James Madison University

first graduates logo About this series: This is the 11th installment in a series of features celebrating the first graduating class of the JMU Department of Engineering. When JMU started the school four years ago, it set out to develop a program unlike any other. Through this series, you will see how the students and faculty have done just that, concentrating their efforts on teaching and learning the four pillars of sustainability that future engineers must embrace, not only to succeed in their profession, but to make meaningful contributions in the communities they choose to work in. The series will continue each week through May, when graduates of the JMU Department of Engineering take part in the spring commencement ceremony for the first time.


Adaptability is Key to Health Clinic Design for Sub-Saharan Africa

The building needs to be sustainable, it needs to be built with available resources and it has to be practical just about anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Nearly two years into their senior capstone project, a group of seven engineering majors is zeroing in on ways to meet those demands.

The group is developing a holistic model for a sustainable health clinic that will be adaptable to many areas in Sub-Saharan Africa. Research for the clinic model has taken them into multiple areas of engineering and related research, as they have considered the needs of indigenous populations. Their model, based on principles of sustainable engineering, balances community, social and health needs with economic, technical and environmental needs appropriate to the region.

PHOTO: Laptop screen"We knew coming into this project that we wouldn't be able to build a clinic," Dan Wolfe said. "We just didn't have the funding."

As a result, a significant part of the group's final "deliverable" at the end of the semester will be a 3-D model of what a sustainable African health clinic could look like. Wolfe is researching and adapting software to present the team's vision for the health clinic, while other group members continue to research other components such as rainwater collection systems, green building materials and population densities.

"We say all these things: We want it to be sustainable. We want to use sustainable building materials. We want to use passive cooling and use solar technology, but what does that actually look like?" Wolfe said. "Our final decision for the complex design has evolved significantly since fall of 2010. As a group and with the input from professionals and research, we decided to bring the buildings together. However, we still hope the site will have an open feel, and architecture different than that of the western world.

"This will almost serve as a finished set of drawings," Wolfe said. "It will have dimensions, interiors space, materials selection. They'll be able to see what it can look like. Our goal with the drawings is to have something very "concrete" and detailed so that potential NGOs or other organizations can hire professional engineers to critique our structure. Although, these drawings will not be 'construction set' drawings, hopefully they will aid future engineers and designers in seeing our vision."

Such adaptability will be accomplished in part through a questionnaire that the group is developing to be used in concert with the model.

PHOTO: Students meetThe questionnaire will gather information about the unique needs and characteristics of individual African communities that would impact how a clinic is built in much the same way that a contractor would determine customer needs and wants. From this information, the modelers will be able to recommend suitable building types, square footage, the numbers and configurations of rooms, all based on factors such as the population density, solar radiation, average rainfall, and cost constraints, explained Leah Haling.

The average number of patients and patient needs is also an important consideration, added Dana Anderson.

In many ways, the students' experience mirrors what must be done in real life to make significant changes.

"In an actual building project," Wolfe said, "you have many architects and engineers and it can take years."

So too will the Africa health clinic project take many years. The group estimates that it will be 10 years before it is fully functional. Future JMU engineering students will continue the project after the current group graduates in May with the university's first engineering class. This year's junior engineering students are already working with the seniors, ensuring an efficient hand off of the project to the next group.

"After two years, we've done a lot of groundwork," Wolfe said. "There's so much more potential. Future students can work with what we've given them and build upon this."

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