Building God’s Kingdom: one block at a time

June 19, 2012, 10:10 am

The motto for the first capstone design project in missional engineering is found in Matthew 16:18: “On this foundation, I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not defeat it!”

Extreme Nazarene mission director, Brian Tibbs, and engineer/missionaries, Dennis Linnell, Mike Drinkwater and Mike Wheatley, first approached NNU’s engineering department in the fall of 2010 to ask for faculty and student help in solving an urgent mission problem. Thirty recently planted church fellowships across the country of Peru had been identified as being ready to build church buildings. However, the local cinder block and clay brick construction methods were not strong enough (especially in earthquakes) and required masonry skills that were not always available. What Extreme wanted was strong, lightweight blocks that could be produced right on the church construction site by local unskilled labor, even in the absence of reliable electric power. They wanted a mobile, generator-powered, block factory on a truck to make building blocks that could be snapped together, similar to LEGOs, to build churches and homes without mortar or masonry skills.

Extreme’s original plan was to build the Peru churches using large polystyrene blocks, called FASTBLOCKS. Starting in summer 2011, the first three foam block churches were built in Arequipa, Puerto Maldonado, and Puno. These large styrofoam FASTBLOCKS were stacked by short-term missionary teams to form walls and then reinforced internally with concrete and rebar to build strong, well-insulated structures. The exterior walls were then stuccoed inside and out and covered with trusses and a roof. However, importing these styrofoam blocks to Peru and then shipping them around the country became expensive and infeasible as a long-term plan. The NNU team was challenged to design, build, and deliver to Peru in summer 2012 a portable block-molding plant using two-part polyurethane (instead of polystyrene/Styrofoam) that can be injected into aluminum molds from compact storage drums. The wet foam then expands twenty times its original volume and cures in 20 minutes, producing all the blocks needed to build a small church building for 100 people from only two 55 gallon drums.

Under the guidance of NNU engineering professor, Dr. Stephen Parke, the “Extreme Engineering” team of seniors (Michael Whiting, Luke Hetrick, Andrew Peterson, Bryan Hunt) investigated, designed, prototyped and tested many different methods, materials, and mold designs (both in wood and alumninum). Countless hours were spent in the new Thomas Center Engineering Fab Lab, machining molds, pouring molds, and testing various mold release chemicals. Amazing new working relationships sprung up between NNU, Mission Aviation Fellowship, Micron, and RMAC Machine Shop including hours of expert volunteer work by outside engineers such as Steve Brougham and Jeff Duncan from MAF.

NNU’s team of seniors first went to Peru in July 2011 to better understand the problem constraints and to physically help build the Puerto Maldonado foam block church, thus gaining valuable insight into this new building process. They started their senior year in Fall 2011 with an improved, more practical plan and a new enthusiasm for what God is doing in Peru.

“Getting to know the people by working with them and sharing stories with them was an amazing experience,” said senior Andrew Peterson (Wash.). “This project was an answer to their prayers from God. Their passion and faith really made me want to become more involved on the project.”

After returning from Peru to start their senior year, the students passion for the project was immediately recognizable. “I’m used to students working hard on their senior design projects, but you can really tell when it goes from being just a project required for graduation and becomes a deep personal commitment and an encounter with serving the Lord,” said Dr. Parke.

Throughout the school year these seniors worked hard to perfect the process, even giving up their Spring Break to make sure the system would be ready to send to Peru in May 2012. This experience allowed the students to love people they had never met while using their God-given engineering talents and knowledge acquired throughout their time at NNU. In the end it was difficult to tell whether it was the Peruvians or the students and professors who felt most blessed by the whole experience.

Senior Michael Whiting (Idaho) described the project this way: “It is not self-seeking, but seeking to serve people through the love that God instills in us. We are using the creative aspects of engineering to build a foundation for eternal change and building blocks for God, out of love for his people.” Michael, Luke, Andrew, and Bryan all graduated with their engineering degrees in May.

Dr. Parke says: “This project is really at the heart of what we’re all about in engineering at NNU: the opportunity to apply our skills to advance God’s kingdom and to meet human needs at the same time. We’re excited to design new technologies to build churches in Peru and other countries as well.” Dr. Parke and his fellow professors at the University are deeply committed to the work that God has called them to. And, their students take notice.

“It’s really exciting to come here and see the professors not only passionate about teaching the subject matter—be it engineering, math or English—but also see them so excited and on fire for God. That instills a fire for God in me,” says junior David Vinson (Wash.) who joined the team in January along with senior Jesse Baggenstos (Wash) to continue the next phase.

In the weeks following commencement 2012, Dr. Parke, Vinson, and Baggenstos traveled to the Extreme Peru headquarters in Arequipa, Peru to deliver, setup and train Peruvians how to use the new block-molding plant. Despite several obstacles, and thanks to many answered prayers, the team’s mission was accomplished, resulting in the establishment of small-scale production of these new one-meter long, one kilogram polyurethane building blocks with a 20% cost savings over the previous polystyrene block costs. The first blocks produced by this portable plant will be used by another short term missionary team to build a new church in Cuzco, Peru in June. Over the next two years, more than 20 more churches will be built in various places across Peru using this new mobile plant. In the future, it is expected that this plant will be trucked to and used in other South American countries by Extreme and that this new technology may be used in many other countries and mission areas around the world.


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