Sustainable building design in low income countries – a Dundee dental student’s perspective

I’m delighted today to publish a guest post from Olivia Welch, a dental student at the University of Dundee.

At the end of her second year of study on the Bachelor of Dental Surgery degree course at the University of Dundee, Olivia decided to undertake an intercalated BMSc degree in International Health. I was introduced to Olivia by two of my colleagues from Dundee, Neil Merrylees and Peter Mossey, both of whom were aware of the MalDent Project and thought that it may provide an opportunity for Olivia to select a relevant topic for her dissertation. After a wide-ranging discussion, a subject area was chosen and in this post, Olivia describes her experience.

This time last year I was on a Zoom call with Professor Bagg, marking the beginning of my involvement with the MalDent Project. Having just decided to take a year out of dental school to study for a BMSc in International Health, I was searching for a topic to focus my dissertation on.

The collaboration between Malawi and Scotland to design a state-of-the-art facility in a country recognised as “low-resource” captured my interest, and the enthusiasm and ambition of those driving the project was infectious. As a result, I undertook a research project focussing on the factors affecting the design team’s decision-making process in their efforts to make the Malawian dental school a highly sustainable building – environmentally, economically, and socially.

My eyes were opened to challenges faced by architects unique to this region, such as how to safely store captured rainwater in a malaria-endemic country, where standing water poses a hazard to public health. My research revealed that difficulty sourcing environmentally responsible materials and tradesmen experienced in building with such materials in the local area were one of the main obstacles the design team had to overcome. In addition, this project was backdropped by the COVID-19 pandemic, the restrictions of which forced the team to hold virtual meetings to begin designing the dental school after just one site visit.

Attending an on-line meeting with members of the design team and MalDent Project

Conversely, it was inspiring to see the creativity the circumstantial limitations of this project inspired. Indeed, as mused by one of the architects of the dental school, constraints are a vital component in nurturing creativity in the design process. For instance, the demand for a building with low running costs combined with a lack of local expertise in maintaining advanced air-conditioning systems led to the incorporation of passive design in the building, which takes advantage of the climate and clever use of shading and ventilation to maintain a comfortable temperature range in the building with little to no mechanical intervention, a highly sustainable solution.

Carrying out this research project allowed me to step out of the prescriptive learning format of my dental degree and nurture skills beyond “drilling and filling” by providing me with my first experience carrying out formal interviews. On clinics, we employ the ‘golden minute’ whereby, if you allow the patient, most of the relevant information will emerge, so long as they are not interrupted. It may sound simple, but this is a difficult practice to exercise because humans are not naturally comfortable with silences. After carrying out seven interviews each lasting an hour, I have no doubt this practice will improve my patient consultations when I return to clinics in September.

This experience would not have been possible without the support of those kind enough to volunteer their time and knowledge to this project, and I was genuinely touched by the willingness of the design team to be involved. The next step for me is endeavouring to get my dissertation findings published: I recently met with Professor Bagg, Professor Platt and my project supervisor Dr Fioratou, to brainstorm ideas and as always, I came away from the discussion inspired by our discussion about aspects of my dissertation I could possibly focus on.

A meeting to discuss publication of dissertation findings with Dr Fioratou, Professor Platt and Professor Bagg

To see the ambition of providing Malawi with its first dental program coming to fruition has been inspirational to witness at this early stage in my dental career and has taught me this: anything can be achieved, it just takes belief to make the first step, the rest will fall into place as there is a wealth of talented and benevolent people out there willing and able to help make it happen. I wish everyone involved the very best of luck and I look forward to visiting the completed building in Malawi someday soon!

Posing with my final dissertation

To conclude this post, I would like to congratulate Olivia on achieving a First Class Honours classification for her intercalated BMSc after a year of very hard work and commitment on her part. Good luck when you re-join your BDS colleagues next session and we look forward to keeping you updated on progress with the building.

Finally, grateful thanks are due to Professor Chris Platt, Chair of Architecture, Mackintosh School of Architecture, Glasgow School of Art and to Mr Paul East, Associate, John McAslan + Partners, for their support. Thanks also to those who agreed to be interviewed by Olivia as part of her data gathering, both in Malawi and the UK.

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