More than 1.3 million people have died in major earthquakes around the world over the past half-century. Developing countries are hit disproportionally, in part because earthquakes destroy poorly built homes and buildings. Many of those deaths could be prevented. Even in the absence of quakes, houses in developing countries crack, crumble and collapse all on their own due to corruption, poor workmanship and lack of skill. Not only are lives lost, but people suffer extremes of heat or cold needlessly because they live in housing that is built completely inappropriately for their climate. Scores suffer mosquito-borne or waterborne illnesses that could easily be prevented. In some flood-prone areas, no one builds homes on stilts — so all people can do is watch or flee as the water takes their family homes. Inefficient designs waste electricity and scarce water — when they’re even available at all. And children toil day after day in giant smoky kilns to bake the bricks to build those buildings. But all this can change, and it must change. The solutions, the knowledge and the technologies are out there — what’s needed is creative synergy and action. The time has come for a Housing Revolution!
The know-how and technologies to save lives through seismic-safe construction already exist, but they’re not always implemented because of unfamiliarity or miserliness, at the cost of lives. Uninformed contractors continue to build with brittle, inappropriate materials because they don’t know the alternatives. We need to make all homes in seismically active regions as earthquake-safe as possible.
Everyone knows that homes in flood-prone areas can be designed to protect them from at least minor floods through simple means such as elevating them on stilts. But that requires know-how and foresight. We need to make all homes in flood-prone areas as safe as possible.
Many people living in developing countries know the feeling of turning on a tap and having nothing come out — if they’re lucky enough have a tap at all. Water may not come for days, despite rains, because homes continue to be built as if there were a constant water supply, even when everyone knows there isn’t.
Where tap water is available, it’s frequently unsafe for human consumption. (According to UNICEF, more than one million child deaths in India alone could be prevented every year with simple, easy solutions.) Scarce water is often tragically wasted because of leaky or very inefficient fixtures or infrastructure. Rainwater harvesting, a potential remedy in many places, remains tremendously underused, if not entirely unknown, in areas that need it desperately. We need to help people make smarter use of all the water that’s available to them, help them harvest rainwater where possible, and provide simple, inexpensive, and long-lasting tools for purifying drinking water. Those tools and techniques already exist — but they’re worthless unless they’re in the hands of the people who need them.
Centuries ago, houses were built to withstand the heat and keep occupants comfortable without the benefit of air conditioning. In housing that’s inappropriate for the climate, people either swelter, sit glued to fans or noisy “swamp coolers,” or blast air conditioning to combat the heat that gets trapped in inefficient structures while any cool air seeps out. In other areas (or sometimes in the same places), they shiver unprotected from winter’s bitter cold. Simple solutions such as reflective roofs and rooftop or wall gardens, improved insulation, proper building orientation, designs that maximize air flow and so on can make enormous differences in people’s comfort and energy use. We also need to integrate window screens or mosquito bednets into even the simplest dwellings — because they save lives. And in areas where electricity is unreliable, housing designs absolutely must take that into account and integrate simple, inexpensive energy alternatives like powerful, long-lasting, energy-efficient LED lighting with battery backup for those frequent blackouts and built-in solar charging stations for small electronics like mobile phones.
Scores of children in India, for example, toil in near-slave-labor conditions to build bricks in giant kilns that belch out filthy soot day and night. Materials that are the product of child labor, that require huge carbon inputs that are structurally unsound or pose a health risk to either manufacturers or homeowners need to be phased out. There’s no need to build with outdated materials when safer, greener, more sustainable alternatives are already available.
The Housing Revolution aims to encourage sustainable practices at home such as urban gardening, composting, greywater reuse, and more. We hope to maintain an ongoing dialogue with homeowners that lasts far beyond the time they move into their safer, greener home.
This point will push some people’s buttons, but it’s true: In many developing nations, it’s often challenging to control the quality of site-built housing due to a lack of skill and pervasive corruption that even extends to theft of materials by the builders themselves. On a massive scale, trying to Revolutionize housing through retraining and overseeing local builders would take ages, if it’s even possible — though we salute and encourage the many activists working toward that noble goal. The solution we envision is to create Revolutionary housing to the greatest extent possible under controlled factory conditions for quick final assembly on site by trained workers. This will ensure uniform quality and extensive reach, and will also harness the power of economies of scale. Of course, Revolutionary housing needs to fit the cultural and climatic needs of each region. No one’s talking about trying to fit people into identical little boxes — that’s exactly the kind of thing we need to avoid. But the best way to bring about big change is through economies of scale and controlled, off-site manufacturing of regionally appropriate housing.
People around the world are brand-conscious — residents of the developing world are no exception. If manufacturers can build brand awareness, consumers will associate Revolutionary types of housing with consistent quality and a certain status that will help ensure its spread through market forces.
It’s no use bringing together all these innovations if the people they’re meant to benefit can’t afford them. Safer, more efficient, greener housing can’t be just a luxury anymore. The Housing Revolution must seek methods for combating these problems that are in line with what people in developing nations can afford to pay. That means competing with existing standard materials. In a country like India, for example, the going rate for a house built of brick, cement and a bit of steel rebar is about 800-900 rupees (US$18-$20) per square foot. To compete, Revolutionary housing with all its innovations must start at that same price point and yet be profitable for the builder/manufacturer.