As I mentioned in my previous blog about my involvement with Engineers Without Borders, I went to Portland last weekend for the EWB West Coast Regional Workshop. It was such a great weekend, and I really learned a lot!

The conference began with a few discussions on EWB-USA as a whole, some improvements they were making, and their visions for ten years from now. After the main speakers, the rest of the conference was broken up into breakout sessions, so that attendees could pick which sessions interested us the most. I tried to vary the types of sessions I went to, hitting a few technical presentations the first day, and then some cultural and process discussions on Sunday. A few of my favorite discussions were:

Confined masonry: I had heard the term confined masonry a lot this summer, during my internship with Engineering Ministries International, but I never really understood why someone would choose this method over other structural systems. Essentially, what I learned was that confined masonry involves building the brick walls first, and then pouring the concrete columns and beams around the already built walls. This allows for a much better bond between the columns and the walls which dramatically increases a building’s seismic resistance. The speaker at this session had gone to Haiti a few weeks after the earthquake there and had consulted on a project that involved creating a manual for confined masonry and training local builders and masons in the technique.

Village economics: This session was all about how people in cash-poor societies operate. He explained that many communities who we would consider really poor are in fact moderately wealthy when it comes to resources and do not want for food or shelter. At the same time however, they tend to trade crops or labor for what they need, rather than use cash. Additionally, many of these communities have a strong sense of social capital – that is, they will give back to their communities so that if they ever find themselves in need, their community will give to them. These cultural differences are really important to consider when we try to ensure the longevity of our projects. Oftentimes, we try to set up a committee to manage a fund that the whole community pays into, and that can be used to pay for replacing parts in the water system over time. In a cash-poor society, however, these aren’t necessarily the best models to follow.

Student chapter forum: The last session I attended was a discussion forum for students involved in their student chapters and some of the EWB-USA staff. It was really helpful to hear the ideas and lessons learned that every chapter had to offer. Many of the chapters had faced similar challenges to what we see in our chapter and had great ideas for how we can make things better for everyone involved in EWB-USC and for the community we work with in Honduras. Additionally, at the end of the session, we got the chance to talk with some of the other chapter in the Los Angeles area, and discussed the opportunity for doing a few joint events.

Representatives from USC, UCLA, and Cal Poly Pamona chapters posing in front of the Engineering Building at Portland State University

Overall, it was a great weekend and I’m so glad I got to attend the conference. A bonus at the end was the four hours we got to explore Portland. I love the Pacific Northwest (I hope to move there soon after I graduate) and Portland is a beautiful city, especially in the fall as all the leaves are changing.