In Haiti, rebuilding with earthquake resilience in mind

Build Change trains concrete-block makers in Haiti how to make stronger building materials for homes. (Build Change)

This week’s Citiscope urban innovation feature highlights efforts in San Francisco and Israel to retrofit old buildings to withstand shaking from earthquakes. In both places, the idea is to let property owners add more rentable space to existing buildings than existing zoning would otherwise allow. That unlocks new revenue streams to pay for the retrofitting work.

It’s an approach that could work in cities of the world that have robust land laws, updated codes, and well-functioning housing finance systems. But what about cities that don’t?

These are the places where Build Change works. The Denver-based NGO designs earthquake-resilient houses and schools in countries across the globe — including Haiti, Colombia and Indonesia — and trains builders, homeowners, engineers, and government officials to build them.

In Haiti, Build Change has focused on what it calls “homeowner-driven reconstruction.” Haiti is still recovering from a 2010 earthquake that killed at least 230,000 people. Because of difficult conditions on the ground after the quake, including uncertainties over land ownership and the presence of enormous quantities of rubble, Build Change chose to focus on retrofitting existing homes rather than building new ones.


How to retrofit housing for earthquakes? Build more housing

In Haiti, rebuilding with earthquake resilience in mind

As Noll Tufani, Build Change’s Haiti country director, told me, “We started thinking: If we intervened directly and retrofitted those houses, that would allow for a swifter return of people who were currently in camps.”

Build Change developed a retrofit evaluation procedure suitable for unreinforced masonry construction. It was tailored for Port-au-Prince, where homes are typically one or two floors and homeowners often decide later to add a floor. It’s essentially a checklist of steps homeowners can take to gradually shore up their houses as they renovate and make additions over time.  Build Change designs for and uses low-tech, readily available materials.

In a seismic-retrofit guide published by Haiti’s Ministry of Public Works, the technical appendix is Build Change’s retrofit evaluation procedure.

“We create a framework that enables a community to reconstruct itself,” says Tufani. “We connect the builder with the homeowner. We train block-makers so that good-quality blocks are available. And we have engineers who sit down with the homeowner and design the retrofit solutions or, when it’s new construction, the new construction solutions.”

Families receive a $2,500 subsidy directly from Build Change. “It’s up to the homeowner to spend the money accordingly, to hire the builder, and to oversee his own house,” Tufani says. The money is disbursed in four small tranches. The homeowner receives the second tranche only if the work paid for by the first tranche was done correctly, as corroborated by a technical checklist filled out by a Build Change engineer. The Build Change engineers in Haiti are mostly Haitians, save for a few managers.

Build Change opens a bank account for homeowners to receive the subsidy payments. They keep the account after the project is done. “In many cases, it’s the first time some of the homeowners have ever had a bank account,” Tufani says. Build Change has also partnered with micro-lenders in Haiti to provide loans to homeowners who need additional money for a retrofit.

“It’s really enabling homeowners to do the reconstruction on their own,” Tufani says. “So that after the projects are finished, people have a lot more resilience to replicate these processes whenever they need to add a story, add a room, or build something new in their neighborhood.”

Build Change is convinced that the process it developed for post-disaster reconstruction in Haiti can be adapted to other places before an earthquake hits. In Colombia, Build Change is training S. E. N. A., a government-funded entity that provides vocational training, to be able to teach a course on retrofitting. Build Change is also retrofitting several homes in Bogotá as part of this training.

Tufani says that the section of Colombia’s national seismic code covering earthquake-resistant design, known as Titulo A, is not very flexible and it is expensive for homeowners to comply with. To make basic seismic upgrades realistic and accessible to low-income homeowners, Build Change is seeking recognition of its retrofit evaluation checklist under the code. If that happens, a $5,000 subsidy offered by the City of Bogotá for home improvements could be used for Build Change’s simpler seismic retrofits.

“We’re proposing an alternative that is more versatile,” and likely cheaper, says Tufani.

He notes that homeowners in Colombia are no different than those in San Francisco or Israel, in that it is hard to convince people to spend money to protect themselves against a disaster that might — or might not — happen during their lifetimes.

“It is very difficult for people to be willing to retrofit with their own money, as they don’t see any direct benefit from it,” he says. “If they have $5,000 to spend, homeowners want to use the money to add a room, or install solar panels —  things that have an immediate utility to them. If you say, ‘Put that $5,000 toward a retrofit, it won’t change a thing about the space of your house but it will make it resistant to a future disaster,’ then it becomes a very hard sell.”

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Justin Gerdes is an independent journalist specializing in energy issues based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the author of “Quitting Carbon: How Denmark Is Leading the Clean Energy Transition and Winning the Race to the Low-Carbon Future.”  Full bio

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