In Engineers Without Borders UK, the focus is always upon ‘massive small change’ – looking for ways to rethink the way work is carried out, and how resources can best be allocated to ensure small changes lead to the largest impacts. Jo Ashbridge found this first hand when she embarked on a three-month EWB-UK placement, traveling to Bangladesh to work in collaboration with local NGO Simple Action for the Environment (SAFE). The project is one of many specialised placements abroad which EWB creates every year in order to best benefit local communities.

Jo couldn’t have predicted the adventure and challenges that would face her as soon as she hit the ground. The project involved among other things, developing building materials commonly used in the Dinajpur district of Bangladesh. Earth is used as a low-cost and sustainable primary construction material for developing plinths, walls, sundried blocks and earthen plasters. However, the region is located in one of the highest earthquake risk zones in the country and frequented by annual monsoon rains. Infrastructure is therefore challenged by severe storms and natural disasters. Dwellings constructed from earth are additionally challenged by a barrage of water related concerns such as torrential rains, flash floods, and humidity, thus requiring constant maintenance.

Jo’s work examined ways of sourcing widely available, local and sustainable additives to earthen plasters. The research tested natural additions to compete against the more expensive synthetic options such as cement, which are often unaffordable for families in rural areas of Bangladesh. The analysis identified several natural alternatives that could improve the water resilience of earth within construction. The samples were further examined under monsoon conditions to test their reliability. Mulch from the local bijla tree was found to perform extremely well.

Jo’s work initially began as a three month placement, but developed into thirteen months of work, which was recognised by the RIBA and awarded the RIBA Boyd Auger Scholarship. Her research led to her traveling along the southern coast of Bangladesh examining earthen vernacular and NGO shelter provision. The research resulted in the design of a prototype house with the assistance of RIBA funds and the local community of Nobu para.

“My time and work in Bangladesh”, Jo says, “was a constant affirmation that the built environment community could and should do more to support the alleviation of poverty and encourage sustainable development”. Her work since then has led to collaboration with architecture company Ryder to create a new architectural not for profit addressing similar needs in resource limited settings.

Jo’s placement demonstrates the long term potential of small scale projects – where massive impacts can be created from small changes. The project is the first step in offering low-income communities measures to improve the long-term quality of their homes and livelihoods. As a result, the bijla tree is increasingly being protected through the development of a tree nursery in rural Bangladesh to reintroduce the species into the landscape.

Engineers Without Borders

Jo’s and EWB-UK’s continued work in providing multiple solutions to the development of sustainable building materials, demonstrates that these small projects can lead to real, practical ways of alleviating poverty and developing sustainable solutions for developing communities.

To read about Jo Ashbridge’s newly developed charity AzuKo, which seeks to improve lives in areas with limited assets through community driven, research based design initiatives that are sensitive to local contexts, visit the website:

To find out more about placements with Engineers without Borders visit:

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