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The house that women built
21 March 2005

The first time that four construction students - Debbie Churchill, Shane Beldom, Sue Edmonds and Elaine Byrd - heard of the charity Habitat for Humanity was when the director of their training provider invited them into his office and told them they had been selected to join a mercy mission to Sri Lanka.

To draw attention to International Women's Day, the charity was putting together a team of volunteers to go to Sri Lanka and build a house as part of a programme to help survivors of the Boxing Day tsunami.

The students are doing four-month foundation NVQ courses in painting and decorating and multi-skills at John Laing Training, a private training provider that operates in partnership with Newham College, training adults and school leavers in construction skills. It is linked to the house builder Laing Partnerships.

Happy to participate in the project, the four will travel to Sri Lanka in late April or early May as part of an all-women team of nine, to build one of 10,000 permanent new homes the charity plans to complete over the coming year.

"Seeing the devastation caused by the tsunami on the telly is one thing," said Shane Beldom. "But I expect it will really hit home when we get there. I donated money and clothes to the appeal. But I feel better going and doing something."

Her friend Sue Edmonds agrees: "We're only three women in our painting and decorating course - with 30 men - but we think we're well up to the job. And the fellas agree. We've had a lot of banter but all well-meaning."

The construction industry, which is suffering from a shortage of skilled people, wants to shed its reputation as a bastion of chauvinism. Caroline Page, of the House Builders Federation, says: "The industry has 5,000 apprenticeships to fill - women are welcome."

So it was that last week the team of women set to work in the freezing cold of the college car park, building a mock-up of the basic house that will be provided in Sri Lanka. With Alan Wellington, Homes for Humanity UK director and a former builder, on hand to offer advice on trowel technique, breeze blocks were buttered with ready-mixed lime using bricklayers' trowels and the bubbles on spirit levels were checked for alignment.

Joining the team and handing out some tips of her own was 32-year-old Gillian Jenkins, a construction manager who acquired her HND in construction 12 years ago from Glasgow City College.

Making up the numbers were four office staff and junior managers from John Laing Training and the House Builders Federation, who were prepared to muck in and give it a go. For most of the nine-member team, their only real experience of house-building was a two-day course in bricklaying at college.

The tsunami house, designed by Habitat for Humanity, is a basic whitewashed construction built from blocks, with a corrugated tin roof and a small verandah and toilet. With a ground plan of 250 sq ft, there is just enough room for a family to cook and sleep, but the basic house can be extended once fortunes improve.

Building it will be a team effort that the charity estimates will take the nine women five days to a week.

The tsunami houses are being built on land owned by the charity. Organisers and local builders will supervise and offer assistance.

Habitat for Humanity believes the women-only team can demonstrate the buildability of the tsunami house design. Ian Walkden, the charity's national director, explains: "The houses are a community self-build programme. We buy the land for new housing and we offer local people the basic training so that they can build their own homes and start a cottage industry manufacturing basic building materials like bricks, doors and windows."

The scale of the devastation and the building work needed means that self-build is the only way of providing enough decent permanent homes to begin rehousing people.