George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Mason Engineers for International Development partner with Nicaraguan non-profit to develop sustainable housing

February 14, 2018   /   by Martha Bushong

When George Mason University closed for winter break and its Northern Virginia Campus was gray and cold, Mason Engineers for International Development flew to sunny Nicaragua. They weren’t there to enjoy the weather.

Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America, after Haiti, and the poorest country in Central America. About half of Nicaraguans have limited access to improved sanitation. Scores of homes consist of sheet metal roofs, unreinforced cinder blocks, and lack doors and windows. Stable, affordable housing is a critical, unmet need.

The students and their advisors were there to help their Nicaraguan partners address this unmet need. The trip’s main objective develop a master plan for two related affordable Nicaraguan housing projects

During the action-packed week, the team encountered steep and dry terrain, a live volcano, rattlesnakes, and groundwater resources potentially impacted by decades of chemical and untreated sewage releases into the regional Lake Managua.

“We toured the area, developed a site master plan, presented it to our partners, and spoke to the bankers,” says Jack Scherer a mechanical engineering major. “The trip made me want to come back to school and work harder because now I know how the work can change people’s lives.”

Although the country’s steep terrain is inhospitable for housing, it presents great opportunity for wind and solar fields to supplement the student engineers’ vision for solar panels on individual homes. The Nicaraguan partners are considering other sustainable practices that are new to Nicaraguan housing developments, including storm water collection and underground storage, burial of power lines to reduce the impact of natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, and solid waste composting and recycling.

In addition to affordability, the plan for the two communities will incorporate a primary school; exposure and opportunity to promote sustainable practices to preserve the natural environment; establishment of employment opportunities within the community to support economic development and viability; support for preventative health care and healthy lifestyle practices; and resilient infrastructure systems.

“Clearly the most impactful part of the trip was the student interaction with the community and families who might live in such a community and their enthusiasm and gratitude for the students’ conceptual master plan,” says Liza Wilson Durant, associate dean, strategic initiatives and community engagement.

For civil engineering major Andrew Simpson the trip was the first time he had been out of the United States. “I had never been on a plane before. The farthest away from home I had traveled was New York City,” says Simpson. “My parents are from Ghana and have made me aware of our family’s story, but it’s easy to forget that others are writing their own narrative. The experience in Nicaragua really drove that point home.”

Back on campus, the work continues. In the months ahead the EfID team will finalize their recommendations. They plan to return to Nicaragua this summer  to begin work on the evaluation and design of another housing project and to assess other water quality projects in the region.

“It’s projects like these that allow us to be the change we wish to see in the world,”  Simpson says.