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Projects >  Sierra Leone >  The Upgrading of Bo Teachers College Project

Architecture In Developing Countries

The Upgrading of Bo Teachers College Project

Sierra Leone

Background to the Project

In mid-1986 while I was still working for the World Bank developing designs for rural primary schools, I was contacted by a Chilean architect working for the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) who was visiting Sierra Leone with a view to designing a rural primary school construction project.  We discussed the work that I had been doing and she decided to use the designs and construction methods that I had developed in the proposed project.  The project was to be a continuation of a UNCDF-funded project that had been based at Bunumbu Teachers College in the 1970s and was to assist in the introduction of a new, rural-based primary school curriculum.

Her proposal eventually became the ‘Upgrading of Bo Teachers College Project’ that was to be based at Bo Teachers College.  It was to consist of the construction and equipping of new teaching facilities at the college and of new classrooms and workshops at ten existing primary schools within a twenty mile radius of the college. 

At the time of the implementation of the project Sierra Leone had a largely rural population, a high illiteracy rate and a low primary school enrolment rate, particularly among girls.  The cost of education was high even though fees had been officially abolished.  The numbers of primary schools were inadequate for the primary school age population, what schools there were, were often in very poor condition and very few new schools were being built.

The government realised therefore that access to primary education in the rural areas, particularly for girls must be improved.  The curriculum had to be made more relevant to the needs of the rural population, more classrooms had to be constructed at minimal cost and primary schools had to become multi-purpose community centres teaching literacy and other practical skills to the general population.  The quality of teaching had to be improved and the real cost of education reduced.  The project was designed to address these problems in ten villages around Bo and through the construction of new buildings and improvements to the teacher training curriculum, at Bo Teachers’ College.

Bo Teachers’ College is situated outside of Bo Town, which was then the second largest town in the country, and is about 150 miles from Freetown.  The town lies in the interior plains with rolling hills covered mainly by farm bush with isolated pockets of secondary forest and numerous streams and rivers.  The climate is hot and humid with a mean annual rainfall of around 120 inches and relative humidity of over 80% in August and around 55% in January.  Mean daily maximum temperatures rise to 92°in March with a mean daily minimum temperature of 67°in January. The population was fairly evenly distributed in small settlements and the main economic activity was subsistence farming using the bush-fallow system with hill rice, cassava and millet as the main crops together with tree crops such as oil palm, coffee and cocoa.  Alluvial diamonds were also an important source of income along the rivers.

Project Summary

At Bo Teachers’ College, facilities were to be upgraded to accommodate the new curriculum activities. Three new buildings were to be constructed by a contractor: a garage with stores and a workshop; a classroom building containing classrooms, seminar rooms and offices and a handicraft workshop with space for woodwork, weaving, a smithy, etc.  Furniture and equipment were to be provided for all new and some existing buildings and the water and electricity supplies were to be upgraded.

At the ten pilot primary schools, the primary schools were to be extended to accommodate 200 to 300 pupils and new buildings were to be constructed following the designs previously developed by myself.  Classrooms to accommodate 44 pupils were to be constructed together with handicraft workshops, offices, stores, VIP latrines and water wells.  Furniture was to be supplied and access roads to the villages were to be upgraded.

The project document stated that each community had to provide from its own resources and for no remuneration, large quantities of sand, large aggregate, bush-sticks, timber and unskilled labour throughout the construction period of around two years.  As this would have meant abandoning their farms for a large part of this time and thus leaving themselves and their families with little or nothing to eat, they were, quite reasonably, reluctant to do this.  It should also be noted that in most of the villages there were few if any skilled artisans such as masons and carpenters and when and if they could be found it was usually beyond the means of the communities to pay them to carry out the work. The PEU was to supply all imported materials such as block-making machines, hand-tools, cement, roof sheets, hardware, paint, etc together with transport for the materials and supervision of the work.

In selecting the villages in which to develop the pilot schools and in determining the comparatively large numbers of buildings and other facilities to be constructed at each school, little account was taken of the fact that these were all small, fairly isolated rural communities of subsistence farmers operating largely outside the cash economy.  Ways had to be found therefore of paying groups of unskilled labourers at every site to work full-time throughout the two year construction period together with the skilled artisans that were required. 

I eventually managed to persuade UNCDF to pay a small daily cash incentive payment which was later substantially increased.  WFP also agreed to provide ‘food for work, rations (rice, fish and cooking oil) to those engaged on the project both those giving their labour voluntarily and those receiving incentive payments.  Without these incentive payments it would have been impossible to obtain enough skilled and unskilled labour to complete the work within the project time-frame.  It should be noted however that each village did provide free labour for specific tasks such as clearing the sites and digging sand and aggregate from the rivers.

Implementation of the Primary School Component of the Project

My contract with the World Bank ended in May 1988 and in June of that year I was appointed (not without some difficulties) as Chief Technical Advisor to the Upgrading of Bo Teacher’s College Project.  A project execution unit (PEU) was set up at Bo Teacher’s College (BTC) which was to be headed by a national architect.  Unfortunately this architect was not appointed for another year and a half and so I was de facto head of the PEU until he was appointed and, as he did not have that much experience, remained even after this the day-to-day manager of the project.

