The team from Engineers Without Borders used their training and skills to build a water tank in a small mountain village in the Honduras. “Just getting the villagers to 100 percent consumption from the spring (eliminating usage from nearby brooks) should dramatically reduce intestinal and skin diseases,” said mechanical engineering student Martin Nolan. (Feature photos courtesy of ASHRAE.)

LONG BEACH, Calif. - Life-changing experiences can take many forms. For Bernard Amadei, Ph.D., founding president of Engineers Without Borders (EWB)-USA and cofounder of the EWB-International network, it was “looking into the eyes of a dying child. [It] will change your life forever.”

The experience inspired him to use engineering to help make the world a better place for those hardest hit in its most poverty-stricken areas: women and children.

“Half of the world’s population today is under 25,” he observed at a full-to-overflowing session of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Annual Meeting. “In Afghanistan, half the population is under 14. We need to empower youth with creative and healthy tools to express their creativity,” including vocational schools.

“Think of everything that could make possible. By the time they are 18, they have jobs and skills, and we all benefit from it. As engineers, it is pretty important to us. In the next 20 years, 20 percent of the world’s population growth will be in the developing world. There will be a huge demand for engineers.”


The challenges of working in less-developed countries takes many forms. “The accounting office doesn’t often get check requests for pack mule transportation,” wrote Martin Nolan in his first-hand account of Engineers Without Borders work. In January, he and other volunteer engineers traveled “to a small village in the mountains of Honduras, where I helped build a water tank.”

There was “no electricity, no running water, just a plan and a lot of gusto.”

The pack mules were used “to transport cement, lime, gravel, sand, and cinder blocks up the mountain in January,” Nolan wrote. “Some days the only means was pack mule. For 500 Limperas [the currency of Honduras], you can get twelve 50-pound bags of cement up the mountain.”

Nolan received ASHRAE’s Alwin B. Newton Scholarship for 2006-07. He is studying mechanical engineering at City University of New York’s City College (CCNY). The trip was sponsored by Turner Construction, the Grove School of Engineering, CCNY Alumni Association, CCNY Honors College, CCNY Fellows program, and private donors.

Not all such projects are suitable for student engineers, said Amadei. “Half are professional chapters, half are students.” He also stressed the importance of not engineering solutions that are too complicated to be practical. “We don’t go into the community just one time and hand them a user’s manual. That’s inappropriate technology. Everything breaks. You need to build that into your design so the people don’t have to call you.

“This is not charity,” he added. “I don’t approve of charity. But the solutions are much less expensive than what we are used to thinking of as engineered designs.”

Without electricity or running water, engineers had to rely upon gas-powered mixers and a generator from the regional government to mix and then pour 17 yards of concrete. Each 50-pound bag of cement was mixed with 45 shovels of gravel and 30 shovels of sand.


According to ASHRAE, the world’s population is estimated to increase 2 billion people in the next two decades, leading to unprecedented demands for energy, food, water, land, transportation, waste disposal, health care, and infrastructure.

That is why, “As we enter the first half of the 21st century, the engineering profession must embrace a new mission statement: to contribute to the building of a more sustainable, stable, and equitable world,” said Amadei. EWB partners with disadvantaged communities, to improve their quality of life via infrastructure and building engineering projects that are also sustainable. The program involves and trains environmentally responsible engineering professionals and students, like Nolan.

Amadei himself is a professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado-Boulder. In addition to EWB, he is spearheading a shift in engineering education and practice called earth systems engineering (ESE). It stresses the importance of taking into account the interaction between construction and natural systems.

Amadei is directing a new program in engineering for developing communities. His mission: to teach engineering students and professionals methods that are more globally responsible, and to offer sustainable and appropriate solutions to the problems faced by developing communities around the world.

He said a new generation of engineers must be trained who can better meet the challenges of the developing world and address the needs of the most destitute people on the planet. Today, an estimated 20 percent of the world’s population lacks clean water, 40 percent lacks adequate sanitation, and 20 percent lacks adequate housing.

Amadei is reaching out to ASHRAE membership. “I’m excited about the challenges and opportunities given to ASHRAE,” said Terry Townsend, the society’s president. “Our technology and expertise is without borders.”

Some of Amadei’s goals are to promote sustainable development, appropriate technology, service learning, and system thinking in the curriculum and research of civil engineering programs at CU-Boulder and other U.S. universities. He is working on a new book,Engineering with Soul.

His next vision: “to create more projects where we take villages that want to kill each other and have them work together on a building project.”

“We are looked at as nerds,” he said to the packed ASHRAE audience. “Well, maybe we are nerds - some of us. But we are also facilitators, social entrepreneurs, community builders, peace makers. Tutsi people are working together” on construction projects, Amadei said. “Let’s work on a project in the Gaza Strip. The professional peace makers are not doing a great job, eh?”

“Nothing sweeter than a job well done,” wrote mechanical engineering student and ASHRAE scholarship recipient Martin Nolan. Indigenous fruits frequently provide food and liquid refreshment during the hot work day for both the engineers and the villagers.


Here are more excerpts from Nolan’s journal:

“A couple of days after arriving, we were pouring concrete - 17 yards using 105 bags of cement, each bag got about 45 shovels of gravel and another 30 of sand. We did get some gas-powered mixers from the regional government and a generator. It took eight hours but it was done as dusk hit and there were a lot of happy faces; we all celebrated with coffee and a cake-like treat similar to cornbread. Nothing sweeter than a job well done!

“We spent months planning, and it was great to see all the class work applied: Reynolds numbers, friction coefficients, head loss - they were no longer problems on a page - they were real problems. Too much head loss and our water might not make it from the dam at the spring to the tank. It also was interesting to find out about other disciplines.

“We had workshops in concrete mixing, pipefitting, and surveying, plus discussions on pumps, filtration, and purification systems. Once we were in the trenches, there always were problems to solve - the belt on the cement mixer kept coming off and the generator would backfire - great fun!

“Our team of young engineers bonded. It was great to be dancing bachata and seeing my colleagues doing the same atop the tank walls. Our team will go back to inspect the final work in June and hopefully install a chlorinator. The locals will put a roof on the tank, shore up the dam at the spring, and lay the piping from the spring to the tank and from the tank to the homes. We will also conduct more tests on the water.

“So far the spring is quite clean. Just getting the villagers to 100 percent consumption from the spring (eliminating usage from nearby brooks) should dramatically reduce intestinal and skin diseases. Workshops have been prepared on maintenance, composting, hygiene, etc.

“I’m also hoping to dance a little bachata with the villagers at the inauguration.”

Publication Date:07/09/2007