Background

Why change traditional house building practice?

Every year thousands of homes are decimated across the world. Reports frequently refer to floods, cyclones and earthquakes but these are only part of the problem. The underlying disaster is often the desperate poverty in the rural communities which forces people to live in hazardous locations and in unsuitable housing.

Vulnerability to natural hazards can change for a number of reasons. Pressure of population and the need to put more good land to agriculture means that increasing numbers of people must live on riverbanks or in coastal areas where they are more exposed to the vagaries of nature.

Another consequence of putting good land to agriculture is that it is often replacing natural construction materials such as bamboo, driving up the price of these resources. A generation ago, people used to be able to freely meet their needs locally in the forests.

Technology & Communication

Over 80% of Bangladesh’s houses are in rural areas and three-quarters of those are of either non-masonry or temporary construction. Simple strengthening improvements to these houses can cost just 5% of the total construction cost. However, many rural homes are self-built which makes the process of disseminating information much more complex. Virtually every family in the country would need to be reached.

Even when these technologies can be communicated to the local people, they are not necessarily embraced for a variety of reasons:

  • a hand-to-mouth existence means that earning a wage is the priority for most people
  • they do not always own the land and could be evicted at any time
  • there are so many hazards that the benefits derived from the extra expense seem too marginal
  • the extra cost is too great
  • even when information does reach the local people it is misunderstood due to a lack of local context or illiteracy

Response

It is within this context that Housing & Hazards, a group of building professionals based around the University of Exeter, set out to explore simple technologies that could give Bangladesh’s non-engineered buildings a measure of resilience against floods and wind. The technologies had to be affordable, appropriate and available in local markets to give millions of people real choices and some control over their lives and livelihoods.

Since 1998 they have undertaken a number of projects in Bangladesh aimed at improving communication at the grass-roots level and researching affordable technologies that can be implemented by the local people.

It is through this early work that SAFE’s founder Azit Roy first became involved in low-cost housing. Having since made a profession in the low-cost housing sector he went on to found SAFE in 2009 with support from Housing and Hazards.

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