KETR

In Afghanistan, Building Up Means Scaling Down

Aug 28, 2011
Originally published on August 28, 2011 7:56 pm

Rex Goodnight went to Afghanistan last year to volunteer on construction projects, but came back frustrated.

Goodnight, chief of engineering with the Kansas City district of the Army Corps, saw a lot of planning but not much actual constructing. When something was being built, it was usually made out of clay and straw.

"The Corps of Engineers was trying to incorporate all of our contracting techniques, our methods of design and construction into an environment that had none of that," Goodnight tells Laura Sullivan,guest host of weekends on All Things Considered. "It just wasn't working."

He knew there had to be a better way.

Once he returned home, Goodnight started talking with his colleagues at the office in Kansas City. The big question: How can we help build in a place without equipment or trained engineers?

The answer was creating a program called Afghanistan Reachback. Its goal was to create buildings using the resources Afghans actually have.

Keep It Simple

A big problem, says Goodnight, was that engineers were previously using American building codes when designing for the Afghan terrain. He knew bigger results meant starting from scratch.

Goodnight and his team developed a simplified model, specifically for Afghanistan. He calls these models austere standard designs — municipal buildings customized for the country.

His designs aim to accommodate culturally. Goodnight says even simple things like bathrooms have been changed.

"They look for places for ablutions to wash their feet," he notes. "We learned some hard lessons ... because a sink doesn't last very long if you stand in it."

Breaking The Code

Progress in the region has been speeding up Goodnight's basic designs.

"We've broken the code and the designs are going much quicker now," he says.

He says a one-building police station used to take about two years to design and build. Now it takes about one.

Afghanistan Reachback has constructed around nine buildings, including a medical school, since the program began last summer. Goodnight is now working on his biggest project, a headquarters building for the Afghan Ministry of Interior.

Now that Goodnight has laid down the ground work for a better construction model, he sees its potential beyond Afghanistan's borders.

"This model that we've developed and the designs we've developed will continue to go to contingency operations anywhere across the globe," he says, "they'll just need to be adjusted culturally."

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LAURA SULLIVAN, host: A different story of relief now, this one in Afghanistan. Rex Goodnight traveled there last year. He works for the Army Corps of Engineers. He volunteered on many Afghan construction projects, and what he saw was a lot of planning, but not much actual constructing. When something finally did get built, it was usually made out of clay and straw. Goodnight knew there had to be a better way. And when he came back to the States, he started talking with his colleagues in Kansas City.

He wondered how can we help build in a place without equipment or trained engineers. The answer they came up with is a program called Afghanistan Reachback. The idea is to design buildings using the resources the Afghanis actually have with stripped-down templates that are much easier to build. And it's working.

Rex Goodnight is with me now from member station, KCUR, in Kansas City. Rex, welcome to the program.

REX GOODNIGHT: Thank you.

SULLIVAN: Let's start with that visit to Afghanistan last year. Describe what you found when you were out there.

GOODNIGHT: What was happening was the Corps of Engineers was trying to incorporate all of our contracting techniques, our methods of design and construction into a environment that had none of that. They did not have that perspective. So we were expecting them to design and construct in accordance with our codes and accordance with our technology and training. It just wasn't working.

SULLIVAN: So you come back home and you decided that you were going to change it. What did you guys do?

GOODNIGHT: It started actually while I was still there. We started developing standard designs, standard functional, durable, sustainable designs that were culturally aligned with their way of life.

SULLIVAN: Give me an example.

GOODNIGHT: A sink on the wall. We usually wash our hands. Well, they look for places for ablution to wash their feet. We had some hard lessons learned because a sink doesn't last very long if you're standing in it. And that's what was occurring. So we said, whoa, we've got to back up, and we've got to get an alignment here.

SULLIVAN: When you came back to Kansas City and you sat down with your colleagues, what were some of the things that you guys decided to do differently?

GOODNIGHT: I had to sit with my staff, and I had to let them know it's OK not to design to the codes that we build to here. I had to let them - I had to give them permission to let's go simplify our designs and match it to the cultural needs and to the equipment and material and skill sets that are over there.

SULLIVAN: And what was the result?

GOODNIGHT: Well, at first, blank stares. Then we were given a task, the Allied Health facility, which is in Kabul. We took it on. And once they got involved and they had the passion and the drive, it lit a fire, and it didn't take them long to understand what they needed to do.

SULLIVAN: What other kind of buildings have you built in Afghanistan so far?

GOODNIGHT: Well, we've built many different things from barracks buildings to clinics, administrative buildings, classrooms.

SULLIVAN: So, I mean, it sounds like you guys have built a lot of stuff in the last year at a much faster pace. In the past, how long would it have taken you?

GOODNIGHT: Just a one-building police station, it was taking almost two years.

SULLIVAN: Wow. A one-building police station was taking two years.

GOODNIGHT: Yes. Yes.

SULLIVAN: And what are you doing now?

GOODNIGHT: The goal is within a year.

SULLIVAN: What's your favorite building?

GOODNIGHT: Actually, my favorite building is the one that we're working on right now. It's called the Ministry of Interior headquarters. And this one will be the one that I'll put a picture on the mantel.

SULLIVAN: Do you think that this type of construction and engineering in war zones is going to become the norm?

GOODNIGHT: I think that what we are doing right now is beyond Afghanistan. This model that we developed and the designs we've developed will go to contingency operations anywhere across the globe. It'll just need to be adjusted culturally.

SULLIVAN: Hmm. That's Rex Goodnight. He's the chief of engineering and construction for the Kansas City district of the Army Corps of Engineers. He joined us from member station, KCUR. Rex, thanks so much for talking with us.

GOODNIGHT: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.