Staff Spotlight: My Trip to Colombia

Posted by on Aug 9, 2017 in Civic, Outreach, Staff | 2 Comments

I’ve given structural engineering instruction many times on construction sites. But this was the first time I’ve done it in Colombia. Without drawings. With technical words in Spanish. Luckily I grew up in a household where Spanish was one of the three languages we spoke to each other. I’m an awfully long way from my normal temperature-controlled-consistent-electricity-and-running-water office in Columbus, Ohio.

How I got here

One of our architectural clients, a board member of the West Ohio Conference United Methodist Church, asked if any Schaefer structural engineers could volunteer structural assistance for The Colombian Methodist Church in Brisas, Colombia. The West Ohio Conference United Methodist Church is working with the local community to construct it. I wanted to help, and was especially interested because of my Colombian heritage. However, at the time I didn’t realize travel was involved.

Schaefer designs structures in all 50 states, but most of the work can be done from our offices, potentially thousands of miles away. I wasn’t opposed to traveling, and had been in Bogota, Colombia just a few years prior. After speaking with church’s project representatives, I agreed to go, but still didn’t have a clear idea what I’d be doing once onsite.

A little background on Colombia

They’re surviving on just the basics. They do have electricity, originally lazy lines run into the smaller villages via barbed wire just about ten years ago, the same barbed wire that kept the cattle barricaded. While most locals’ homes are constructed with any materials they could find and covered with straw roofs, I was housed in a more traditional two room building with bunk beds and air conditioning – a little bit of comfort in the hot jungle. Volunteers often stay here, adjacent to the medical facility and the new church – a regular main street.

Because decades of war ravaged the region, soldiers, murders or just disappearing citizens have nearly eliminated the working adult age group; most of the communities, including the one I visited, are made up of the elderly and children. The church will be a safe community beacon teaching and guiding the children into adulthood, a collective place for them to come easing the burden of this next generation on the oldest. They’re building a tight-knit community that blocks the noise of the less-than-favorable dealings happening elsewhere in the country. They’re developing a positive place in the center of town.

One fun fact: under the straw roofs of their homes, many have televisions and satellite dishes! They may not have running water, but they can laugh along to Friends reruns just like we do.

Bernie assists with the structural engineering for a local church in Colombia.

What I did

The trip lasted a total of four days. Because of the long travel time into the Colombian jungle, including a three-hour car ride down dirt roads, or no roads, I spent about a full day onsite.

Like I said, I really had no idea what I was walking into until I was there. I knew they needed some structural advice, but no drawings existed for me to review. The locals build based on estimations; while they didn’t measure the height of the walls, they had a good idea of where they should stop.

There were challenges:

  • When I arrived, they had built foundations with rebar based on no calculations, and needed help with how to build above it.
  • There is approximately a 7-8 ft grade differential for which they had some ideas on how to handle, but needed guidance. The once one-story church had now become a two-story church due to this.
  • I was told that the soil “gets bigger” when it rains which meant to me that there was some form of expansive soil, which can be tricky.
  • No construction drawings were available, which means there are no guidelines for them to follow.
  • There is no machinery to excavate; everything is done by hand.

I did my best to advise, but without specific numbers to calculate, I could only share ranges, estimations and basic structural engineering knowledge. We are working on putting together formal drawings that I can use to calculate what they need for a sound foundation, second floor and roof.

When complete, the church will span 550 sq meters (6000 sq ft) on two levels. The foundations will be placed about 6-ft below grade and just below the slab there will be an interconnected grid of grade beams. The foundation piers turn into columns above grade with masonry block infill. To construct the masonry walls, a process totally different than what is done in the United States, the workers find and stack stones within the hollow masonry units, and pour concrete in and on them to produce a solid wall without rebar. The second floor will be comprised of a flooring material called “Placa Fácil” which is translated to “easy board”. The contractor on site had used this before at other locations and, after reading the specifications, I learned what needed to be done to get this system in place. Due to the slight skew in existing foundation and wall placement, the roof will need to be designed with this in mind. The current design has steel trusses spanning the short direction of the building, but as construction progresses, that may change.

Bernie Kooi visits Colombia to use his structural engineering knowledge to aid a local church.

How it has affected me

Before I left, the church mentioned in paperwork to leave anything that I could spare for the community. Perfect timing as my wife and I had been looking to unload baby and toddler clothes that were too small. I packed a full-size suitcase of my children’s clothing to leave behind for the Colombian children who don’t have enough. Everyone I interacted with was very  polite, grateful, and just happy that we were there to help them.

Before I left I was offered a mango. Knowing I could easily purchase one from a fruit stand on our way back to Cartagena, I handed it to a child. He immediately began to peel it and shared it with his sister when she joined us. Because I shared something with them, they wanted to reciprocate; she showed me her pet bird from their home, and asked me to take pictures of her and her brother enjoying the mango. They didn’t have much, but still wanted to share something with me as I did with them.

Life is just basic in that part of Colombia. These children are happy without the mound of toys that many American children have. As a structural engineer, we are trained to determine where a building needs a beam or in which direction rebar needs to run, but it wasn’t as intuitive for the workers, therefore they were so thankful when I was able to provide assistance. Being around this community, I’m reminded that our children are the future and we must take the time to help them develop and grow. The material items we surround ourselves with is just  stuff, and getting to know each other is how we should spend our time.

To be honest, I still have a hard time putting into words how that short trip has changed my life. It’s more of a feeling than an understanding, something that hit me all the way in my core. All I know is, we could all stand to remember how lucky we are and value those around us.

It won’t be my last visit to Colombia.

Bernie assists with the structural engineering for a local church in Colombia.


  1. Paula Wolfe
    August 10, 2017

    I have been to that amazing village 6 times and have 2 more trips planned in 2018. I know well how life altering Brisas is and how amazing the people are. I am grateful for your willingness to help them.

    • Schaefer
      August 14, 2017

      Thanks for sharing Paula. You must have some incredible stories yourself!

      Bernie was thrilled to be a part of it.


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