The PEU was staffed with two United Nations Volunteers (UNVs) both civil engineers, four senior site supervisors, eight site supervisors and four wells technicians.  All supervisory staff apart from the UNVs were locally recruited and all were given a great deal of training both on-the-job and at specially designed workshops.

The ten pilot primary schools that were selected had existing buildings but these were inadequate for their purpose: the buildings were generally in a poor state of repair; the classrooms were small and under-lit; classroom furniture, if it existed, was in a bad state of repair; toilet facilities were poor or non-existent; water supplies were dirty or non-existent; and access to the schools was difficult due to the poor state of the roads particularly in the rainy season.

We trained teams of labourers and skilled workers such as masons and carpenters in each village and these were paid every month as well as receiving food rations.  Little if anything had been done before the project started to inform the villagers of what would be expected of them but nearly all of the communities worked hard to supply the large quantities of local materials that were required.  In some cases suitable materials were not available and the PEU had to purchase and transport them, particularly sand and large aggregate.  Most communities did supply adequate quantities of bush-sticks for scaffolding and roof construction but it proved impossible to obtain sufficient timber in the villages to make all of the doors and shutters and timber therefore had to be purchased.

Using the designs developed previously by myself, varying numbers of four types of standard buildings were constructed at each primary school: 2-classroom units, 3-classroom units, multipurpose units with a single classroom and a double classroom for large meetings and 2-workshop units.  VIP-latrines were constructed at each school site together with wells for drinking water equipped with good quality hand-pumps.  The access roads to most of the villages were improved, new culverts were built and one bridge over a river that collapsed during the school construction was also re-built.

The furniture designs that I had developed (which will be covered in a later post) were also used with some changes to the sizes which were made after an anthropometric survey was carried out of primary school age children in the project villages.

Construction Details

The buildings were designed to be constructed simply and economically; to deal with the hot and humid climate and to use as far as possible locally available materials.

In most rural communities in the country there are masons and carpenters capable of constructing simple buildings using mud blocks, bush-sticks and CI sheets and it was decided at the start of the project to use these or similar materials, making improvements where possible.

The use of mud blocks was unacceptable to Government and therefore the buildings were constructed of soil-cement blocks (using a ratio of 10% cement to 90% soil on most sites) made in BREPAC machines imported by the PEU.  The machine that I had used when I was building the prototype schools had worked very well but the management of the company that made them had changed and the quality of the new machines was not very good and there were therefore constant problems during the block-making process.

The blocks produced by the machines however were generally very good quality and were used un-rendered wherever possible.  Gable end walls which were exposed to the rain were rendered as were columns and piers on both sides of the buildings and walls along the verandas.  The masons had no problems with laying the blocks.  It should be noted however that, as long as adequate footings and foundation walls are provided, it would be perfectly feasible to construct similar classrooms using un-stabilised mud blocks.

Footings were constructed of either concrete using sand and large aggregate gathered from nearby rivers or of large stones set in mortar.  Foundation walls, to a minimum height of one foot above ground level were constructed of sand-cement blocks made on site in wooden moulds.

Floors to all rooms and the access verandas were constructed of three inch (75mm) unreinforced mass concrete laid in bays with movement joints on well-compacted laterite fill and self-finished with a steel trowel (there were no screeds).  No reinforced concrete was used in the construction of the buildings.

The roofs were constructed of CI sheets on bush-pole purlins on bush-pole trusses to a similar design to that I had used before for the prototype classrooms described elsewhere.  We had a sample truss tested by the Engineering Department of Fourah Bay College and it proved to be extremely strong and more than capable of resisting the fairly low forces that would be exerted on it when in use.  The trusses were secured by reinforcing rods built into the walls and columns.  Bush poles are fairly termite resistant but as added protection we treated them with used vehicle engine oil which is a very cheap, effective and fairly innocuous treatment against termite attack.  The only modification to the usual method of fixing CI roof sheets was to blind-rivet the ridge pieces to the top sheets rather than nailing them into the purlins which overcame, very simply, the main cause of leaking roofs.  Ceilings were provided usually locally-woven grass mats which provided a source of income to the villagers.

Doors, window shutters and their frames were made centrally by a team of carpenters at BTC out of hardwood purchased from local suppliers.  Much of the timber was pit-sawn in the surrounding forest and we had to provide the loggers with the necessary seven foot (2.1 metre) saws.  The doors and shutters were delivered to site complete with their frames and were built into the walls as they went up using wire nail hold-fasts for fixings.  All frames had an extended double frame at the top which acted as a lintel and avoided the need for any reinforced concrete lintels.  All of the doors and shutters were treated with used vehicle engine oil to protect them against termites.


The immediate objective of the primary school component of the project that was the upgrading of the ten pilot primary schools was largely achieved mainly through the efforts of the communities involved.  At two schools some classrooms were not constructed because insufficient materials were provided by the communities and at two sites wells could not be constructed because of the ground conditions but other water sources were available.  Ten and a half miles of road were improved and many culverts and an additional bridge were also constructed.

