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Davenport Campbell shares the power of design for social good

Having just returned from building a school in the aftermath of Nepal’s earthquake, nine building professionals from Davenport Campbell share their experience and the impact it has had on the community.

Breathe in. Step. Breathe out. Step.

It’s a clear and frosty morning high in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal where nine Australians begin their final day’s trek to the remote community of Garma on 17 February 2019. There are no flat whites or avocado toast for these construction industry professionals – only day packs and muscle fatigue from five days of hiking. Over the following days, these nine volunteers will work with local community members on the final stages of construction of a new, earthquake-resistant school hall that will provide a space for children in Garma to learn, to play and to perform.  

With backgrounds in engineering, project management, architecture and construction specialities, each of the volunteers has been instrumental in raising funds to build the new hall and are excited to use their time and expertise to see the project through to completion on site.

As they enter the streets of this remote farming community, rain and snow begin to fall for the first time on the trip after a difficult and unfamiliar journey. Leading the group is architect and principal at Davenport Campbell, Neill Johanson, who has a special commitment to the people of Garma.

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“The work we do in Nepal underlies everything we represent as an organisation and provides enormous personal satisfaction to our employees.” – Neill Johanson
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On a similar day in 2015, Johanson was returning to nearby village Somare after a trek to Mount Everest when the first of a series of earthquakes struck. “It was ANZAC Day and we were just below base camp when the earth began to violently shake the mountains, causing the buildings around us to collapse. In an instant, we became part of a humanitarian crisis. It was only the selfless actions of the Sherpa people during the earthquake’s aftermath that enabled us to make it safely back to the Australian High Commission in Kathmandu,” Johanson shares.

Upon returning home, Johanson and his business partner Peter Wager formed a partnership with the Australian Himalayan Foundation [AHF] along with other architects and engineers. Their aim was to help the community in Garma to plan and rebuild their badly damaged school. Davenport Campbell has dedicated itself to this project ever since.

In late 2017, Johanson returned to Garma to help open the school classrooms that now safely accommodate 350 children, many of whom have special needs requirements. At this opening, the school headmaster and community elder, Binod Tamang, spoke to Johanson about his vision for a school community hall.

Davenport Campbell completed an earthquake proof school in Nepal

It was this conversation that played through Johanson’s mind as he approached the school on 17 February this year. Tamang was there to greet Johanson and to present each volunteer with a khata as part of the traditional Nepalese greeting. For the next few days the volunteers worked alongside the local community. Directed by the architect of the hall, Tom Singleton, the team completed the hall with pride in the knowledge that their fundraising had been put to good use.

Using earthquake-resistant technologies designed by Australian engineering firm TTW, the hall has been designed to withstand a future earthquake. This intellectual property has now been gifted to the Nepalese government for their use anywhere in Nepal.

A few days later and with the construction program complete, Johanson and the volunteers were being welcomed by the Australian Ambassador to Nepal, Peter Budd, at the Australian High Commission in Kathmandu.

Budd commends, “it is wonderful to see that in addition to our funding, the AHF has formed a model partnership with the Rural Education and Environment Development Centre – Nepal [REED-Nepal] and Davenport Campbell, and this is a great example of public and private partnerships extending impact and addressing important issues like education and gender equality in Nepal. It would be great to see more of this.”

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The [new] hall has been designed to withstand a future earthquake.
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Johanson adds, “our aim has been to build resilience. After nearly four years we have equipped the community of Garma with construction skills that are making the Australian presence obsolete, a school that can provide better educational outcomes, and a hall that will provide a new revenue stream for the school.”

Yet the good work and the growing partnerships will not stop here.  

Moving forward, Davenport Campbell’s continued involvement in Nepal will focus on supporting educational outcomes and gender equality for women and girls in the remote Garma region. “Our major patron is The National Association of Women in Construction [NAWIC], a group that look to support and promote women in the property and construction industries. Their goals are aligned with ours in terms of supporting women, hence their strong interest in helping the school girls of Nepal,” Johanson explains.

“The work we do in Nepal underlies everything we represent as an organisation and provides enormous personal satisfaction to our employees,” Johanson concludes.

Returning home from Nepal in late February, Johanson explains, “it is a proud moment as we conclude our role in the reconstruction program. We leave behind a rebuilt school and a hall that will be the centrepiece of the Garma community, essential to the ongoing physical and emotional recovery process of the region.”

These stories of impact will be shared by Johanson at an Australian Himalayan Foundation event in Melbourne on 14 May 2019.

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