WANNABUSH: An Ongoing Conversation

What Does It Take to Build a Disaster-Proof House? Since March, rescue workers in China have combed through debris from the country’s most deadly quake in 25 years. Survivors are still working to get…

WANNABUSH: An Ongoing Conversation

What Does It Take to Build a Disaster-Proof House?

Since March, rescue workers in China have combed through debris from the country’s most deadly quake in 25 years. Survivors are still working to get back on their feet, and a reporter from the South China Morning Post recently visited their temporary home as it continued to transform from a dozen metal and cardboard boxes into a proper house.

Forty-five days later, the structure was spartan — except for a flooded bathroom — but only came to life hours after a whistle blew, giving the journalists time to pack, while the home remained deflated. A third of it collapsed to the ground before we could move in. The walls were made from compressed polystyrene; the ceiling was made of polystyrene and foam insulation; the living room and kitchen had only cardboard; and the bathroom sink was being filled with air.

While I tried to measure the construction materials and, then, the dollars and cents, I could not think of a single thing that would stand in the way of construction, at least now.

We imagine those who have escaped the ruins of their homes to be living in places like mud houses or bamboo molds, but after seeing this new construction, we wonder what would happen if the house ended up on those tracks? Without a drainage system, a riverside or wide thoroughfare to run the water, how could a home like this survive long-term? And to think that, just a month earlier, the ground had collapsed and wiped out the building next door. These problems have been exacerbated by heavy rains in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. There have been several “a-ha” moments along the way, looking at things from a totally different perspective as it relates to our everyday understanding of the building, an understanding that is not at all as objective as we would hope.

After months of leaving behind the fact that our building would not cost very much, I have now come to accept the fact that, for those in need, a disaster-proof house would cost a fortune. The costs have expanded to include people’s lost savings, their losses from the quake and the deaths that are unknown, and their general grief.

Another aspect of the conversation is the discrepancy between cost and quality. It is assumed that a building in a disaster will be too defective, the material too poor, the construction not complete or that there simply will not be the quality needed to survive. So why is it that millions of dollars have been spent building homes for the poor by governments, including China’s, in the wake of past disasters in terms of materials and services?

If someone in the midst of a disaster saw someone rushing to a better alternative, might they think that this was the correct choice to make?

An initial goal should be to reduce construction cost as much as possible. This is far from feasible, unless the building is waterproof. And, if the same savings could be made in other areas of construction, the same logic could apply. According to a study carried out by the World Bank, dams that have an average of 200-400 people living in them still cost less than 1 million yuan. Using the same method could help reduce the cost and quality of houses for the poor.

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