Building disaster resilient buildings

Dr Elizabeth Hausler, Founder and CEO of Build Change, an organization that prevents housing loss caused by disasters, explains why everyone, from state to non-state actors, must drive the demand for resilient housing. By Charlotte Owen-Burge | July 1, 2021

Safe and secure housing should be a fundamental human right. But as it currently stands, by 2030 40% of the world’s population will live in substandard housing.

Climate related disasters already make 14 million people homeless every year. And as the effects of climate change become more severe, this number will only soar higher.

Fortunately, there are organizations around the world working on the ground to ensure that more houses are built to withstand these growing challenges. Dr Elizabeth Hausler, Founder and CEO of Build Change, discusses “accessible green housing”, unlocking public and private finance, and putting women at the centre of decision-making processes.

Charlotte Owen-Burge: Could you set the scene for us – what is the situation now and what are we facing?

Dr Elizabeth Hausler: Disaster-resilient housing is an urgent need, and an incredible opportunity. We all need a safe home; a home that will protect us from wind, rain, heat and cold; a home that is secure from pests and break-ins; a home that is a financial asset. And it is possible to build homes to withstand these challenges.

By 2030, 3 billion people are estimated to live in substandard housing, which is 40% of the world’s population. At the same time, disasters make 14 million people homeless each year, meaning that the need is always outpacing the supply. This is particularly relevant for Asia-Pacific, which represents eight of the ten countries with the highest levels of displacement and housing loss.

The world is also becoming more urban, with 2.3 billion more people predicted to live in cities by 2050. As demographics change and more people are either living alone or in multi-generational homes, housing will need to adapt even further, because the housing we have now won’t meet people’s needs.

Because of climate change, disasters are becoming more frequent, and we need to recognize and bring attention to the fact that housing loss is preventable. If we make the appropriate investments and changes now, we can reduce the loss of life, livelihoods and homes in disasters.

House in Maharashtra, India. Disaster-resilient housing is an urgent need

How is climate resilience being incorporated into building design and construction?

Building or retrofitting housing to withstand extreme weather events is one of the best and most cost-effective ways of adapting to a changing climate.

Simple things can be done – such as tying down a roof or using storm shutters for windstorms, which can substantially reduce the risk of housing damage during a storm.

Climate impacts can also be minimized by sourcing materials locally, as they are more likely to withstand the changes that are expected in the coming decades. There is a tendency, particularly in post-disaster aid, to either put up temporary shelters or to use pre-fabricated houses. Not only are carbon emissions generated by transporting these inappropriate materials long distance, but the risk with this approach is that these houses often do not take into account long-term sustainability considerations, and as a result, are even more susceptible to disasters and climate stresses. Instead of taking this approach, at Build Change, we reuse materials where possible and improve the resilience of locally sourced materials. For example, in Indonesia, we’ve worked with brickmaking cooperatives to make small changes to their production to ensure stronger materials and reduce carbon emissions.

We also need to harness the power of technology. We regularly use artificial intelligence to assess possible defects and vulnerabilities of hardware so that homes are more resilient. Build Change, with the support of IBM, created the Intelligent Supervision Assistant for Construction to ensure that local builders can assess the safety of the construction components most likely to suffer from materials defects before use. There is so much more potential to integrate technology into climate resilient housing and I anticipate a lot of innovation in the next several years.

What needs to happen to make climate resistant construction commonplace?

There are three major barriers to adopting resilient housing at scale: people/policy, money, and technology. I’ve discussed why we need to harness technology, but in addition to that, we need to make resilient housing affordable at scale, and to adopt the policies that enable resilient housing to be implemented globally. This means that we need to drive investment from the public and private sectors towards resilient housing, but also to make affordable finance available to homeowners from the financial perspective. From the policy side, we need to ensure that we are driving the demand for resilient housing by incentivizing homeowners to prioritize resilient homes, and we need to not only align but enforce national and legal frameworks that consider both natural hazards and building vulnerabilities in a streamlined way. In order to make resilient housing the norm, we need to address all three of these challenges, which are closely linked via the system. Safer homes and safer people can only be addressed on a broad level via systems change.

Build Change construction in Nepal.

What is the long term social impact of designing disaster-resistant homes and schools?

Disaster resilient buildings have countless impacts at both the community and the individual level.

I’ll give you the example of a homeowner we worked with in the Philippines, Lilia, who wanted to make her home more resilient following Typhoon Yolanda. At the most fundamental level, she strengthened her home so that it was able to withstand the next disaster, which gave her the peace of mind that she was protecting her family. But at Build Change, we also take a capacity building approach to work with homeowners to understand their needs and to strengthen their understanding of effective disaster preparedness and effective construction practices, which meant that she gained additional knowledge from the training and access to resources. Given our partnerships with financial institutions, we also connect homeowners with the resources they need for structural improvements, meaning that Lilia’s wealth and assets were strengthened through ownership of a resilient home as well.

