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Building Stronger Communities out of the Rubble

Shown here Jan. 17, 2010, are buildings in Jac...

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In the wake of earthquakes that have left unprecedented death and destruction in several countries, the announcement this week of  Dr. Elizabeth Hausler as the recipient of the 2011 $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability was particularly relevant. The Lemelson-MIT Program honored Hausler, CEO and Founder of Build Change,  in recognition of her engineering accomplishments and, especially, the creation of a model that establishes sustainable earthquake-resistant housing in the developing world. Hausler and her team took an innovative approach to involve community members in developing a reconstruction solution to combat building collapses during natural disasters, which can potentially save thousands of lives.

The January 2010 earthquake in Haiti alone claimed hundreds of thousands of lives when the 7.0 magnitude tremor crumbled homes into rubble. The Haiti earthquake demonstrated cruelly how a lack of building standards can lead to poorly designed and constructed homes, which collapse when earthquakes strike, displacing, injuring and killing people. Realizing through her work in previous earthquake-stricken developing countries that there was a simple solution to this man-made problem, Hausler had created a six-step process for home reconstruction that yields sturdy, economically and culturally feasible buildings which she has been implementing since 2004.

 Build Change’s model is based on simplicity, and on the important concept of empowering homeowners to rebuild their own communities. Beginning with a thorough examination of a region’s unsafe housing issues, Hausler’s team makes slight adjustments to the original building construction plans rather than overhauling an area’s traditional architectural structure. Build Change then helps community members work with locally available materials and labor to rebuild. The outcome is a cost-effective, easily modified, and most importantly, culturally accepted construction method the homeowner adopts and understands.

Dr. Hausler spoke with onPhilanthropy after her award was announced, and we asked how she had come to understand the importance of involving the local homeowners in changing the building standards.

 If there was an Aha moment, it came as a result of the process of interviewing both the homeowners and the agencies and government officials involved in the reconstruction process. I had seen how unsustainable rebuilding practices failed in India, for example, because the homeowners hadn’t been consulted. A door might be placed on the wrong side of the house, for example, so the homeowner would knock a hole in the other side of the house.  If you can engage the homeowner by listening to his architectural traditions, he will be more open to accepting the technical changes you’re recommending.  It really began to infuse the engineering work with the cultural side, giving it true meaning. This has become my dream job, fusing the human involvement with the engineering. 

 Build Change homes cost anywhere from $3,000 to $17,000 less than similar structures built in donor-driven environments. Despite the clear benefits, many communities are rooted in custom and therefore resistant to change. As a solution, Build Change educates and trains anyone who will play a role in the rebuilding process, including homeowners themselves, materials vendors, engineers and builders. The nonprofit also works with local governments to instruct officials on the technology, helping to enforce the reconstruction model as a new building standard, reducing community resistance and leading to further implementation.

 “Dr. Hausler’s work proves that the wheel doesn’t need to be re-invented. Innovation as a result of smart improvements to existing technologies can be equally effective. Elizabeth is a remarkable example of someone whose work is a catalyst for wide-scale adoption by using a model that is economically and socially sustainable,” said Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “She realizes that local people will use only what skilled labor and materials are readily available in their communities to build their homes. Leveraging that knowledge, and coupling it with her engineering aptitude and ability to teach, she has transformed the standard donor-driven model of post-earthquake reconstruction.”

 Dr. Hausler was in Haiti the week before last, working on a project that is providing the “first ever training of government engineers, through the Ministry of Public Works, in retro-fitting existing buildings. It was super-exciting: one engineer said it was the first effective use of outside aid.”

 The organization has partnered with some of the world’s largest relief agencies, including Mercy Corps, Oxfam and Save the Children, which is providing livelihood grants to encourage local block producers to make the better building blocks to ensure that reconstruction will be of higher standards. “ The benefit of working with these major NGO’s is that they enable us to scale up,” she explained. 

Currently, Build Change has improved the design and construction of nearly 20,000 homes, impacting more than 73,000 people in China, Haiti and Indonesia.

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