Inside a classroom of the sustainable kindergarten in Dwabor, Ghana.

+ Engineers have a responsibility to share knowledge of safe design and construction with local people if schools are to become resilient parts of the community.

School buildings play an important role in education by creating a safe environment where children can learn and be inspired. However, to be truly safe and sustainable, school buildings in areas at high risk from natural hazards and the effects of climate change must be built for long-term durability and resilience. This is particularly true in developing countries.

My experience of working in Africa, particularly in Ghana, brought home to me just how little attention has been given to the structural performance of school buildings. Where buildings are provided, they’re often poorly designed and built. They don’t meet the needs of pupils and teachers and their seismic performance is poor too.

This is a big problem because much of Africa is in a zone of moderate seismic risk. But because there hasn’t been a major earthquake in recent years, it is all too easy for the risks to be underplayed or overlooked. As communities start to develop, they don’t often design and build with these hazards in mind.

Well designed and constructed schools can also offer a safe refuge for the wider community if their self-built homes are less resilient. In the event of a natural disaster, such as a flood or an earthquake, people can take shelter in the school building.

That is why, as engineers, I believe we have a responsibility to share our knowledge of safe design and construction with local people if schools in Africa are to become resilient parts of the community. Armed with new awareness, skills and capacity, communities can create safe buildings that can withstand natural disasters.

On projects I worked on in Africa, we made engaging with the local community a priority, with a strong focus on the importance of safe design. Crucially, that focus included not only the school building but also the infrastructure around it – such as the drainage strategy.

If we give communities the knowledge they need to create safe schools, they can also apply it to other buildings – churches, town halls, markets and their own homes, for example. It also means we can assist government departments build their capacity and start to ensure that more buildings are resilient.

This is the approach Arup is following in its work with the Sabre Charitable Trust – a charity working to improve education services in Ghana. Engineers and designers from Arup have worked with Sabre to create safe, sustainable kindergartens.

This focus on resilience is the other side of sustainability – and, as my colleague Jo da Silva highlighted in her Brunel Lecture – it’s one that deserves as much attention as environmental issues. Communities in countries like Ghana want and deserve to develop. As engineers, we can help them develop successfully, safely and resiliently through knowledge transfer and capacity building.