Mitigating disaster risk in informal communities

The United Nations predicts that the world’s urban population will be 2.5 billion higher in 2050. Because most of this growth will occur in developing nations that lack the resources to prepare for such dramatic changes, many of the new urbanites will end up in informal communities.

Finding safe housing in slums can be difficult under normal circumstances. In the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes, and other catastrophes, it’s often practically impossible. As climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events, these communities are at particularly high risk.

Denver-based nonprofit Build Change is helping to mitigate this risk. Since its 2004 founding, the organization has trained over 23,000 people in Bhutan, China, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Indonesia, and the Philippines to build safer and more resilient buildings — creating more than 10,000 jobs in the process.

I spoke with Build Change engineer Anna Calogero, who has spent the past four years working in Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, to learn more.


Rebuilding Port-au-Prince after the 2010 earthquake has been a notoriously slow and difficult process. Build Change seems to have found a formula that works for informal communities, which house most of the city’s residents. Can you tell me about how the program differs from some of the models adopted in the past?

The main issue has been understanding priorities in informal settlements. After a disaster you of course have the urge to rebuild houses for people that don’t have shelter, but at the same time you want to upgrade the informal neighborhoods, improve the infrastructure. However, these are totally different targets. So sometimes in the urgency of post-disaster reconstruction these two different speeds — the speed of the response to the emergency and the speed of the slum upgrading — might clash.

Build Change specializes in homeowner-driven construction programs. This method multiplies the positive change of building better by affecting all the actors in the informal value chain of construction.

I find this approach very valid in many contexts. It works for post-disaster due to its efficiency. But it’s also efficient in reducing risk in informal neighborhoods where a disaster has not happened yet.

Build Change’s model is based on strengthening the social structures that influence the built environment. Can you explain?

So, Build Change does not build houses or schools. Build Change designs earthquake-resistant buildings and then trains the builders, trains the homeowners, the engineers, and the government also, to build them. This is the most powerful part of our approach, because it looks at the long-lasting change in habits and local construction skills.

Our model focuses on bringing together three different items to create permanent change in construction practices: money, technology, and people

Our model focuses on bringing together three different items to create permanent change in construction practices: money, technology, and people. Money has to be available for the homeowners or communities to be able to afford safe construction practices. This can come from the communities and owners themselves, from loans, from government subsidies, or from donor grants. But in turn, the cost of building safer must be affordable and not significantly higher than traditional building practices.

This is where technology loops in. The building practices that will be used in the construction must meet the performance goals for safety in disasters, but they should also be based in local practices, readily available labor and materials. The technology must be suitable for the context.

Finally, the people — homeowners, community members, donors — must want a safer building. Build Change spends time educating the stakeholders about disaster risk and the benefits of disaster-resistant design and construction practices.

Construction training for Filipino builders

The solutions, financial and technical, also have to be appealing to homeowners. This means the owners must be involved in the building designs to ensure they are acceptable, but also so that the owners believe they are safer.

I should say that Build Change mostly focuses on housing and schools, where this process is most suitable to be implemented.

Some reconstruction projects in Haiti have failed because houses designed by outsiders weren’t really viable in the local context; Haitians didn’t like them, or didn’t feel that they met their needs. How do you get around this problem?

The homeowner works with a Build Change engineer to design the reinforcement of her house, or the new construction of her house — so of course the homeowner has an input in the design specification. After that, it’s the homeowner that receives the subsidy for the construction, and it’s up to the homeowner, again, to buy the materials for this construction and to select a builder from the community that was trained in good construction practices within the program framework.

BC Staff_HOR_Build Change

Build Change staff review construction guidelines with a homeowner in Haiti

Also, we use the homeowner-driven process for the construction of small community infrastructure such as corridors and drainage. Homeowners living all around the corridor agree on a person to receive a subsidy for the construction of this common infrastructure. This is how communities are coming together to collaborate and build together to improve the space connecting their houses.

And in the same area again there are trained block makers that produce the blocks that serve construction.

So you’re looking at everything from materials suppliers to the homeowners themselves.

Yeah, from the homeowners to our local staff as well. We always say that if we have a builder that can build well but he doesn’t have a client that hires him to build well, the training that he receives is not going to be used. So that’s why it’s important to target homeowners and the community as a whole with information about the importance of good construction practices.

