

Building envelope design and structural retrofitting were the two major areas where additional technical expertise was needed.

Due to the cold winter climate a well-insulated building was paramount to reducing the heating costs and providing a comfortable learning environment for school children and the community.

The roof and walls were timber beams with orientated strand board (OSB) faces. The gap between the OSBs was a perfect insulation cavity, but standard insulation material was well outside the budget of the project and was hard to procure given the remote rural location.

Local materials

Research into locally available materials and engagement with the community revealed that sheep’s wool was a waste material in this part of Lebanon. The team investigated the wool’s insulation properties; whether the wool was an appropriate material from a fire safety perspective and what treatment the wool would need.

The wool was a successful material. It could be treated locally and the community was involved in preparing the wool before its installation. Waterproofing materials and façade materials were locally sourced including reusing corrugated metal sheets.

As part of the retrofit, the seismic performance of the pavilions had to be improved. In a normal project, off-the-shelf joints would be used to provide adequate ductility in joint locations.

However, it was a requirement that materials used in the project be purchased within a few kilometres of the site to empower local businesses. The challenge to the design team was to create seismic joint components that could be fabricated with the material and skills available in the local community. This resulted in a solution that the community can easily reproduce and use on future projects.

Learning lessons

So what was learnt? On top of the usual challenges that are experienced on engineering projects – tight budget, tight programme – the team experienced challenges that were more unique to this type of humanitarian work.

Deciding whether to work to local codes or UK codes can present difficulties deciding whether a design is sufficient. The original materials for the pavilions had been delivered to site, the budget for new materials was highly restricted and the school had to open in September for the beginning of the year.

The original pavilions without retrofits would already have been an improvement over the original tented solution. As a result, it was a challenge to include the needed improvements for safety and comfort, with the possibility of them not being implemented due to time, budget and specific logistical constraints.

The school opened in September 2017 and has been a great success. The new Jarahieh School provides bright, naturally lit classrooms, dedicated recreation spaces and a playful, stimulating environment for hundreds of young people who are forced to endure life in the harsh conditions of the refugee camp. The 12 engineers involved volunteered over 280 hours of their time and gained valuable experience working in a different environment for a different type of “client”.

Do More Event

New Civil Engineer has teamed up with 2017 Graduate of the Year Charlotte Murphy to develop a live event that brings together engineer who volunteer their time to humanitarian, community and social value projects.

The Do More event will take place in early 2019 and will both recognise the most outstanding achievements and also serve as a forum for sharing best practice and offering support. In the six months building up to this event, New Civil Engineer will publish a series of features that highlight the achievements and explore the challenges faced by engineers who are doing more. If you would like to get involve, email




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