New School on the Bloc

By Ben Craig

The average westerner probably doesn't know that the Republic of Kazakhstan in Central Asia ranks as the ninth largest country in the world in addition to being the world's largest landlocked country. Bordered by Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and China, the republic is also bounded in the west by the Caspian Sea. I got an up-close look at this former member of the Soviet Bloc as part of a project sponsored by Engineering Ministries International (eMi) to site and design a new school, serving as the surveyor on the multidiscipline design team.

Established in February 1995, the Tien Shan International School (TSIS) answers the needs of a group of families serving in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city with a population of 1,348,500. In 2007, TSIS served over 90 families, representing some 34 different foreign agencies, in a K-12 international standard academic school.

The school was officially registered as Tien Shan Educational Center with the local authorities of Kazakhstan as a co-operative non-government organization in 1999. In November 2002, TSIS received an educational license for non-traditional schools from the Ministry of Commerce. In the spring of 2007, the school adopted the public name of Tien Shan International School.

Project Overview

In December 2006, Engineering Ministries International became aware of the TSIS building program for a new school. The school building had undergone a structural review and was deemed unsafe in light of the severe earthquake conditions of the region. Also, the neighborhood in which TSIS stood was to undergo extensive redevelopment in coming years.
From 1966, constructing earthquake-proof, multi-storied buildings became common practice. The new 2030 General Plan of Almaty was developed in 1998 to form ecologically safe, secure, and socially comfortable living conditions. Parts of the General Plan include the continuation of multi-storied and individual construction, reorganizing industrial territories, improving transport infrastructure, and launching Almaty Metro.

In the spring of 2007, TSIS undertook an extensive search for a new property. eMi aided this search as TSIS applied for an eMi project design team. The final approval for an eMi team came late in May when the purchase of a piece of land was finalized by TSIS.

Directives given to the eMi team included:
  1. Design a K-12 school building adequate for 300 students with the ability for future expansion to 500 students.
  2. Create a master plan and school that provides a welcoming environment to the larger Almaty community for functions in the auditorium, gymnasium, and sports fields.
  3. Incorporate energy and resource conservation measures in the building design.
  4. Incorporate appropriate design measures for earthquake resistance.

The final written report included drawings of the team's investigations and the proposed design for the overall site master plan. The goal: provide design professionals in Almaty, who would develop the design and construction drawings, with the required information to execute the building plan in the manner agreed upon by the eMi team and representatives of TSIS.

Engineering Ministries International is a non-profit organization that mobilizes design professionals to provide design assistance to selected non-profit organizations in developing nations. The design professionals work free of charge, and their work is coordinated through one of five eMi offices in the United States, Canada, India, Costa Rica, and Uganda.

Organized from eMi Canada, the design team visited TSIS in Almaty from June 17-26, 2007, hosted by members and staff of TSIS during their stay. The team included a lead architect, campus architect, civil engineer, electrical engineer, surveyor (myself), and architectural draftsman.

The new TSIS site lies in an agricultural region along the western outskirts of Almaty, with the beautiful Tien Shan Mountains visible to the south and east. Many small- to medium-sized fruit trees spread throughout the former orchard, and agricultural lands surround the property in all directions. Farm buildings and a yurt residence stand adjacent to the northwest corner of the site.

Surveying Begins

Prior to our visit, TSIS had roughly measured the property using a handheld GPS unit. The purpose of our survey was to provide more detailed topographical information to assist the eMi design team in making decisions. After an initial site visit to walk the property boundaries, I commenced measuring from the northeast corner of the site working towards the west and then south. We located boundary stakes along the eastern boundary as part of the survey except for the most southern stake. None of the boundaries were fenced. We used a Trimble 5603 robotic total station for our survey, which took three days to complete. The final topographical plan is a compilation of eMi's survey and the GPS survey done by TSIS.

