Recognizing that earthquakes don’t kill people, but building collapse does, Elizabeth Hausler Strand is changing practices of home building in earthquake-prone regions to engage citizens and set in place new and lasting practices to ensure that earthquake-resistant construction becomes common.
Thousands die every year in earthquake-affected regions, most in developing countries where buildings are not reinforced properly to withstand quakes. Yet the quality and efficacy of response is highly variant, location to location, quake to quake. Elizabeth is creating the enabling environment that allows earthquake reconstruction—and then construction moving forward—to become standard. She engages homeowners, engineers, contractors, local and international aid organizations, and local government to get homes built safely, allowing as much homeowner preference as possible. With a clear focus on the goal—safe homes now and moving forward – she creates the part of the enabling environment that is absent in a particular locale, making sure that homes are built safely, and that the tragic occasion of the quake is used maximally to realize a lasting change in building practices.
Elizabeth’s approach molds easily to fit the need of any post-earthquake environment—whether in post-tsunami Aceh in the context of significant (too much) international aid money, or in Sichuan, China, where the Chinese government is financing and managing the rebuilding process, with little outside support. Currently, she has teams in West Sumatra, Indonesia, and Sichuan, China, and expects to move to a third country—a pre-earthquake environment—next year.
Much of the developing world—parts of Indonesia, North India, MENA, China, and South and Central America—are earthquake prone. Small tremors are a normal part of peoples’ lives along fault lines, bringing an accompanying fear of a major quake that might topple the house. Eighty thousand people were killed in Sichuan, China, on May 12, 2008; eighty thousand people in Pakistan in October 2005; twenty-six thousand people in Bam, Iran, in 2003; 20,000 in Gujarat, India, in 2001—and many smaller quakes that collapse a hundred buildings here, a thousand there. These are enormous human – and often, national—tragedies. They are also an opportunity for citizen action, a pulling together in time of crisis around an entirely practical, non-ideological goal.
Most deaths happen because people are trapped underneath or inside collapsed buildings. The prevalent building practice in much of the developing world is unreinforced masonry—about 75 percent of houses in the affected regions follow this construction. (About a quarter of homes in these areas are timber.) Simple, low-cost adjustments—soaking bricks in water, a small amount more cement in concrete and mortar, and the establishment of a steel-reinforced connecting band around the structure—give security against harm over the lifetime of the house. Some design and layout adjustments are extra insurance— avoid putting windows and doors close together, and so on. These are easy things, entirely doable in many parts of the world when someone—the government, homeowners, builders—demands them.
When a quake happens, the response of the government and international aid agencies is typically rushed, with tight timelines that do not allow for thoughtful reconstruction that builds local capacity and citizen input alongside the actual homes. This can create an environment for corruption and waste. Millions of dollars—and typically a rare moment of citizen solidarity and engagement—are often squandered in the rush to rebuild. The response may get the immediate job at hand done, but does not achieve a pattern change in building practices moving forward.
The environment and practice of post-earthquake rebuilding does not allow for people to realize their full potential as citizens engaged in a change process. Contractors and enforcers pursue targets of houses rebuilt, engineers and builders see their role as stopping at implementation, and homeowners are shut out of the process, even when they ultimately have the most at stake—their preferences, and their safety. Home layout designs and materials are often drawn up by an architect in a city far away, with little input from the people whose homes they will be. This causes an enormous waste and citizen dissatisfaction: homes are built with toilets inside, when the homeowner prefers outside, and so on.
Elizabeth sees that earthquakes, while devastating and tragic, offer an opportunity—one that is typically resourced, focused, and public—to engage and harness people, money, and technology to entrench improved building practices. While there is demand and urgency—and crisis creates demand—there is a chance to put in place a new way of doing things. Elizabeth’s strategy harnesses and uses fully that chance, so that safe building becomes common in earthquake-affected regions.
In post-earthquake environments (the only environments in which she has worked to date), Elizabeth and her team wait out the emergency phase of the first month or two, then they enter, hire a small team of engineers and translators, and put up a sign: Build Change, her organization’s name. They then quickly, but with a focus on detail, figure out exactly what’s going on: Is the crisis resourced appropriately with money, people, and technology? Is there too much money? Too little? Technology too costly? Home designs meet homeowner demand/need? Government an effective partner? What about corruption? What incentives and tools are in place and absent? What is the skill set in the society already (engineers, builders, etc.)? These are the questions that allow Elizabeth and her team to gauge how to plug in to establish the right enabling environment to get safe homes rebuilt now, and set in place a shift in building practice.
