Building back better: Lessons from Aceh, Sichuan and Haiti

Let's avoid the mistakes of the past in rebuilding homes in Yolanda-affected areas

Earthquakes and typhoons occur regularly in the Philippines, but the loss of life and economic impacts associated with inadequate housing are preventable. 

It is possible to rebuild safely and cost-effectively to prevent this type of losses from happening again.

This is also the ideal opportunity to create jobs, build the local economy, and establish long-term systems to prevent such disasters in the future.  Here are some suggestions: 

Empower homeowners to rebuild or retrofit themselves.  Filipinos are resilient, they are already building and repairing houses; but many lack the funding and technical know-how to rebuild a disaster-resistant home. 

In India, China, Indonesia, and Haiti, effective post-disaster housing reconstruction programs have been “homeowner-driven”.  Homeowners are provided conditional cash grants and technical assistance in the form of trained local engineers who assist them in choosing good layouts and quality materials, hiring skilled builders, and overseeing construction.

The cash grant is divided into multiple installments and homeowners must build to a minimum standard of quality in order to receive the next installment.  

Engaging women in this process has resulted in a higher prioritization of safety and better compliance with building standards. 

For this approach to be successful at a larger scale, trained engineers must be available in the reconstruction area.  This is a great opportunity to further STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education initiatives in the Philippines and provide on-the-job learning environments for civil engineering graduates. 

Wood Construction

Empowering homeowners creates fewer opportunities for corruption and results in more satisfied homeowners, greater reuse of existing materials and lower resource consumption.

Homeowners don’t steal from themselves.  Structuring rebuilding programs so that homeowners are invested in the process means that each homeowner will be an accounting and quality control watchdog for his own house, providing a level of supervision that no organization can match.

Engage the private sector, but with caution.  The private sector should play a major role in such a large-scale reconstruction.  The NGO community has an inconsistent track record of delivering infrastructure projects and the growing consensus is that such projects are more successful as public-private partnerships. 

However, approaches in which a contractor builds a large number of identical houses with limited inputs from homeowners have had mixed and sometimes negative results in terms of construction quality and satisfaction of homeowners.  At the minimum, a third party should be employed to ensure compliance with building standards and quality of construction. 

Retrofit (strengthen) damaged structures.  The Bohol earthquake and Super Typhoon Yolanda left over a half million buildings damaged but retrofittable.  International NGOs have historically focused on building completely new houses.  A focus on retrofitting (when possible) can reach more people with safe housing solutions at a lower cost per house and less resource consumption than new construction.

Reconsider the “repair kit”.  Families with damaged houses in the Bohol area are to receive NHA “repair kits” of materials valued at approximately PHP10,000.  While some families will certainly use the materials, this one-size-fits-all solution may be less effective.  Providing materials that the homeowner doesn’t need may result in the sale of those materials or the rebuilding of improvised, unsafe structures whose design depends only on the materials available.  Providing technical assistance and cash or materials vouchers so that homeowners can purchase what they need also puts money back into the local economy. 

Create accessible, simple building guidelines.  Following the Philippines’ National Structural Code can minimize damage and loss of life in earthquakes and typhoons.  However, the Code is designed for multi-story buildings with different materials and architecture from the typical homes damaged by the Bohol Earthquake and Typhoon Yolanda.

Simplified residential design and construction guidelines based on the Structural Code and focusing on disaster-resistant, culturally appropriate solutions and locally available labor and materials should be developed and widely distributed.  And they should be generated by or have the backing of the Philippine government. 

Our organization, Build Change, has produced accessible materials for the Bohol Shelter Cluster with simple “do” and “don’t” messages for timber and masonry reconstruction.

Use local, permanent solutions that put money into the local economy.  Transitional or T-shelters consume limited time and resources that could be used on permanent houses.  T-shelters should be used only when the building system is already common and can be reused, such as bamboo huts. 

Many are attracted to new technologies such as light gauge steel framing or precast concrete panels with hope that something new will perform better.  But the safety of the building, regardless of the structural system, always depends on the same three C’s: Configuration, Connections, and Construction Quality.

While it is relatively easy for an NGO or private sector business to import a new building technology and build a few thousand houses, retraining a construction sector to build safely with new materials and technologies takes far more time, effort, and money than making incremental improvements to existing practices to make them safe enough to withstand the next earthquake or typhoon. 

Better building materials and job creation programs could include improved production of concrete blocks, production of woven bamboo mats, collection and milling of downed coconut lumber, and more. 

Every solution involving an imported material should be considered carefully, not only for its appropriateness but for its overall impact on the Philippines’ GDP.

Masonry Construction

Build capacity of engineers and builders.  Build Change is working with the provincial engineer in Bohol to train local engineers in disaster-resistant construction.  Building the capacity of local municipal engineers who can in turn guide homeowners and train local builders will result in a larger number of disaster-resistant homes than simply building the houses outright for people. 

Earthquake- and typhoon-resistant design and construction ideas must be incorporated into the university training of engineers and the vocational training of builders.

Training local builders in the wake of a disaster is a fantastic way to help boost the local economy and build capacity to prevent disasters in the future.  Once learned, the ability to lay bricks straight, neat, fast and strong is a lifelong skill.  By training tradespeople in Haiti, Build Change has created over 5,000 jobs.   

There is no better prevention of disaster than building disaster-resilient buildings.  This is a man-made problem and there are man-made solutions.  If buildings remain intact in an earthquake or typhoon, the need for emergency response, emergency medical care, stockpiling of food and water, temporary shelter, and large-scale reconstruction can be significantly reduced.  Others say $1 invested in prevention saves $7 in disaster response.  Now is the time to make that investment in preventing the next disaster in the Philippines and boosting the local economy at the same time.  –


Dr. Elizabeth Hausler Strand is Founder and CEO of Build Change, an international non-profit social enterprise that saves lives in earthquakes and other natural disasters.  Dr. Hausler Strand has a Ph.D. in civil engineering from University of California, Berkeley and is a skilled brick mason. She was elected as an Ashoka-Lemelson Fellow in 2009. 

Build Change designs disaster-resistant houses for developing countries and works with local governments, builders, homeowners, and engineers to build them.  Build Change creates permanent change in construction practice by building local skills and stimulating local demand.  The organization has implemented post-earthquake housing reconstruction programs in Indonesia, China and Haiti and pre-earthquake mitigation programs in Colombia, which have impacted more than 200,000 people. 

Dr. Elizabeth Hausler Strand will be speaking at the Ateneo de Manila University on February 5, 2014, Wednesday from 1:30 – 4:30PM as part of the Ashoka Global Innovators Series. Interested participants can register at