That's what several faculty and about 19 students from Point Loma Nazarene University did in northern Armenia last month, where they spent nearly three weeks building model homes of specialized polystyrene blocks.
The team from the University's Armenian Center for International Development left for the project in mid-May and returned Monday, June 4.
They joined engineers, faculty and students from Baylor University and the University of Southern California in building two structures: a house and a similar structure, remodeled for use as a kitchen, according to Robert Gailey, director of the Armenian Center for International Development and an assistant PLNU business professor.
The international construction efforts are part of a long-term, four-phase plan by the center and sister organizations "” Armenian Gospel Mission/Armenian Relief and Development Association (ARDA) "” to breathe new life into the economy of a nation still reeling from former Soviet influence, earthquakes and geopolitical war.
The program combines technology, business and humanitarian relief to stimulate new economic growth from the inside out.
"If you're not doing things that allow people to build for themselves and to work themselves, then it's just another donor initiative where you're just popping something in there," Gailey said about the years-long endeavor to bring sustainable business and technology to that region of the world.
The visit by the construction and engineering team marks the beginning of the program. The first phase includes building the model homes made of cheap but durable materials by way of the polystyrene molds, Gailey said.
The Arizona-based Keeva company has the hollow molds "” which interconnect like Legos to make the exterior walls of the home "” manufactured in Tijuana. After laying the foundation, rebar for stability and wiring for electrical outlets are placed in the blocks before cement is poured into the polystyrene skeleton and set to dry. The blocks are about 3.5 feet,16 inches tall, and 8 inches wide.
According to Home Energy Magazine Online, houses built with these types of blocks can consume 44 percent less energy for heating and 32 percent less for cooling.
The second phase of the project entails identifying manufacturers in Armenia who can produce the blocks cheaply. Gailey said he wants to get the homes sponsored or donated locally to cut production costs.
"We feel there's several that can make them," Gailey said. "The question is how cheap can they make them so the houses are affordable."
Although he said he doesn't know what the "real-world cost" of the homes would be, each of the structures built during the trip cost an estimated $20,000. That doesn't include labor, land and extra materials, which were mostly donated. He said the organizations are working with Habitat for Humanity in Armenia to build the homes for about $13,000. Gailey said he wants to get the cost down to about $9,000.
But getting homes built cheaply is only part of the solution, he said.
The third phase includes creating a business model that sustains production and creates jobs in the area. The Armenian Relief and Development Association in Pasadena has already taken steps toward that goal by starting a Trade Technology Center on the same site as the homes.
Steve Lazarian, director of the Armenian Relief and Development Association, said the center would provide education and training for the local community in various trades, including home construction. He said the center is still in its early construction phases because land was just acquired in May.
"When we build these homes, we will teach people to build their own homes. We put the whole project together with on-the-job training and they will be gainfully employed in the process," Lazarian said.
Should the program work, Lazarian said, the fourth and final phase includes replicating the success in other impoverished countries around the world.
If they can find a local manufacturer who can provide the polystyrene blocks cheaply, Lazarian said ARDA, schools and other volunteer organizations would like to build 130 homes by next year.
For Lazarian and ARDA, the completion of the model homes represents the culmination of more than 15 years of work with the country.
"It was a new day for Armenia, it was a new day for us and we were thrilled with the result," he said.
The Armenian Center for International Development at Point Loma Nazarene University gives students an opportunity to provide hands-on work in developing nations like Armenia and parts of Mexico. The university has partnered with Lazarian and ARDA to provide humanitarian, business and economic aid since 1997, Lazarian said.