The pandemic has underscored some of the other key needs that are linked to resilient housing, namely that better housing equals better health. A resilient home often paves the way for installation of running water for sanitation and cooking, and there have been studies lately on how adequate housing supports mental health and wellbeing. In addition to the health benefits, many people, both in the developing and developed world, run their businesses out of their homes, meaning that when they have a resilient home, they open the doors to additional economic opportunities.

How do you determine the most cost-effective way of building earthquake resistant houses?

It’s a common misconception that building new is always the best approach to disaster resilient construction; while new construction makes for a great photo op, we really need to be looking to strengthen existing structures to maximize cost effectiveness. At Build Change, we advocate for the use of retrofitting for resilience, which is structural strengthening of existing housing. Retrofitting not only saves lives – but also costs an average of 23% of new construction – and has proven market demand. When managing financial constraints, homeowners often don’t have the assets that would be needed for a new construction of a resilient home.  Use of retrofitting is also climate-smart, since it avoids carbon emissions that would result from new construction and can, in many cases, also make a home more energy-efficient.

To make this happen, governments need to also understand the benefits of retrofitting and create retrofit programs so that homeowners can implement structural strengthening. In Nepal, for example, after the 2015 earthquake, we successfully advocated for the government to adopt a retrofit program, and as of 2020, over 30,000 buildings were made safer via our support. This scale simply wouldn’t have been possible with new construction, as we were able to more effectively use resources via retrofitting.

What do you believe is needed to close the gap on climate adaptation and resilience?

It’s important to understand that housing collapse due to climate change is preventable, we need to be making changes to our policies, to our financing structures and to our technology to incentivize long-term thinking, which will strengthen resilience and preparedness against disasters and the impacts of climate change.

First, governments need to have an understanding of climate risk that is clearly rooted in science, and model this with action; that is to say, we need to understand that disasters are increasing in frequency and in severity and we have the science at our disposal to predict loss of lives and shelter caused by disasters. This kind of modelling can help incentivize government action towards long-term policies and plans, but only when it is being consistently used.

Second, we need to put people first and seek to advance equitable outcomes. Build Change uses a homeowner-driven approach rather than a donor-driven approach because not only does it have the highest potential to use recycled and locally sourced materials coupled with the lowest amount of resource consumption, but it also empowers people, especially those from vulnerable populations, to be in the centre of the decision-making processes and articulating their own needs and desires.

What should state and non-state actors be doing to help bridge this gap and accelerate the construction of resilient property?

Everyone, both state and non-state actors, need to drive the demand for resilient housing.

What this means is that non-state actors need to demonstrate to funders and policymakers that people need safer homes, and governments need to define and enforce construction standards. It is absolutely critical to work hand in hand; both state and non-state actors can be engaged in raising public awareness about the risks of climate change and disasters to home safety, and at the same time. As they do this, homeowners can learn about why they should strengthen their home, and what resources are available for them, and can push their representatives to design and develop housing programs that actually work for their needs. It’s a feedback loop that, coupled with appropriate investments and innovation, will drive us to a more accountable and effective global housing system.

In your experience, what’s changed for the worse, and for the better, in the past decade?

Well, other than climate change, which has definitely worsened in the last decade, a trend that I’m concerned with is a disconnect that I often see between a desire to design climate-smart solutions to housing and designs that cannot be adopted at scale. I’ve seen a lot of innovative ways to make green housing, but we also need to focus on accessible green housing – we need to focus on housing solutions that will withstand disasters, which are available to homeowners at all price points, and where homeowners actually want to live for years to come.

I am, however, really encouraged by the greater understanding and action that we have had as a global community about how women are disproportionately impacted by disasters and climate change. Women and children are 14 times more likely to die in a disaster, and there is a lot more attention globally to how we advance solutions that protect and prioritize women. At Build Change, we challenge socially-constructed expectations and norms for different genders, and change the narrative around women as victims of disasters. Instead, we put them at the centre of decision-making processes, advance their access to finance, and prioritize advancing women’s role in engineering and construction roles, which are all areas where women are often excluded. We need to make housing work for women.

What’s your message for COP26? How should world leaders ensure that equity runs through the heart of climate policy? 

Housing needs to be prioritized at the highest levels during COP26 to ensure better, safer, and more equitable housing.

State actors need to recognize, prioritize and invest in resilient housing’s role in climate resilience in the same way that they are prioritizing other basic needs. We have such an opportunity to advance equity in the housing sector, if it’s properly prioritized. Governments are not meeting the housing needs of their populations, in particular of their most vulnerable populations, which is leading to an increase in informal housing that doesn’t conform to housing codes and lacks oversight by qualified construction professionals. This compounds risk and vulnerability; those populations who already are at a socioeconomic disadvantage also are least safe during disasters, and leads to poor health outcomes. Housing is at the centre of this, and if governments prioritize resilient housing programs, we can break this vicious cycle and truly advance sustainable development. Resilience in the housing sector isn’t expensive; if we focus on making small changes to improve housing, we can reduce carbon emissions and advance more equitable outcomes in the face of climate change.

Build Change, regional representative Mardi Mapa-Suplido will be speaking at Asia Pacific Climate week (July 6-9).

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