This means that the role Elizabeth and her team play depends on what’s there and what’s not: money, people, technology. In China, the government is handling and financing the building of a million homes, with relatively little outside help. It has set an aggressive timeline for rebuilding after the May 2008 earthquake: all rebuilding should happen in two years’ time. (This is a different situation from Aceh and West Sumatra, where the government is a less effective partner.)
So in Sichuan province, Elizabeth’s team of 26 Chinese professionals—mainly energetic twenty-somethings, graduates of building trade schools and more seasoned engineers—play a few roles: they first work with homeowners, giving them homes design options and coaching them on what makes for an earthquake-resistant home. They model this homeowner engagement for builders. And finally, on invitation from the local government, they check to see that the builders and inspectors are actually building earthquake-resistant homes. The temperament of the team is not to issue citations when someone else isn’t doing their job—they try to solve problems and support the role of builder and inspector. But irregularities do surface. They gather data from across the building sites, and share it in a once-weekly meeting with the local government. This allows them to spot trends in building practices that may need adjustment if homes are to be built according to the code that Build Change and the government mutually agreed to—a blend of international building code (too strict for what’s needed in rural China) and the local code (not robust enough to ensure safety).
Elizabeth is now contracted to play this role across a building area of 2,000 homes in China—soon to be much larger. She expects to use these next few months to refine the system so that Build Change will be positioned to influence the adoption of an improved building code—and simple tools for its enforcement—by local governments across China, a project she expects will take five years. If she can do this, it’s an enormous leap forward.
With a grant from Cisco, she is putting various building codes, simple checklists, and home designs on mobile devices. This will allow a much more efficient way of generating and collating data, and importantly, may lessen corruption—because camera-enabled mobile phones can take and transmit photos of completed homes that are time, date, and location stamped. This makes it difficult for a corrupt contractor or inspector to fabricate work completed.
Elizabeth is exploring working with companies that also stand to gain from earthquake-resistant practices—especially cement companies. Build Change is putting public awareness messages and home design illustrations and simple building checklists on cement bags, and so forth—obviously a way to spread the word around safe houses, and also increase profit for the company, because building an earthquake-resistant home requires a bit more cement. These kinds of hybrid value chain partnerships are just emerging for Elizabeth and her team.
Moving forward, Build Change expects to maintain a presence and operations in Indonesia (ongoing) and China as long as needed (for the next five years, possibly), and expand in 2010 to a third country—a pre-earthquake environment. She is in the early stages of identifying, with input from Risk Management Solutions, an emerging population center that is especially vulnerable. If no significant significant quakes happen in the next months, Build Change will move into a pre-earthquake mitigation zone, and mold its approach to this environment—focusing of course on new construction.
Elizabeth grew up in Plano, Illinois, a town of 5,000 people. Her father was self-employed and had a masonry construction company. Early on, she and her older sister learned techniques of bricklaying, and worked for their father through high school summers. From him, Elizabeth also gained an appreciation for efficiency—the quickest, easiest way of doing something, while keeping in mind quality. He loved what he did and worked easily with clients to deliver a quality product, the result of a shared vision. From her mother, an accountant (who now handles Build Change’s payroll as a volunteer), Elizabeth learned attention to detail.
At the urging of her family, Elizabeth pursued an engineering track at the University of Illinois, graduating with a civil engineering degree, and headed off to Chicago, then Denver to work as an environmental consultant. She liked the work, liked the colleagues, but liked less what she saw as a yuppie lifestyle and found herself drawn to fixing the root problems—which she began to discover have a social dimension—not the symptoms. (Why spend time cleaning up a landfill; why not prevent landfill disasters in the first place?) Elizabeth moved from environmental civil/environmental engineering to a corner of the field just emerging, with exciting potential as a new frontier: earthquake engineering.
Initially, she approached earthquakes as a technical and engineering challenge. But that started to shift in about 2001, as she began to really plug into—emotionally—the human tragedy and suffering caused by massive quakes, as well as the inefficiency and waste of rebuilding. On a Fulbright Scholarship in India in 2003, she studied the reconstruction efforts in several contexts, asking homeowners and organizations: Are the homes built to standard? Are homeowners satisfied and do they like to live in the homes? Are the local skills and materials in place to continue building practices?
Lessons weren’t getting learned, one quake to the next, Elizabeth realized. She started Build Change in 2004, working initially in post-tsunami Aceh to build 11 houses. Her path as an emerging social entrepreneur has since moved from building homes, to helping others build homes, to changing the system.