Simpson Strong-Tie Fellow Update: Adventures into Safer Building in Indonesia

by Dr. James Mwangi, Simpson Strong-Tie Engineering Excellence Fellow 2017-18

Arriving on the other side of the Pacific

Map of Indonesia

Map of Indonesia

The journey to Padang, Indonesia started on August 3rd, 2017 in San Francisco, California with connections in Manila, Philippines and Jakarta, Indonesia. I arrived exhausted but excited in Padang on August 5th after almost 24 hours in the air. Padang is the provincial capital of West Sumatra and lies just south of the equator. The high temperatures are usually in the low 80’s, with lows hovering around the mid-70’s (Fahrenheit). I arrived in what is said to be “dry season” (May-September), although the high humidity and rain do not coincide with my experience of dry seasons elsewhere. I imagine the wet season (October ‐ April) is like living in a swimming pool. Padang’s old town lies in the low land, designated a tsunami red zone. The Build Change office is located in the higher ground (a tsunami green zone), as all of their offices are located in the safest areas of the cities where they work. The air is not what I would call “fresh”, but is relatively clean even with the heavy traffic of cars and motor bikes.

Architecture type example

Minangkabau architecture of the Central Bank

Although prior coming here I knew that the Indonesia archipelago is spread over the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, I did not know that Indonesia is made up of more than 17,000 islands; 6,000 of which are inhabited. Indonesia is not only the fourth most populous country in the world (after China, India and USA) but is the most populous island nation in the world and spans three time zones from west to east. I was surprised to see the traditional Minangkabau house architecture incorporated in the government buildings and mosques of Padang, giving everything a uniquely Indonesian aesthetic.

I was delighted to meet the very friendly Build Change team in Padang. They all made me feel at home on the first day, starting with setting me up with a SIM card for a local phone number, getting me settled at the hotel which would become my home for the coming months, and introducing me to Padang’s infamously spicy food. Luckily, rice is included in almost every dish which gives a slight reprieve from the searing (but delicious) flavors. The team is tight-knit, taking every opportunity to get together. Some favorite activities are celebrating birthdays, having lunch together, and going to karaoke nights.


Throughout my stay in Indonesia, I primarily focused on working with the technical team on the School Safety Program initiatives. I helped the technical team to provide structural calculations, construction documents, a materials list, and a cost estimate for a new school building. I also helped the technical team to provide structural calculations, construction documents, a bill of quantities and a cost estimate for the retrofit of the 5-classroom building in SD42 school. I visited three other schools to assess the next possible representative school retrofit project.

James at School visit in Padang

I visited a school site (SDN 40) under retrofit construction by others to familiarize myself with the school construction techniques. It was clear that the construction procedures did not follow the approved construction documents that were available at the construction site. There was no construction supervision of the builder’s activities, which was a sign that government direction needs to take a more significant role in the construction and retrofit of school buildings. Build Change focuses on the importance of involving all the stakeholders in the construction and retrofitting process. In this case, school headmasters would be the best supervisors, contractors are trained in how to follow approved construction documents, design engineers visit job sites for structural observations, and the government releases construction funding when major, supervised construction milestones are achieved. Build Change may need to play a lead role in organizing workshops for these various stakeholders so that they may improve and continue working together towards making schools safer.

poor column reinforcement example

Poor column reinforcement using smooth bars

While visiting construction sites, it became clear to me that material quality plays a key role in the overall quality of construction. I accompanied the Build Change Better Building Materials (BBM) team to learn about and help them establish the quality of bricks being produced by brickmakers in the Padang area. We visited a brick production kiln and collected brick samples for testing. We discussed possible changes in the typical kilns to make them more energy efficient, including alternative fuels (other than firewood) for environmental sustainability. I was also able to conduct a hands-on exercises for Build Change staff on making a “good” mortar and laying brick walls so that the team can use the experience in field supervision.

Additionally, much of my time was spent reviewing government guidelines on design and construction of new and existing school buildings. All the reviewed documents were in Bahasa, the primary language in Indonesia, which was a slight issue as I am unfortunately not fluent in Bahasa. Thanks to Google Translate, online document translators, unit convertors, and the Build Change team, document revision went smoother than I initially expected. This may be the only time in my life where I thought to myself “well, I wish I learned Bahasa while working my way through multiple engineering degrees”.

Among others, the documents we reviewed included:

  • The Ministry of Education’s School Construction Guidelines for both new and existing buildings
  • The National Disaster Risk Management Agency’s School Design Guidelines
  • The Minister of Public Works No. 45 / PRT / M/2007’s Technical Guidelines for the Development of Buildings
  • The National Standardization Agency (SNI)’s, Planning Procedures for the Earthquake Resistance of Buildings and Non‐Building Structures.

Build Changes’ comments and suggestion were provided in form of a report.

Interesting Adventures!

Alongside Build Change staffers Mia (Design Engineer) and Ani (Project Manager) we attended a seminar in the Padang mayor’s office presented by Prof. Kimiro Meguro from the University of

James at Minang Chief’s Palace Museum

Tokyo. The seminar was on use of polypropylene bands mesh (PPBM) for home repairs, which I knew little about. Shake table test videos on the performance of PPBM application on buildings were presented. Before and after photos of an adobe building retrofitted with PPBM in Nepal following the 2015 earthquake were also presented. I had not seen this product before, however it seems to work well for out‐of‐plane retrofit of masonry walls. The PP‐bands are available in most developing countries in form of shipping ties. I am curious to know more, and was grateful to continue my own education about new and potentially useful products.

presentation workshop at staff retreat

Technical Team Presentation workshop at staff retreat

I was honored to participate in a Build Change Indonesia staff retreat and team capacity building activity in Pariaman. I served as a moderator of presentations by the technical team to the rest of the staff using the existing training materials on earthquakes and earthquake-resistant building construction. From this, I provided suggestions and helped the team with examples to make the presentations clearer and more accessible for a non-technical audience. The retreat culminated in fun group activities, including morning exercises and swimming in a popular water hole.

It wasn’t all work, either! I was also able to visit a Minang village Chief’s palace museum and got to know the local customs in Padang Panjang. I have a new appreciation for the term “island nation” after snorkeling at Cubadak Paradiso Village in Cubadak Island. It was a truly breathtaking experience.