Housing that weathers the storm

Innovative engineering projects in Dinajpur, Bangladesh

Dinajpur district in northwest Bangladesh is regularly affected by storms. Those with limited resources are particularly vulnerable, as their housing is often less able to withstand the natural hazards.

To demonstrate how the vulnerability of such populations can be decreased, local NGO Simple Action For the Environment (SAFE), supported by Engineers Without Borders UK, provided people in Dinajpur with training on innovative building techniques.

With additional financial support from the RIBA Boyd Auger scholarship, they also collaborated with UK architect Jo Ashbridge to construct a prototype house that would be both more resistant to natural hazards and low-cost.

ABOUT THE PROJECT

The model house was built between October 2012 and June 2013 in Nobu Para, a hamlet in Sundarban village in Dinajpur.

SAFE began with an assessment of household assets, needs and visions for the future. A community meeting was held to introduce the project. The community then chose the family that would live in the prototype house. The beneficiary household, consisting of the parents and three children, was particularly poor and lived in a very small and hazard-prone house. Together with the family, the team developed the plans for the house.

The major differences between the prototype house and others across the region are that it is constructed with compressed stabilised earth blocks and a composite bamboo system, as opposed to basic bamboo and timber frames with earthen plaster or corrugated iron sheet cladding. It also features two storeys – a rarity in Sundarban.

In addition to paid day labourers, community members contributed to the project on a voluntary basis. SAFE also offered workshops on innovative building techniques, including new ways to fasten roofing material.

The total cost of the house was £2,200, including materials and local labour.

BENEFITS

  • Benefits for the family included a new, more spacious and safer home. Having worked with other community members and owning the only two-storey house in the area increased the family’s integration and recognition within the community.
  • Other community members also benefitted from the building techniques acquired during the workshops and from the array of celebrations that were held on the project site, such as the topping out ceremony.
  • SAFE demonstrated that it is possible to build a hazard-resistant house at relatively low cost.

CHALLENGES

  • The biggest challenge of the project was managing expectations. This applied not just to the family, who wanted a bigger house with more expensive materials, but also to other community members, who wanted their own two-storey houses. The family’s expectations were managed by explaining that the budget was limited and if they wanted the more expensive materials such as high-quality corrugated iron for the roof, then they would need to cut costs elsewhere. To the community members expressing interest in similar houses, SAFE explained that the project was a prototype and those wishing to be considered for future projects would be added to a beneficiary list.
  • Another challenge related to the payment of workers. Typically workers were paid as day labourers. However, one particular builder who had experience of working with other NGOs, was paid per job. If he finished the assigned task in a shorter space of time, he would therefore effectively work less for the same salary. This difference in the pay model caused a level of discontent between the team. The challenge was overcome by equalising the pay strategy and through regular team discussions.
  • One of the challenges faced during the construction period was a storm. Although it did not cause significant damage to the building shell, it did create a temporary labour shortage, as workers were busy repairing their own storm-affected houses.
  • Similarly, the supply of building materials was delayed by violent protests that blocked transportation routes.

LESSONS LEARNED

  • Close cooperation and constant communication with the community are key to the success of a project.
  • The community-driven beneficiary identification process and use of local labour is important to achieve community approval and ongoing support.
  • Common prayers and celebrations throughout the project, as well as respect for local rituals, further helped to reduce grievances and envy within the wider community.
  • The greatest challenge was the management of beneficiary and non-beneficiary expectations at all stages of the project. To avoid the creation of expectations that cannot be met, it is important to clearly communicate the purpose and scope of the project.
  • During the construction phase it may be appropriate to establish one pay strategy for the same group of workers.
  • For the management of challenges and conflicts, it is helpful for leadership to be closely connected to both the workers and community.
  • In general, prototype projects such as the one described also face the challenge of replication, i.e. creating a wider impact and reducing the vulnerability of individuals and families in areas with limited assets.

To find out more about this project, read Jo Ashbridge’s report here. Jo is currently setting up an architectural not-for-profit organisation called AzuKo. You can find out more at www.azuko.org