Last year, FMSA Architectural technician Kirstin Griese was among a team of six Australians who travelled to Diepsloot in South Africa to make a difference in the Community Plumbing Challenge. here she shares what it’s like to work with limited tools in a place where the struggle for sanitation is a part of every day life.

Working as part of the FMSA Architecture team who designed and built the Plumbing Industry Climate Action Centre, I met innovators and leaders within the industry, who are forging forward to set the criteria of what the next generation of plumbers will become a part of. With an interest in plumbing projects piqued, when FMSA Architecture Principal Peter Sandow was asked if he had any young designers who would be interested in participating in the Community Plumbing Challenge in Diepsloot, South Africa, I saw it as an open door to possibilities and jumped at the chance. From a design perspective, the prospect of building and improving on an area in need was a really beautiful opportunity. I was honoured to be accepted as a part of the team.

In Diepsloot, our role was to assess what they already had and redesign the failing components. There are 800,000 people in Diepsloot alone, with just 750 public toilets to serve the whole community, only half of which were functioning.

It was hard to understand the siting of the cubicles and location from the brief alone. When we arrived, the reality of the task became apparent – many factors affected how the toilets were operating, including the number of people relying on the public amenities, the lack of maintenance, and the proximity of the toilets to vehicular traffic. The lack of community education required to maintain the infrastructure coupled with the local high unemployment rate contributed to the unfortunate economic and social situation.

Within the grounds they had eight toilet cubicles that weren’t working. Our job was to come in with new toilet fixtures and new piping to fix up the cubicles, working with the rudimentary materials we had to install the project.

Prior to the start of the challenge, the four teams from Australia, India, the USA and South Africa had worked in teams in their home country. In my group, there were team leaders, a plumber, an apprentice plumber, a metal fabricator and an architect. The objective of the scheme was to come together to improve what was there with what we were given. It was a challenge to have the foresight to come up with a solution without having the luxury of being able to communicate with the client directly. It was an early lesson in learning to work with what you’ve got.

During the challenge, a highlight was when the Australian High Commissioner’s representatives came out and inspected our sites. They were very impressed by what we were doing and invited us up to Johannesburg to meet with the man himself. A huge achievement not just for ourselves, but for the project overall, was finding out that since then funding was put forward to continue the project we had started, including maintenance and upscale of what we started. What we did was plant a seed. On a global level, that seed may have been small but it grew and flourished into other better things.

Everyone from Team Australia was privileged to have that chance to make a difference, however small that may have been. We hoped that by spreading the word and public awareness of what is happening within Australia, South Africa and the plumbing community on a global level that people would get involved and even donate to funding. Plumbing professionals can make the difference. Most people don’t even know this is happening. When you are dealing with 800,000 people in one spot, it becomes apparent that you have definitely only just scratched the surface.