It’s also important to try to bring out the entrepreneurial side of builders, and to give them the possibility to develop their business outside the context of the subsidized projects that are going on now. Developing the business of the construction materials producer is also important. In particular, we educate the block makers on how to improve the quality of the blocks they produce for the masonry houses.

The training also involves the government, our engineers, and our local staff. The majority of our staff is locals trained in designing and supervising the construction of earthquake-resistant houses and structures. Our objective is to have them really practice by themselves when we’re not there anymore as an organization.


Indonesian builders learn about disaster-resistant construction

Would it be difficult for them to access this kind of training and knowledge if you weren’t there?

The knowledge that we transfer to our staff is a step forward with respect to what is available locally. In some cases, formal education or professional training in the basics of earthquake-resistant design and seismic engineering wouldn’t have been available otherwise. In other cases, what we provide is information about how to apply concepts developed for more formal structures and learned in university to informal buildings in resource-constrained communities.

So it’s not just a question of educating laypeople, but also improving the capacity of professionals.

Yeah. It is important to involve all the actors in the construction process, including the professionals designing, approving, supplying, building, and supervising the project.

How does Build Change determine where in the world it will work? Are you hired by other organizations to carry out specific projects?

In some cases, like Haiti and Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, Build Change is subcontracted by an organization that has the funds for the reconstruction. This is usually an organization working on a neighborhood as a whole, normally with an overall plan for that neighborhood, and with an already-established relationship with its community.

In other cases, like the work we did after earthquakes in China and Indonesia, we partner directly with governments who are providing subsidies for reconstruction. In Guatemala and Colombia, we’re providing technical assistance to agencies that distribute government subsidies for housing improvements for disaster risk reduction.

In some neighborhoods we’ve been working on not only the technical assistance for the retrofitting or new construction of housing, but also the technical assistance for the construction of retaining walls so as to reduce site risk.

Build Change staff teach Indonesian homeowners to identify high-quality bricks

Was Build Change’s approach pioneered in one country, or have you always worked around the world?

Build Change was founded in 2004 by Elizabeth Hausler Strand, who’s now the CEO. She studied homeowner-driven reconstruction after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake in India, where 77% of homeowners chose to rebuild their own houses. She found that when nonprofits provided technical assistance to homeowners and local authorities helped pay for construction, the building safety conformance rate was higher than cases where owners had only received cash assistance to rebuild their houses.

Build Change first worked in Aceh, Indonesia after the earthquake and tsunami there. Many of the reconstruction projects there were donor driven instead of homeowner driven. After this, Elizabeth and her team worked in West Sumatra after the 2007 and 2009 earthquakes. This time, the government mandated homeowner-driven approaches.

As a result of working in these different circumstances, the team got an even better sense of why homeowner-driven reconstruction is important. The benefits run from increasing the technical capacity of the local workforce to homeowners that are more satisfied with their houses to reduced reconstruction costs. Basically, there are many advantages over other approaches.

Everyplace we work is a little different, though. In Haiti we have the opportunity to target all the actors in construction; this isn’t the case everywhere. What might happen in one country, based on the existing situation, is that we concentrate on training construction material producers, and in others mainly on strengthening the capacity of the builders. Or, for example, in Colombia, collaborating with governmental organizations. In Haiti we had to have all these components together, so during the four-plus years Build Change has been in Haiti we’ve worked with the government to make this happen.


A Build Change-trained builder pours concrete for a ring beam during a house retrofit project in Haiti

Has there been a lot of interest from other organizations in this model? Is it something that you think will spread for informal settlements as a whole?

Yes, homeowner-driven reconstruction is becoming a more well-known and popular strategy. Government agencies from India to China have chosen to implement it after disasters.

In addition to governments, other organizations are interested in both retrofit programs and the homeowner-driven approach. Build Change has been able to get 13 organizations to start using the homeowner-driven approach, and 14 to start housing retrofit programs.

I think the model is very interesting for various reasons. First, as I said, it really affects capacity, and this of course lasts longer than just having built a house for someone. It’s the homeowner that builds the house for herself, together with local engineers, builders, and block makers.

But what I also find really interesting is the retrofit approach — the ability to reduce risk in existing neighborhoods.

Interview condensed and edited.

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