The project was therefore completed substantially as visualised in the project document with only a four month overrun on the original two year project duration.  This overrun was mainly due to the effect of the long rainy season on the construction programme not being built in to the original project design.

There was a substantial saving on the UNCDF budget of around US$360,000 which was mainly due to savings on the road improvement component, to careful design and supervision of the construction and to close monitoring of all aspects of expenditure. The savings were utilised to construct eight teacher’s houses in a second phase of the project.

The cost of the primary school buildings was comparatively low at US$15 a square foot (US$162 a square metre) which included all labour and materials together with supervision, management and operational overheads such as the cost of international staff and vehicles.  This can be compared to the cost of the teacher’s houses which were built by a contractor of US$30 a square foot (US$324 a square metre) excluding administration and supervision costs.

The project proved therefore that, with careful management, technically assisted self-help can deliver good school buildings at a substantially lower cost than that of using contractors. The technical assistance costs are high but the rewards in terms of the reduction in total costs and in community and rural development would appear to justify these costs.

Lessons learned

Construction of facilities by communities whether through ‘self-help’ or by using the community or school committees to implement and manage the construction can be very cost-effective and successful.  It can also have other advantages in that a sense of ownership and responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance of the buildings can be instilled in the community if they are responsible for the construction.  There are however a number issues that have to be faced:

  • Great care must be taken in the selection of the communities to be involved.  The communities must be fully informed of the amount of work and time that will be required of them and of the amount of materials that they will have to provide (if this is the case).  Only when this is fully understood and agreed to should the final selection of sites be made.

  • The scale of the development should be kept small and the buildings should not be complex in order that the communities are fully able to understand the project and provide adequate labour and materials to complete it.

  • The methods and materials to be used to construct the buildings should be simple to understand, appropriate for their use, locally available and familiar to both the communities and the artisans working on the project.

  • Factors such as the farming or fishing cycle, that will have an impact on the availability of labour, and the effect of a long rainy season on construction work, must be taken into account at the project planning stage and adequate time should be allowed for the implementation of the project.

  • This analysis of the local economic cycle must also include an analysis of the gender division of labour, and the likely knock-on effects within and between families if family members are taken from their normal activities.  The effect on different age groups may also be significant, if for example parents are forced to rely on the labour of their children to undertake daily routine activities.  This may have an impact on the existing schooling patterns, and for example, may result in girls being withdrawn from school for child-care or other domestic duties, or boys being withdrawn to take over some of their father’s farming activities.

  • If it is a self-help project, a system of incentive payments should be built into the project from the start to assist small communities in providing adequate labour.  This should pay adequate attention to gender norms, and should ensure that men or women are not unduly advantaged compared to the other.  Household budgeting systems are often complex in many African farming communities and how these are structured needs to be understood prior to the development of any payment systems.

  • Sufficient time must be allowed in the initial stages of the project for the appointment of the management team, the preparation of documentation and the procurement of materials, equipment and transport. 

  • Adequate transport must be provided for project staff and materials and particular provision must be made for the transport of bulky and heavy materials such as sand and aggregate to the site.

  • Adequate and secure stores must be available both at the project headquarters and at the construction sites for the storage of equipment, materials and possibly fuel.

  • Accurate records of payments and materials must be kept and equipment and materials carefully monitored in order to avoid misuse and theft and to keep a check on the cost of the project.

  • New materials, tools or techniques should only be introduced after careful consideration particularly if the construction period is short.

  • If cement-stabilised soil blocks are used, a continuous check must be kept on the characteristics of the soil being used during the manufacturing period in order to avoid any problems with shrinkage, etc.

It must also be recognised that a great deal of technical assistance will be required if the buildings are going to be completed successfully.  The quality of the technical assistance and the consultants understanding of local customs, cultures and social norms must be ensured if this success is to be achieved.

Whether the buildings are actually built by the community or by local artisans managed by the community, appropriate supervision and management of the construction work will be essential if good quality buildings are to be ensured.  Although local artisans might well be able to construct the buildings, they might not be able to manage the work in a timely and cost-effective way.

Competent and professional supervision and management of the building work will be essential throughout the construction period.  The supervisors will also need to exercise some financial control in order to ensure that the funds for construction are properly expended and accounted for.

The accountability of the supervisors must also be ensured in a manner accessible to the community and the supervisors and their accounts must be monitored independently.  In many countries corrupt practices by officials not only distort development efforts, they also create disillusionment within the communities they purport to support.  The undermining of school development initiatives because of inappropriate interventions and selection of favoured companies to provide technical inputs has been evident where suitable checks and systems are not in place.

The supervisors will have to pay particular attention to the construction of foundations, to any concrete works, to the roof and to finishing work.  The construction of wells and toilets will also require special attention.

It will also be a great help to communities if a simple and easily understandable construction manual, designed for non-literate communities and reflecting social norms, is prepared to assist them in the construction process and it will probably be necessary to carry out some training of the community and local artisans in improved construction techniques.


The attached report: ‘Primary School Construction in Sierra Leone: A Case Study’, provides drawings and photographs of the school buildings and more details of the implementation of the project.

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