Building change

11 March 2013
Haiti construction practices

UNHabitat estimates 50,000 new homes have been built by Haitians using their own resources.

Haiti transitional shelter

Transitional shelters: one-room dwellings only intended to last about three years.

RedR member Bill Flinn

Shelter after Disaster: Bill Flinn, architect, builder and associate lecturer with Oxford Brookes University's Centre for Development and Emergency Practice.

Haiti building construction

Local building practice: reinforced concrete frame, with hollow blocks called confined masonry.

International disaster relief charity RedR trains aid workers, providing skilled professionals to humanitarian programmes worldwide. But what’s the best way to use their skills?

RedR member Bill Flinn is one such professional. An architect, builder and associate lecturer with Oxford Brookes University’s Centre for Development and Emergency Practice on its Shelter after Disaster programme, he is particularly experienced in domestic scale building in timber and green construction techniques. Bill’s working life has been divided between design and building in the UK, and development and humanitarian work in three continents. Here, Bill talks to Member News about his experiences with RedR and why the need for members with engineering and technical expertise is so highly sought.

“In July 2012, I spent a few weeks in Haiti. The message I came away with was that the international community’s approach to reconstruction has not been as effective as it could have been.
“A lot of donor money was sunk into building far too many transitional shelters - one-room dwellings only intended to last about three years. A lot of the materials were imported, which was hugely expensive. Temporary houses are rarely suitable for upgrade, and aren’t strong enough to have more stories added to them as people do in an urban area. They have timber frames and are clad in plywood. The building’s racking strength relies on the plywood. When the plywood ages it will de-laminate and have to be removed, and the structure of the building will be completely compromised. So the transitional shelters will end up on the scrapheap, or somehow they’ll be repaired and patched up to last longer than intended by desperate people. What a waste of money, materials and labour.
“Thousands of transitional shelters were built. We shouldn’t lay all the blame at the feet of the shelter sector; international donors should accept their share. They tend to focus on the short term, looking at a funding cycle of a year, or maybe 18 months. This is not relevant to the shelter issue which is a long-term problem. They also understandably want to help as many people as possible. This means quantity can take priority over quality. Three years on, far too many Haitians are living in tents or under plastic sheeting and all the money has been spent.
“The one encouraging thing is that now the Haitians are building using their own initiative with money sent back from their families in the Haitian diaspora. UNHabitat [the United Nations agency for human settlements] estimates 50,000 new homes have been built by Haitians using their own resources recently. This is a great start, but still leaves a huge housing shortfall. Sadly, the international community is failing Haitians again. We are barely engaging in this process of self-reconstruction. We are not influencing how they build their own homes, which means that our ‘build back better’ rhetoric is empty for the most part. This was the promise made by foreign donors in the aftermath of the 2005 after the Indian Ocean tsunami.
“Two organisations, Build Change and UNHabitat are exceptions to this. They are looking at the way in which people are building and suggesting improvements. This is an approach I think is respectful and appropriate. You look around and decide what is the local building practice. In Port-au-Prince this is often a reinforced concrete frame, with hollow blocks called confined masonry, which is potentially very strong and stable, but only if it is done with great care and attention to detail. Otherwise, when it fails, it fails dramatically and kills people.
“Often, the value humanitarians can add is in terms of advice, rather than funding and project management. What we should be doing is ensuring concrete is mixed properly, and making sure steel reinforcements are strong enough, so a dangerous structure can potentially be built more safely by adhering to just a few messages. All too often you see exposed steel-work, honey-combed concrete, and these buildings are near to the sea, and salt will cause corrosion. So many deaths were caused in Haiti, Pakistan and Sezchuan because of badly reinforced concrete structures. This was not the case in Japan or New Zealand. We have to remember, earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.”


Most international humanitarian organisations have little urban expertise in their staffing and are not set-up to respond to large scale urban emergencies. They lack technical understanding and management of large-scale infrastructure assessments and repairs. Organisations in the engineering sector have this capacity but need to be integrated into the system.
Aid workers must learn how to cope with the particular engineering challenges that urban disasters demonstrate. RedR’s Technical Support Service connects aid workers in the field with technical experts in the non-profit and private sector providing rapid solutions to urgent technical problems they face when responding to disasters.
As such, RedR has its roots firmly planted in the engineering sector. It was originally conceived over 30 years ago as a register of engineers who could be mobilised in the event of a humanitarian disaster in a country where the government was unable to respond adequately. Although RedR now trains people across a diverse range of skills, most of its training has been informed by engineering expertise and knowledge.


April – London Marathon
May – Superhero Run (London)
June – London-to-Brighton bike ride
June – London-to-Paris bike ride
September – Great North Run (Newcastle)
October – Royal Parks Half Marathon (London)

For more details email Katie Grey at katie.grey@redr.org.uk

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