BB&A Structural Engineer Travels to Guatemala

Posted: 5/1/2014

John Leary PE, SE traveled to the Guatemalan jungle to volunteer with a group from the Chicagoland Professional Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). The EWB project is located at Ak'Tenamit, a school and vocational training center for indigenous peoples in Eastern Guatemala. The center is reachable only by boat.

Ak'Tenamit reports on its website that, on average, the region's indigenous girls drop out of school after 1st grade and the boys after 3rd grade. Only 5% of indigenous girls finish high school. The school has been growing quickly and has many infrastructure needs. The main initiative of this specific EWB trip was to install a new toilet system for the classroom buildings.

Leary, his team, and local Guatemalan masons and students worked together to install a new toilet system that uses an anaerobic baffled reactor (ABR). Essentially, an ABR is an enhanced septic tank which uses a system of baffle walls to treat wastewater.  Structurally, the ABR is a series of reinforced masonry walls sitting on a concrete slab. The partially underground "tank" was surrounded by a drain tile and then backfilled.

Leary also worked on structurally reinforcing
the timber restroom building that feeds the ABR system.

According to him, one of the biggest challenges of the trip was the inability to obtain desired building materials at the remote site.

Some of the materials received on site were not what the team had chosen. As the only structural engineer in the EWB group, Leary had to make design decisions on-site in accordance with what materials were actually available. Additionally, construction methods in Guatemala were different. Leary said it was key for the American group to remember that their role was not to "boss" as if they were project owners; rather, to help guide the project. They were there to work with the community, giving advice and stepping in with technical knowledge as required.

With every project it takes on, EWB commits to at least five years of helping that community, so there is a good chance Leary could return to Ak'Tenamit at some point, or otherwise work on another EWB project.