Following a parliamentary delegation in 2002 to Sierra Leone, about six months after the civil war ended, Claire Curtis-Thomas, MP for Crosby, felt compelled to do something about the poverty she witnessed. She asked the local governing committee: "If you could have a capital project, what would it be?"
The committee had the forethought to choose a library, where their community could develop skills. During the war, most young people had missed out on an education and now they were too old for school. With a library, they could develop local skills.
Curtis-Thomas approached former ICE president Mark Whitby about the scheme and, shortly after, Ramboll Whitbybird signed up to coordinate the £1M library's entire design. Funding is via donations through the client and charity The Waterloo Development Partnership.
Choosing an appropriate material was Ramboll Whitbybird project manager Sebastian Wood's first priority. "We thought about using steel as it is a way to guarantee quality. We could build it here [in the UK] and ship it out. We also thought about timber, but it's a country with no real forests."
Despite the poor quality of concrete construction prevalent in Sierra Leone, he felt locals could use the library to learn about better concrete construction. "So concrete was the final one we came to. There are a lot of concrete structures out there and it does leave a legacy," he says.
Wood is sharing the project manager role with Ramboll Whitbybird associate Paul Steen. "Contractors can learn new skills and health and safety," says Steen. "They can bring people to the site and use it as a training ground. It can show standards and people can be proud of their expertise."
The building has been designed to a concrete strength of 25N/mm2, which the local university advised was achievable in the country. This has resulted in generally bigger structural elements than would be expected for this type and size of building.
"The columns are 300mm wide by 900mm deep because we are using low values of concrete strength and building in safety factors," says Steen. "We want to be sure."
"We've set up a testing regime for the concrete," adds Wood. "Hopefully we'll get better values because we have a control process. [Local] Fourah Bay University is doing the testing which is great as it gets them involved in the library and the revenue stream."
The design uses small diameter bars to ensure that the reinforcement can be bent to the required shapes easily and to allow flexibility on site."Rebar is in plentiful supply but there is no quality control," says Wood. "Some is so red you can snap it. We will be using rebar exported from here."
The roof is a series of vaulted arches with exposed concrete soffits. The high arches will serve to increase natural light in the library areas, while also providing shade. A stepped facade with vertical fins helps to shade the building.
"The sun comes up at 45 degrees to the building," explains Wood. "Vertical fins at regular centres then cut out most of the direct sunlight." However, the concrete was not their only worry. The design has to assume that there is no electricity, since the supply is so unreliable. "We are using natural cooling and natural ventilation so that the library can function in the day without power," says Wood.
Water supply is another problem. To provide a supply of water for hand washing and toilet flushing during the dry season, a large water tank has been designed beneath the courtyard.
All sewage is to be treated in a reed bed system located away from the site and is being designed and built in collaboration with the civil engineering and botanical teams from the Fourah Bay University.
Wood is currently over in Sierra Leone finalising the contract, but work will be unable to start on the project until the rainy season is over. The project is due to start on site in October, but long-term funding is yet to be secured.
The project team hope to complete the structural frame in nine months, between the wet seasons, which would allow the internal fit out to carry on through the rains.