We coordinated the first instrument station using a handheld GPS unit to determine a site coordinate datum, choosing an arbitrary direction of north. During the data processing, we determined that the arbitrary datum was only about three degrees from north as shown on the GPS survey. The GPS survey data was rotated to fit the arbitrary datum of the eMi survey. Temporary benchmarks (TBMs) were placed throughout the course of the survey. These consisted of 300mm-long softwood pegs driven flush with the ground and marked with longer softwood stakes. The first TBM placed was a 400mm-long iron rod approximately 20mm in diameter.

From the first instrument station, we placed three TBMs by radiation. All TBMs were measured in two faces and the coordinates averaged. Trigonometric heighting was used to determine reduced levels of the benchmarks and natural surface levels over the site. From these three initial benchmarks, further instrument stations were resected and additional benchmarks placed. The process of resecting and placing benchmarks spread over the site to produce a network of TBMs. This method of surveying meant there was no need for a full set of traversing equipment. It proved a fast and accurate way of surveying as much of the site as possible in a short time.

The total area of the site from title calculations is 9.62 hectares (about 24 acres) per the information supplied by TSIS. Over the three days, the eMi survey team measured approximately six hectares. As shown on the plan, we calculated contours in one-meter intervals. The land slopes from the southern boundary towards the north.

I had a few helpers from TSIS give me a hand with the surveying. One of the older school children operated the total station to regain target lock when vegetation obstructed line of sight. One day, we were forced to finish early when my driver slashed his hand with a sharp hatchet. Good thing I packed my first aid kit. We nearly emptied the kit of supplies and then made our way to the International Medical Centre for some stitching.

Long summer grass just going to seed and many beautiful wild flowers covered the site. At the end of the survey, there were so many seeds in my boots I had to spend quite a bit of time cleaning them to get back through quarantine in Australia. With the amount of vegetation on the site to obstruct line-of-sight surveying, it would have been better to come equipped with a base-and-rover GPS surveying kit.

A Personal Look

In the middle of our hectic week, we took some time out to clear our headspace and see Almaty and the surrounding area. We visited one of the local ministries involved with counseling and mental health support. There we learned of the scourge of alcoholism gripping the area post-communism.

Then we trekked up into the mountains for sightseeing. On the way, we drove past luxurious homes that made our western mansions look like matchboxes. High fences and expensive cars were the order of the day. This is very much a land of extremes between the haves and the have-nots. Once up in the mountains, we stopped at Shymbulak, the local ski resort. Although it was summer, a little snow remained on the higher slopes. We rode a ski lift to the top of Talgar Pass (3200 meters above sea level) and enjoyed the refreshing mountain air.

Almaty is a beautiful city with many trees. On the Saturday before we left, one of the key organizers from TSIS showed us the sights. We went to the Green Market and also visited the big Russian Orthodox Church, apparently the only building left standing after the last major earthquake. Although Kazakhstan is officially a Muslim country, the amount of bare flesh we saw rivaled what you would encounter at Australian beachside cities in the middle of summer.

In looking back, being part of an eMi design team assembled on short notice was quite an honor. We were told the mobilization of our team broke all previous records, and we also completed the design in record time. It is amazing to be part of a team that comes together from different walks of life, different parts of the globe, different professions, but with a common faith. I choke up about it now just recalling the trip, and it was two years ago!

When asked, I first thought the highlight of the week was meeting at one of the local ministries and our trip up the mountain to the ski resort. But Greg, the team leader, says his highlight was that the design got completed. On second thought, that's my highlight too. It was nothing short of a miracle.


Benjamin Craig is an Australian land surveyor. In 2006, he left fulltime employment and started his own business, Geotek Land Surveys, with the sole aim of participating in missions. In the near future, he hopes to complete more trips with eMi to Southeast Asia supporting organizations ministering to orphans and the elderly. Ben is also a motivational speaker, and while on business, he seeks to raise ministry awareness throughout his travels around Australia.

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