Safer Built Environments for 90% of the World

Reasons to Volunteer to Build for Others

In celebrating International Women’s Day last week (March 8), I’d like to quickly tell you about an awesome program by Humanity for Habitat called Women Build.  Women Build is a volunteer program for women who want to learn construction skills and make a difference by building homes and communities.   The great thing about this program is that women from all walks of life, with or without construction skills, can make a great impact on other’s lives.

While we’re on the topic of women building, I’d also like to share with you a bit of my own experience venturing into the neighbourhoods of Vietnam to help build a house for the underprivileged.  In November last year, I decided to take a break after finishing 6 years of architectural studies.  I didn’t want it to be just another vacation; I wanted it to be meaningful!  It was when I accidentally came across i-to-i volunteer organisation, that I found the opportunity to volunteer building abroad – it was perfect for me!

Doing life with the family we were building for that month was like nothing I have ever experienced before. The father has a heart condition which stops him from being able to work, so income for the family comes from the mother selling produce at the local markets for a few hours a day.  It was definitely an eye opener to see how people live with next to nothing.  Everyday we wake up to locals sorting out piles of rubbish across the street of our accommodation, and others with physical deformities begging for money.  Despite such poverty, the Vietnamese are so warm and friendly, never failing to offer us fruit, coffee and their smiles.

My first day on the building site was spent measuring segments off countless rolls of reinforcement steel with a string, cutting these segments with a steel strap cutter, and straightening these curved steel bars with a hand tool that was quickly shaped out of a bit of steel by Bob (the local builder).  What a workout that was for my hands!  By the end of the first day we had only straightened about 30 of these 600cm long steel bars, and none of them were even up to Bob’s standards!  Nevertheless I was glad the day was over and looked forward to less strenuous work for the next day.

Little did I know the days that followed just seemed to get harder and harder. Looking back at it now, what we did the first day was definitely the easiest day of labour out of the whole construction process.  By the end of the first week we had:

  • Removed every wall of the old timber shack
  • Dug up 9 holes in the ground to place the concrete footings
  • Set up and secure formwork for the foundation of the house by reusing the old termite infested timber planks
  • Learnt how to twist metal ties to secure reinforcement bars and rings together using only a hand made building tool (yes, another one)
  • Learnt how to squat Vietnamese style whilst twisting these metal ties
  • Carried buckets of sand and rocks back and forth with just two buckets (one with a major crack in it)
  • Purchased a brand new wheelbarrow for Bob the builder for USD15 as he cannot afford one himself
  • Drowned ourselves in insect repellent every couple of hours
  • Learnt how to mix sand, cement, water and small rocks to form concrete
  • Learnt very simple (but important!) construction terms in Vietnamese through trying to communicate with Bob and the other local builders
  • Sweated profusely all day everyday on construction site under 37˚C heat
  • Started brick laying
  • Joked and laughed with the family we were building the house for
  • Shoveled, shoveled and shoveled some more!


While I learnt a great deal on construction by getting my hands dirty, I couldn’t help but also notice the slow construction speed and poor construction quality. The concrete mixture for the underground footings was not left to dry completely before filling the foundation holes.  This does not allow the concrete to set, which means it won’t provide adequate strength to support the concrete columns that frame around the entire house!  The use of a simple string to set out the straightness for each layer of bricks was a bit questionable, while the out of line bricks could only offer walls with poor structural strength.  And these are just situations off the top of my head, not to even mention the (non) safety of the construction site!

And this is why humanitarian architecture is so important! Words can’t describe what it’s like being able to do life with a family who I can build a house for with my bare hands.  For me personally, the satisfaction and feeling you get when you are able to help helpless people outweighs the everyday routine of just sitting in front of a computer drawing lines or designing another building just for the sake of it.  Although some might say people prefer to stick to their own ways, everyone needs to know that there are better methods out there in the process of building – faster, more adequate and of course a lot more safer.  The methods we use everyday may be completely foreign to many others in the world, especially in developing countries.  We need to give our resources, and also share our skills and knowledge with those who cannot afford architectural design services, yet are in critical need of them!

If you are interested in volunteering to build abroad, check out:

Habitat for Humanity


Tabitha Foundation

Global Aware




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