Aidan Ward may be just 24, but his plumbing career has already reached great heights. After being selected to fly to remote Indonesia to represent Team Australia in Community Plumbing Challenge 2017, the young plumber has proven himself in more ways than one. We caught up with him in between stormwater repairs working for his employer Laser Plumbing Sale.

What made you apply for Community Plumbing Challenge 2017?

I applied for the Community Plumbing Challenge through work. [Master Plumbers Board member and Director of Laser Plumbing Sale] Daniel Smolenaars told me about the opportunity, putting me in touch with Greg Tink from PICAC. I said I’d like to put my name forward. I sent a few emails explaining why. Then I was asked to be part of the team.

I flew out to Indonesia on Melbourne Cup Day. I was out there for 14 days in total, with 12 days on site. I got back just in time to do my Journeyman’s on 25 November.

Tell us more about the project itself…

The job was set over two separate stages, design week, which was held last July and the Building and Construction stage, which was held last November.

We were working in a remote village called Cicau in West Java, about 50kms east of Jakarta. The aim of the project was to provide a new sanitation structure for the local school. I was part of Team Australia, which included myself, a bricklayer from Swinburne, a welder, an aboriginal guy from Arnhem Land who was an all-rounder, another builder and a guy from Ballarat who had also done a plumbing apprenticeship. Greg Tink was also there to oversee proceedings and assist us. There were teams from America, India and a number of other countries, including an Indonesian team. All teams worked really well together and there was a great mix of people , which made for strong banter.

How did you acclimatise to life in Indonesia?

We were staying in hotel accommodation about 20 minutes away from the site by bus. There were a couple of local plumbers and architects there. When we arrived at the school, we were treated to a traditional welcome ceremony, which was quite an experience and certainly a bit different to the traditional coffee and a handshake we are used to over here. Traditional dancers and singers greeted us, we were all given welcome gifts to thank us and even wanted us to join in with the performance. It was something else!

What were the first stages of the project?

The objective was to find the optimum way to do things, with each team playing an integral part in the planning and development.

First up, we took a walk round the school to assess the existing facilities and what we could do with what they had. We investigated the location and functionality of the water supply and weighed up the pros and cons of either renovating a certain facility, or starting again. We always had the question of longevity at the back of our minds, asking ourselves how best we could put something in place that would still be in working order in ten years time.

What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

My attitude was always to take it as it comes and solve the problems with common sense.

It soon became apparent that tools and fittings were thin on the ground. We had makeshift picks and the like, but at design stage, all I had was a tape measure and a spirit level. Luckily, that’s all I needed. For the construction stage I had a couple of my own shifters, drills and a shovel. We made do with the bare necessities. We had to use a string line as there were no lasers, and a tape to measure down. It was very old school, reminding me of when we first learned the tricks of the trade at trade school, and working with older colleagues onsite.

What did you learn?

I quickly learned that in this situation, what would have been the right answer in Australia often wasn’t the right answer in Indonesia. Installing a corona toilet and bathroom tiles may well be the standard for residential projects in Australia, but for both practical and cultural reasons, were not suitable solutions for the issues we were facing here. At first glance we hadn’t considered that the locals don’t have money for toilet paper or the means to support a traditional western flushing toilet, with its running repairs. Through religion and belief, practicality and habit, the squat toilet is still the preferred solution in rural Indonesia.

It was a revelation that what I like or think is best isn’t necessarily what those who were benefitting from the project would be happy with. To find out what was preferred, we liaised with the school staff and students and conducted surveys. We worked out how to get mains water. Prior to our involvement, they were pumping out of a dam. It was all about making things better, and easier to maintain for the long haul. With no sewer or stormwater facilities, everything runs back into the dam. It could only be described as grey water at best. We made a plan on how much water they needed stored and how many toilets they needed and started designing it all.

What was your direct involvement?

My direct involvement was finding out how good the water was and pushing that we needed mains water. I also played a key role in deciding how the water was going to be used and researching tank storage requirements as well as what fall/floor was going to work and where we could put the agging lines for distribution. I also did some intensive research on what fittings were available and what we could actually use – let’s say that sometimes we had to be a bit creative.

It also reminded me of the merits of going back to basics. If you use a string line and a level, it’s just more reliable. I was in charge of the aggie team, septic tank team with Rick and Chris, two guys from the American team and Kade, another Australian apprentice. It was great to brainstorm our ideas together in a group.

Talk us through a typical day working in Cicau

At 6.30pm we would get up for breakfast and then meet for a 7am team meeting. Around 7.10 we would jump in the van and go to the school, where it was straight into work. We’d all drink plenty of water from the start due to the humidity. For the very same reason, we would try to get all of the bulky, heavy work out of the way in the morning, before it got too hot. We’d have a break around ten, then work through until lunch. After lunch, we would put hard graft into the afternoon, before it was tools down time around 5. Back in the van, we’d head back to the hotel for a debrief with the team from 5.30 before we all reconvened for dinner. After a Skype chat back home or a quiet beer, most people would go to bed at 9.30 because you were that tired. Rewarding as they were, the days were certainly long.

Did you feel like you made a difference?

This program raised awareness to the importance of clean sanitation, which in my opinion is a basic human right. I have seen, experienced and contributed to how plumbing can save lives, and feel very proud of this fact. I would also like to thank Greg Tink and Daniel Smolenaars without who this opportunity would not have been possible.

What advice would you give those thinking of giving CPC a go?

Just go for it. You’ve got nothing to lose and would be crazy not to chuck yourself off the high dive into the deep end. If you are successful, it’s crucial to go in with an open mind and take every challenge as it comes. I wouldn’t have changed my experience for anything.

What does the future hold for Aidan Ward?

I’m making the most of being an apprentice, learning as much as I can through the mentorship of Laser Plumbing Sale. CPC2017 has certainly given me a taste for international work, and I would be keen to try some more at some stage. Also, I have always lived and worked in rural areas. I could be tempted to move towards the city in the future and try more urban plumbing projects for a change.

Aidan Ward is currently employed as an apprentice with Laser Plumbing Sale. He left school at 17, and actually met the Foreman of Laser Plumbing at a wedding, which led to an interview and eventually, full time work and a chance to build his career. He’s at the beginning of his fourth year of employment with Laser Plumbing and specialises in maintenance plumbing.