Engineering for Development

We expected it. The lack of resources in Llapallapani, that is. But that doesn’t mean answers come easily at the job site.

With only 1 (finicky) power outlet, we needed someone to hold the plug into the extension cord to get power to the drills. What we lack in equipment we must make up for in manpower.

With only 1 (finicky) power outlet, we need someone to hold the plug into the extension cord to get power to the drills. What we lack in equipment we must make up for in manpower.

I am told more planning went into this particular bridge than any previous Bridges to Prosperity project. Faced with a 128-meter suspension bridge, our work plans are full of well-researched process details. Photos of similar bridge erections. Fifty-four pages of work descriptions, crew make-up and support needs, material descriptions, tool requirements, PPE, estimated schedule, safety and quality risks, preventative/corrective measures, and more for each major component:

  1. Scaffolding  |  Erect scaffold for tower trip and access and remove before launching suspenders
  2. Towers  |  Assemble tower in horizontal position and trip to vertical
  3. Main cables  |  Stage, install, anchor, and set sag in main cables
  4. Cross beams  |  Assemble
  5. Suspenders  |  Launch
  6. Lifeline  |  Stage, install, anchor, set sag, remove lifeline
  7. Decking  |  Space, stagger, and bolt
  8. Spanner cables  |  Install
  9. Wind guys  |  Install and hoist to remove sag
The crew making an evening push to finish the concrete for a wind guy base. The Volcano Method is used to mix the cement and aggregate into concrete.

The crew making an evening push to finish the concrete for a wind guy base. The Volcano Method is used to mix the cement and aggregate into concrete.

But how do people manually trip 2-ton towers to vertical? For that matter, how do we move and hoist those same towers into saddles three meters off the ground in the first place? What can we do to make assembling 127 cross beams more efficient when we only have corded drills and 1 (unreliable) outlet? How long will it take to get more clips/clamps delivered to the site? How do we keep wind guy foundations dry with the water table steadily seeping into the holes and the one or two working water pumps busy serving local farmers? What does “launching suspenders” actually look like in action? How can we mix concrete reliably without a concrete truck or portable drum-mixer?

Each day we find a new challenge that we don’t entirely anticipate. Our solutions get more creative (desperate?) with each passing day.

I overhear Neil giving members a morning pep talk early on during the project. “Keep working hard,” Neil says. “We have experienced American engineers who are here now and only for a limited time. Seize the opportunity to build yourself a bridge.” I have to stifle a self-deprecating snicker. Experienced? Did Neil miss the “Bolivian hammer” (a.k.a., a rock) I just used to connect that suspender and cross beam? Or the way Adam and David have to “go fishing” each time they try and set a main cable?

Kenny employing the American Experience Stick to move launched suspenders down the main cables and make room for more suspenders.

Kenny employing the American Experience Stick to move launched suspenders down the main cables and make room for more suspenders.

We start to call the eucalyptus stick we use to push launched suspenders down the main cables the American Experience Stick.

Perhaps it is the lack of air, but everything seems so damn funny up here. We don’t compromise on safety at the site, and the seriousness of our tasks is not lost on us, but the laughter keeps us going. We feed off it.

I suppose it’s our way of tipping our hats to the fact that, though we bring the engineering and planning experience to the project, our role is as much about providing structure and a timeline. And consistent hands to assemble, legs to climb, and mouths to provide direction in (mostly) broken Spanish.

Llapallapani community members on site. This group of men were some of the most consistent volunteers.

Llapallapani community members on site. This group of men were some of the most consistent volunteers.

But this bridge, it’s not our bridge. We are invested in the project, but the community—they’re invested in the life-changing benefits of such a bridge. We may have spent the last year designing and planning the bridge. But Llapallapani constructed the tower foundations, ramps, and gabion even before we arrive on site. They fed and housed multiple groups of Americans for months. And, perhaps most importantly, the community will be responsible for maintenance of the bridge. That takes ownership. Pride. Investment. Self-policing.

Community members painting the suspenders. These two women were on site nearly every day, tirelessly painting away.

Community members painting the suspenders. These two women were on site nearly every day, tirelessly painting away.

I think this may be one of the biggest lessons I will take home. Community ownership is vital for project success. From ownership grows stewardship for a project once the attention of construction has faded. And that’s just as true for developed countries as it is for developing countries.

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