PROVO — With enough pressure and the right mold for shape, even dirt can change lives.
A team of BYU engineering students has redesigned a press to make interlocking soil bricks that could change the way Kenyans build houses.
"This means a lot to us as engineering students," said Joey Kent, a senior mechanical engineer. "We learn a lot in this program, but we don't have many opportunities to integrate what we learn to a good cause."
Most Kenyans have no money for bricks or mortar, so they use sticks and mud to build houses, which are constantly in need of repair.
But with BYU's interlocking Lego-like blocks, Kenyans can now build homes that are cheaper, safer and mortar-less.
Eliminating mortar drops the home's construction cost about 30 percent, from $2,000 to around $1,400, said team leader Emily Savage.
The bricks can also be created in one- or two-block segments to allow for easy corner, window and interior wall creation, as well as the addition of utility lines.
The team was sponsored by U.S. Synthetic and its founder Louis Pope, who now lives in Kenya to work with the several philanthropic organizations he started.
Remembering those they were trying to help kept the team motivated, Savage said.
"There were times when we ... thought we were going in the wrong direction," she said. "But then we would think about the possible impact, and we pushed forward."
The team also sees its bricks having a broader impact and has been invited to present the work at a conference in Brazil in August.
Each brick weighs about 25 pounds and can be made in just a few minutes by filling the mold with a mix of dirt and a small percentage of cement, then pulling down a massive lever with gusto.
The brick is compacted from 9 inches to about 4 inches and then carefully lifted off the press to cure for a day before being construction worthy.
The team said four Kenyans could press about 400 blocks a day. An average home needs 2,000 blocks.
U.S. Synthetic president and chief executive officer Rob Galloway said this is the company's fifth successful partnership with a BYU capstone team and is a great way to continue the company's philanthropic focus.
"For us and our employees, this is just an extension of what we do everyday," he said.
Other projects from this year's Capstone class include a simplified and cost-effective water purification system to be used in poor, rural communities. The team's sponsoring company, H20 For Humanity L3C, plans to install two of the systems in India later this month and hopes to have 100 of BYU's version in India by the end of 2011.
One team worked with Eye Tech Digital Systems to enhance eye-tracking technology for computer users with disabilities that won't get thrown off when the users move their head or adjust their sitting position.
In the last 20 years, students in the Engineering Capstone program have completed nearly 545 projects by working with more than 200 companies from 25 states and 11 different countries.