Last week the BillionBricks team made a site visit to the under-construction Etania School in Sabah, Malaysia. The Etania Schools are learning centres for the children of migrant labourers who have no access to education otherwise. Due to a shortage of labour, many migrant workers come to Sabah to work in the oil palm plantations, so they can earn enough to give their families a decent living. They and their children often don't have an official residential status. The children therefore can not go to a regular school. 

The billionBricks / Architecture BRIO Design Studio are currently constructing a prototype school for Etania in Beaufort on Borneo Island as part of a plan to develop 30 more such schools. 

The school is located along a river with a history of massive floods once every 10 years or so. The destruction of the original rainforest and their replacement by oil palm plantations in the last decade has increased the flood risk even further. 

The school is therefore, not unlike much of Borneo's vernacular architecture, raised from the ground. Here though, the classrooms are lifted off the ground in an unconventional way. Five decommissioned shipping containers and an artificially created mound from soil excavated for a water harvesting pond, support the classrooms, minimising the structural components, and stabilising the framework. This creates an additional covered space below the classrooms for a lunch area and gathering space. The containers themselves are used for storage and toilets. 

The children can move around the school in multiple ways. The first floor is reached either via a centrally located staircase, two ladders, a ropes bridge or from the slopes of the mound. This way, the school becomes a place for exploration and overcoming challenges in line with the educational philosophy of the school. 

On the first floor, three blocks are placed alternately on either side of a central verandah. Two blocks contain four classrooms, and the third block on the mound contains the teacher room and library. They are oriented along the east west direction to minimise the heat gain, avoiding direct sunlight hitting the long elevations. This also means that the classrooms are all facing the river and enjoy a natural draft of air that flows across the rooms in the north-south direction. 

Between two classrooms, two small rooms are used for group work. They are extra spaces that give teachers the flexibility to teach classes, which often have multiple years clubbed into one. One of such rooms is a reading room with a netted floor for children to find a comfortable place to read books. 

Funding for the operation of the school is extremely minimal. Therefore, all rainwater is collected from the roof in a large rainwater harvesting pond. The south facing roof enables future power generation through solar panels, and the waste generated from the toilets is treated in a reedbed system, ensuring that the school will be as self-sufficient as possible. 

Currently, the containers have been placed, the floor framework is done for all three blocks, and the walls and roof have been completed for two blocks. The contractor has started the construction of the third block. With the help of the construction analytics App FINALCAD the billionBricks team in India is able to monitor the progress of the construction remotely but minutely. If funding for the completion of the school does come in time, the first children will be able to start their first classes in the new school before the start of the new school year in July. 


About the author

Robert Verrijt

Robert is billionBricks' Studio Director and Archicture BRIO's principal architect. He was born in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. After being awarded 2nd place at the Dutch Archiprix for his masters thesis in Architecture at the TUDelft, he moved to Sri Lanka where he joined the office of Channa Daswatte, one of Geoffrey Bawa's protégés. His work here included renovations, houses, high end condominiums, boutique resorts and hotels.

In Mumbai he has taught part time at the KRVIA school of Architecture, and the Balwant Sheth School of Architecture.

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