On May 5, 2015, 10 days after the Gorkha earthquake left the region in and around Kathmandu, Nepal reeling, the disaster-relief organization Build Change sent three engineers to survey the affected area, with the goal of understanding why some houses and schools collapsed and others did not.
What did they find? The team’s reconnaissance report begins with a stark description of the estimated human and structural losses—8,700 people killed, the complete or partial destruction of 769,000 houses, and rubble of fallen public schools and government buildings. The majority of the buildings failed because of poor construction practices: namely, weak walls, heavy roofs, and a lack of supportive framing to handle the tremendous seismic loads.
This combination is notoriously deadly in earthquakes globally—not only in Nepal but also in Bam, Iran in 2003 and in greater Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 2010, according to Build Change founder and CEO Elizabeth Hausler Strand. “It’s like taking a brick wall and putting Jenga pieces on top of it—heavy Jenga pieces—then not tying them together and expecting them to perform well,” Hausler Strand says. “There’s no way they’ll perform well.”
The question, of course, is what to do with this knowledge: how to translate it into the design and construction of structurally resilient homes and schools in developing, earthquake- and typhoon-prone nations in order to reduce injuries, death, and economic loss.
Instead of simply building houses for homeowners—a blank-check, giveaway approach Hausler Strand says can lead to homogenous construction, cost overruns, and public distrust of foreign companies and contractors—Build Change grounds reconstruction in what she calls “decision equity.” That means enabling families to make the decisions about materials and architecture, and helping government agencies and NGOs provide incentive-based subsidies for families to rebuild. Meanwhile, Build Change trains and hires local engineers, architects, and builders to incorporate disaster-resistant building techniques into retrofit buildings and new construction.
Founded in 2004, Build Change’s impact is being felt not just in Nepal, but also in developing nations throughout the world, including Haiti, Indonesia, the Philippines, Colombia, and Guatemala. So far, the company has built or retrofitted more than 47,000 buildings, provided safer homes or schools for nearly 240,000 people, and trained almost 24,000 people, Hausler Strand says.
A major part of Build Change’s work involves meeting with homeowners to make decisions about the kinds of houses they want built and how they will spend their money. Local engineers and construction professionals, including technical college graduates, provide consultation on floor plans and arrange meetings with trusted contractors. “We’re like a friendly building inspector,” Hausler Strand says. “We guide the homeowner in regard to materials and architecture, and train builders on the job. When we empower the homeowner to make their own decisions, then they often invest their own money and build a safer house.”
Houses are constructed from locally available, climate-adapted materials. Builders might use concrete block in Haiti, hollow ceramic brick in Colombia, and fired brick in Indonesia. But whatever the material, allowing homeowners to choose their own layout and manage the construction process is key to inspiring confidence in the repair or new build, according to Hausler Strand.
That personalized approach also helps families support their livelihoods through earned income. During the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the front half of Oramene Lamarre’s house collapsed. Build Change engineers evaluated her house and determined it could be retrofitted. Lamarre and her son were involved throughout the retrofit project, and made sure the design incorporated a space for her sewing business. Today, Lamarre’s house has been structurally reinforced to resist earthquakes and hurricanes, and she is able to resume her sewing business and provide for her family again. “Not only is my house safer, it is prettier than it was before the earthquake,” she says. “My sons painted it in my favorite colors: pink and orange.”
Confined Masonry and the Three Cs of Disaster-Resistant Construction
Throughout the developing world, the key to strengthening buildings so they can withstand high winds and ground shifts lies in confined masonry (reinforced concrete to tie together load-bearing walls), Hausler Strand says. Masonry, as opposed to wood, tends to be brittle with little potential to absorb the force of wind or seismic loads. Applied correctly, concrete support can make buildings much more resilient. “Our preference would be that the entire world of housing would build out of timber, which is more flexible and forgiving in an earthquake, but it is not available or culturally appropriate in some areas,” Hausler Strand says. “You wouldn’t build that way in the center of Port-au-Prince. If we can’t beat them, we will join them.”
Another core principle guiding the design of new and rebuilt homes, which range from $3,000 to $10,000 depending on location, is what Hausler Strand calls the three Cs: configuration, connection, and construction quality. Configuration, as it pertains to disaster-resistant building, refers to a simple square layout with lightweight roofing. Connection implies structural reinforcements are joined snugly together at the junction of column and beam, particularly in the case of ring beams at the tops of walls. Construction quality is just what it sounds like: strong mortar, good bricks and blocks, and skilled workmanship.
According to Hausler Strand, reconstruction in the developing world presents serious challenges, among them ensuring financial and regulatory oversight in countries and cities where poverty and corruption pose significant obstacles. Some countries, such as Haiti, have virtually no budget for rebuilding homes, relying almost exclusively on the support of relief organizations. In other countries like Colombia, where crime and joblessness have both dropped in recent years making urban neighborhoods more attractive, vulnerable multistory buildings are built quickly in crowded, informal neighborhoods.
Even when the money is there—funneled through government agencies and NGOs such as the American Red Cross, Cordaid, and the J/P Haitian Relief Organization—homeowners sometimes spend subsidies for purposes other than safe housing. That’s why gradual cash allocations based on progressive building outcomes are a part of the Build Change funding model. “If the homeowner takes the first tranche and buys a motorcycle or does not build a strong foundation, they do not get the next installment,” Hausler Strand says.
Building on its success over the past 11 years and partnerships with structural engineers such as Degenkolb Engineers, Forell/Elsesser Engineers, and Guy Nordenson and Associates, Build Change plans to scale up operations in the future, focusing on training NGOs and government agencies to replicate the work they do more broadly. By 2024, Hausler Strand says the organization aims to be responsible for as many as 10 million people living and learning in safer homes and schools.
“It is a lofty goal, but we are not training ourselves anymore; we’re hiring local staff and learning how to train others to do this work at scale,” Hausler Strand says. “We’re trying to lighten our touch. Eventually, we hope to put ourselves out of business.”
Build Change is a member of the Autodesk Foundation, the first foundation to focus investment exclusively on the people and organizations using design for impact.