Researchers: Alexandros Taflanidis, Tracy Kijewski-Correa, Kevin Fink, Alumni, and Christianos Burlotos
For the first time in human history, more people live in urban areas than in rural settings. Much of this urbanization is occurring in the developing world, which struggles to support these surging populations within the constraints of informal economies underpinned by weak institutional systems. The unmet need for safe, affordable, and dignified housing ultimately drives vulnerable construction practices and unregulated land management, placing millions at disproportionately higher risk to disasters. When these disasters eventually strike, these communities experience crippling losses of life and property in their residential sectors. The economic and institutional weaknesses that created these vulnerabilities in the first place then hinder their ability to recover in a timely fashion, if at all. As the built environment and housing in particular are the foundation of safety, security, and human flourishing, the lack of recovery of this physical infrastructure cascades to impair a community’s capacity across multiple sectors. Eventually, desperate families living in transitional shelters for years resort to re-implementation of the same vulnerable practices. A select few may escape this fate by accepting culturally inappropriate or locally unsustainable solutions offered by the well-meaning international aid community that in no way build local capacity to deliver safe, dignified, and affordable housing at scale, allowing vulnerabilities to systemically propagate.
Why has the dilemma of urban housing for developing nations gone unresolved? In part because homes in these settings must meet essentially the same performance standards of developed nations: strong earthquakes and hurricanes create the same structural demands on homes regardless of their nation’s GDP. The requirement to deliver life safety under these demands, at a fraction of the cost using native technical capacity and only the resources available within local supply chains, effectively eliminates solutions that are otherwise viable in countries like the United States and demands new approaches through collaborative innovation.
This project engaged in such a process for the past six years with displaced populations in Haiti that have continued to struggle with the recovery from not just the 2010 Earthquake but more recently from Hurricane Matthew. This collaboration revealed how a new residential housing technology could be coupled with process innovations to enable local actors to deliver safe, affordable, and dignified housing despite Haiti’s limited economic capacity and frail institutional systems. The housing technology centers on a panel and frame system that complies with international building standards for wind and earthquakes, while holistically considering non-engineering constraints. The system was subjected to a locally replicable experimental testing protocol, rigorous analytical investigations, and full-scale prototyping before its successful implementation in Haiti by local construction crews. This new housing paradigm has not only met the demands imposed by multiple natural hazards, but in a manner that builds local capacity through the reliance on native materials, technologies, and skillsets. This experience has demonstrated that through collaborative innovation, deep engagement, and an inherently human-centered approach, it is possible to address some of society’s urgent challenges and in a manner that builds resilience through self-reliance.