Building Knowledge, Not Just Houses, in the Developing World

A bricklayer’s daughter helps create safer homes after quakes

When Elizabeth Hausler visited India in 2003 to tour areas devastated by earthquakes years earlier, she was dismayed. In Maharashtra state, where a 1993 temblor killed 10,000 people, relief agencies had built thousands of homes for survivors. Many people, though, used them only for storage and slept in ramshackle shelters. The nonprofits built the houses with little input from the locals, so residents didn’t trust that they would withstand another quake. In nearby Gujarat, which had been hit by a quake in 2001, Hausler saw houses built by aid groups that ignored local practice by placing doors on the street rather than facing the courtyard. “People would knock a hole in the wall and move the door,” says Hausler. “That’s not very good for earthquake resistance.”

An engineer trained at the University of California at Berkeley, Hausler had long known that earthquakes rarely kill people; shoddy construction does. Yet better construction isn’t the only factor in keeping people safe during earthquakes. When aid groups don’t understand local customs and construction methods, homeowners are often discontented and safety is compromised. On her India trip, Hausler discovered that in places where the government had given locals the money and some engineering guidance to rebuild their homes after earthquakes, residents wound up with houses they were more apt to live in.

That led Hausler, who worked alongside her bricklayer father near Chicago during high school and college, to create a more sustainable approach to rebuilding in developing countries. Her nonprofit, Build Change, teaches homeowners, architects, and contractors how to make structures stronger. For example, bricks in Indonesia tend to be dry and weak; soaking them in water before building can double the strength of a wall, Hausler says. “Small changes to existing ways of building” can go a long way toward making structures safer, she says.

Her group has helped construct 18,000 houses and has trained more than 4,000 builders in Indonesia, China, and Haiti since 2004. The focus on training runs counter to the approach of many disaster relief groups, says Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Build Change’s “primary goal is to help people learn how to construct a house,” Tierney says. “That’s really different from the kind of group that parachutes in and provides a service and then leaves.”

In Indonesia, where Build Change has helped tsunami and earthquake victims, some homeowners salvaged windows, door frames, and timber from their damaged homes and hired local contractors. They rebuilt their houses for $3,000 to $8,000, the group says. Homes constructed by outside relief agencies cost $12,000 to $20,000, Hausler says, because the groups bought new materials and had to pay overhead and salaries for expatriate workers. The bulk of Build Change’s 90 employees are local builders in Haiti and Indonesia. Five people run the office in Denver.

Materials matter as much as design. If relief groups import steel frames and drywall that aren’t available locally, homeowners can’t maintain the houses. And donor money that rushes in after an earthquake pushes up the price of local supplies. “It’s not sustainable to bring in something new if the supply chain isn’t set up,” says Hausler, who this year won the Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability, which recognizes innovations for the developing world.

In Haiti, government engineers trained by Build Change are teaching others how to retrofit houses to improve safety. And the group has advised the Ministry of Public Works on new building codes and overseeing the quality of construction. “Build Change is among the best organizations that we have worked with, especially when it comes to education,” says Charles Hygin Raymond, a director at the ministry.

Haiti’s recovery from its 2010 earthquake illustrates how the challenges of design, economics, and culture are intertwined. Over the past century the country has lost 95 percent of its original forests. That means there’s little wood for construction, or even for fuel to fire bricks, so most homes are made of concrete blocks. Blockmakers, though, skimp on cement and sell blocks without curing them for the full week needed to let them reach maximum strength. If manufacturers don’t sell the blocks as soon as they produce them, “they don’t have money to buy raw materials to make the next batch,” Hausler says. “This isn’t a technical issue but a matter of cash flow.” And it means rebuilt homes will be as weak as those that collapsed.

Working with Save the Children, Build Change put a compression tester on a truck so workers can check block strength at construction sites. The groups are running a marketing campaign to promote higher-quality concrete and are offering financial help to manufacturers so they can afford to let blocks cure. “We just kind of provide some basics on earthquake-resistant construction,” Hausler says, “and they make it their own.”


    The bottom line: Build Change is trying to teach earthquake victims to rebuild smarter by training local construction crews.

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