Building Nations - Volunteering in Construction

One of the most fundamental aspects of being human is building dwellings and other structures – since man came out of the caves, we have ensured that our families are no longer at the mercy of nature, and we’ve had to opportunity to bond with other people and improve our communities with this most basic of functions – construction!

Since then, however, it’s become a sad fact of life that many people in the world today live in houses without proper roofing, flooring, plumbing or any number of basic necessities that Westerners take for granted. Many people lack basic education because there are no school facilities; or the available facilities are of a very uncomfortable or unsafe standard. Medical care can often only be provided in basic structures like tents, or other unsafe and unsanitary structures. Water and electrical facilities (if they exist) are often badly maintained or even dangerous. It’s fairly easy to understand that ongoing poverty, suffering and a host of social issues pervading so many communities worldwide can be attributed largely to this absence of even the most basic infrastructure and facilities.

There are a number of volunteering opportunities overseas involving construction of community buildings and other facilities. From building homes and schools to repairing water sanitation or facilities, construction projects provide volunteers with a sense of achievement while giving them the chance to explore a new corner of the world. These opportunities are suitable for students on vacation, young people taking a gap year before studies, interested professionals on sabbatical or simply anyone who wants to offer their time and muscle to help out. Whether you’re a professional contractor with years of experience or someone who doesn’t know a hammer from your own elbow, there is a construction project out there that you can put your name on.

How can you as a volunteer help out with building and construction? First of all, ideally you should be reasonably fit and strong – not necessarily super-athletic, but physically tough and able to withstand outdoor labour in uncomfortable climates. It obviously helps if you have some kind of previous experience or training in building, carpentry, plumbing, draughtsmanship or various other construction fields. But mostly, you need a pair of willing hands, a “work hard, play hard” mentality, and a readiness to get out there and help improve the quality of life of a community in need.

As a construction volunteer, you may be required to assemble scaffolding, mix concrete, carry bricks and other materials around job sites, assemble rebar (which reinforces and strengthens concrete), assist in building demolition, dig foundations for structures, paint walls, or prepare materials for foremen like sifting sand and wetting bricks for construction, among many other tasks. Any plumbing or electrical work will of course require experienced volunteers working alongside local workers to carry out the job safely and effectively.

So if you are the type of volunteer who doesn’t mind the idea of dirty hands and a blister or two, who relishes the idea of sweating in the great outdoors side by side with local and volunteer fellow workers, while also taking in the sights and sounds of an exotic land and culture – volunteering as a construction worker could be the experience of a lifetime. It’s a unique way of gaining a deeper understanding of a culture and its history. And once you get back home – think how much more you’ll appreciate the facilities you have there, and the effort that goes into designing, constructing and maintaining them! Volunteering in construction could be the game-changer that shows you your career path, or persuades you to utilise your existing construction skills in developing countries that need them.


  • Do get a full medical checkup before embarking on a construction volunteer trip. The tasks you perform may range from “light” to “very gruelling”, in a climate you might not be used to, so it’s best to make sure you are in tip-top shape for the demands of the project. You want to help a community, not be an extra burden on their resources!
  • Don’t be afraid to tell the leader of the project if you feel a job is too tough for you. It’s best to be honest with yourself and others, rather than put yourself or them in danger. No-one will hold honesty against you, and you will probably be able to do lighter duties. Of course, the way to avoid this inconvenience is to make sure you pick the right project for you from the very beginning.
  • Do bear in mind that pretty much all construction jobs in all countries worldwide have tight time constraints. If you sign up for a construction project, you will feel obligated to work flat out until the job is finished, without taking days off. Plan your sightseeing and holiday fun for after the job’s completion. You’ll need the R&R by then anyway!
  • Don’t worry too much about stories in the media of buildings being worked on all day by construction volunteers, only for their work to be torn down in the middle of the night and rebuilt to sufficient safety standards or local requirements. The best way to avoid this waste of your time and resources, not to mention the extra hard work on the part of the community you’re supposed to be helping, is to do your homework on the projects you are interested in. Get hold of volunteers who have worked at the projects and ask for their feedback. Make sure the volunteer organisation who refers you to a project is ethical and responsible, and not just “in it for the money’!
  • Do consider that even if you find the prospect of physical labour on your vacation a little daunting, one of the best parts about construction volunteer opportunities abroad is working hard alongside local people, in rain or shine, toward a common goal. You might work with the same people for an extended period, sharing meals with them, perhaps socialising after working hours. You will be doing the same hard dirty physical work as them all day long, not sitting comfortably in the shade somewhere. This gives you the chance to interact with community members with a great deal of mutual respect that transcends any perceived “foreignness” on each side, and you might forge bonds that can last a lifetime. Remember that so much can be communicated on a construction site by grunts and smiles, even with a language barrier!

Construction volunteering offers fantastic mental and physical challenges, and can offer many learning and growth opportunities. The sense of pride you gain and the deep bonds you forge will be something that you carry for the rest of your life. So why not flex those hammer and chisel muscles and get out to that building site!


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