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A View From The Roof

Almost exactly a year ago I arrived in the community of Sachibondu for the first time. Upon arrival, I found a large network of trenches and enormous stacks of earth bricks. I was to spend the next twelve weeks working on the initial phase of the hospital that will soon service this area of North West Zambia. These few months would prove to be an immensely rewarding experience, one that I had desired for years, and undoubtedly wished to repeat. After seeing the project develop from excavation, through foundations and slab, to the progression of the walls to their full height, it was time to leave.

The Hospital under construction last year, during Phase 1.

Having only just reached roof level there was an element of unfinished business, and I knew if I had the chance to return I would grab it. So it was, a matter of months later, I would have such an opportunity. Arriving back and seeing so many familiar faces, plus plenty of new ones, it was like I’d never left. On the other hand, the changes that had taken place since I left a few months earlier had transformed the building considerably. Instead of a mass of red bricks and soil, the walls had been defined by render; framing the building in a way more reflective of its finished form.

Pre-cast concrete 'collars' are hauled into position atop the vaulted roofs. Each collar will eventually hold a turbine to increase ventilation and air-change rates within the spaces below.

Since then the project has, with the exception of a short delay caused by local bureaucracy, continued in the same manner. The roofs, which are Cartesian vaults made from compressed stabilised earth bricks, are going up fast and as the building becomes increasingly complete, the work becomes exponentially more rewarding. Recent milestones include the first building to have its roof completed; which will be home to the hospital laboratory and x-ray room. Interior work has started here and also in the emergency room and the operating theatre, following the continued progress of the roofs in these buildings. Detailed work, such as the pointing of the brickwork under the completed vaults, has started and begins to hint at the finished quality of each space. 

The roofs are constructed in 2m sections, with the bricks laid onto timber formers. Each section is built on a 3-day cycle, including moving the form to the next bay and laying the bricks.

With so many different tasks taking place on site now, the atmosphere is very different to my first time in Sachibondu. My previous visit saw large amounts of physical work return little visual reward. This time round things have changed. We endured a tough two-week delay to the start of the roof early in the project; however, this seems to have galvanised the team and the pace since then has picked up considerably. In this time, we have also seen the size of the team swell to over one hundred and fifty, helping us to make up lost time.


The Hospital has three sizes of vaulted roof. From left to right: 6m (twice), 8m and 2m.

Most of my time on site so far has involved the construction of the brick vaulted roof and moving the formwork on from section to section, with progress amazingly swift. As this type of construction is new to everybody here, we have inevitably encountered some teething problems, however the local bricklayers are quickly grasping the technique, and it is extremely rewarding to see them now able to pass on this knowledge to inexperienced members of the team.

A courtyard, soon to be planted with indigenous trees and flowering plants, sits at the heart of Hospital.

Now, halfway through our time here, we look towards the finish line and aim to have most of the building completed by the time we leave. Although this still requires a huge amount of work and sustained effort, motivation is high and given the amount of progress that has been made so far it is exciting to think of the changes that are still to come.

Written by Chevy Thom, Extern

Chevy joined us as a volunteer last year and we were delighted to welcome him back to Sachibondu for a second visit. In October he will join the permanent Orkidstudio team, taking on a Project Management role from our Nairobi office.

The Cartesian brick vaults were designed and engineered in partnership with StructureMode, an inspiring structural engineering firm based in London and long term supporters of our work.