A Different Kind of Precast Building

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by Carl Grimm CSI, CCS, SCIP, NYSA

If you could construct a building without zoning, building, accessibility, or safety codes how would you do it?

As an architect I had the good fortune of being involved with the construction of a 2500 sq. ft. (232 m2) three-classroom school building in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, in March of this year. It was located on the campus of Aselsi, a group that has been assisting children’s medical and learning needs since the 1980s.

The school is only the third school in a country of 15 million to address the needs of children with autism, cystic-fibrosis, Down’s-syndrome, muscular dystrophy, cerebral-palsy, as well as nutritional disorders—to name just a few.

This is the eighth school building that the Sienna Project has built. This project overcame several language barriers, with the Mayan Indian volunteers, who spoke Quichi, requiring a translator to the Spanish of the school officials and then to English for the eight volunteers from the United States.

A precast building was selected since it could be constructed quickly by unskilled labor, was earthquake resistant (there is an average of two quakes per day—and several volcanoes nearby), would not be attacked by insects or wandering animals, would not burn (since there is no fire department in the area) and would provide security (there is also not much of a police department). Working with a local contractor, Derek Lavanhar, the precast reinforced wall system was based on the familiar highway noise-barrier system using slotted posts, inset panels and concrete trim. The precast building components were produced in Guatemala City by the Faval Company (Represented by a prehistoric elephant about a day’s truck ride away.)

After the batter boards were placed, the column holes dug the stone-normal weight 4000 psi rough finished reinforced precast parts were assembled. They fit nicely together with a little persuasion. The top of the walls are tied together and grouted. The walls were up and painted in three days! A cold-formed steel frame will support a corrugated steel roof and skylight. There is no insulation. The plumbing will never pass a U.S.-style health code since all sewage drains into a cistern. (You are expected to place toilet paper in a waste basket where it can be burned.) The wiring is somewhat undersized but it provides for basic light and computers. There is no heating or air-conditioning as the climate doesn’t require it. The cost of the precast work was $5,700.00 or about $7.00 per square foot. The cost of the completed structure will be about $17,000.00. You can’t find construction costs like this in the New York area!

Think about sharing your construction skills for a week next March when the ninth school will be constructed. Special needs-trained volunteer teachers and medical personnel fluent in Spanish are also needed year-round at the Aselsi facility. Call Carl Grimm at 914-271-5471. The Sienna Project is named after Derek Lavanhar's daughter who died suddenly and without cause at the age of three years.