Award-winner shakes up design of earthquake-proof homes

Re-building damaged houses could be made cheaper and safer using local materials Copyright: Flickr/DFID

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[JAKARTA] A project to design earthquake-proof homes in the developing world has won a US$100,000 award for life-enhancing innovations.

Elizabeth Hausler, chief executive and founder of the non-profit organisation Build Change, based in the United Sates, received the 2011 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability last month (10 May) for designing disaster-resistant buildings in China, Haiti and Indonesia.

The lack of building standards in many developing countries leads to poorly designed buildings that collapse when earthquakes or other natural disasters strike.

During reconstruction efforts, Build Change works with residents to improve the safety of new homes. It also works with local governments to ensure that building rules take disasters into account. The organisation has helped build almost 18,500 homes and trained more than 4,000 construction professionals and school children.

Conventional reconstruction efforts often involve building new houses, but Build Change rebuilds and strengthens houses using local materials to retain the original architecture, making them more culturally acceptable.

For example, a typical Indonesian home cannot withstand an earthquake, and many Indonesians cannot afford houses made of ‘confined masonry’, a combination of brickwork and concrete that can withstand shaking. Build Change therefore recommends a timber frame with masonry in-fill that is finished to look like a typical Indonesian home.

Build Change homes are typically US$3,000–17,000 cheaper than similar earthquake-resistant houses built by donor-driven schemes.

"In [the] donor-driven model, all materials are usually purchased new. In this homeowner-driven model, the homeowner usually uses some recycled materials. They often reuse old window and door frames, timber, roof sheets, sometimes bricks. This reduces the cost of the building," Hausler told SciDev.Net.

Ainul Hadi, manager of the Build Change Indonesia programme in West Sumatra, said that training is an important part of the scheme. "This month we just completed training for 1,500 engineering high-school students," said Hadi.

But Arief Sabarudin, an engineer from the Research Center for Human Settlement in Indonesia, said the designs must still be made more affordable for local people and that Build Change should work more with governments before disaster strikes.

Hausler said that Build Change is beginning to provide technical assistance and training to improve existing buildings to withstand earthquakes.

"Recently, in partnership with [US-based structural engineers] Degenkolb Engineers, we completed the first ever training program for government engineers on retro-fitting buildings in Haiti," she said, adding that Build Change intends to do more preventative work in disaster-prone areas of South America.

See below for an MIT TechTV video about Build Change: