Communication tools for the construction of safe and decent earthen houses in seismic areas

Blondet, Marcial; Rubiños, Alvaro (2014). 'Communication tools for the construction of safe and decent earthen houses in seismic areas' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

It is estimated that half the people in the world live in houses made with adobe (sun dried mud bricks) or rammed earth, mainly because they can't afford to purchase industrialized construction materials. Additionally, because they are built by the families themselves without any technical assistance, most of these houses lack a reasonable architectural design, they are not comfortable, have poor ventilation and do not provide a sanitary environment to their dwellers. Furthermore, earthen construction is regarded in many communities as a sign of poverty and therefore there is a social stigma attached to it. This situation is aggravated when earthen houses are built without adequate structural reinforcement in developing countries located in seismic areas. As a result, they are structurally weak and every time an earthquake occurs they suffer significant damage or collapse, leading to tragic deaths, injuries and economic loss.  Although many economic reinforcement systems for earthen buildings have been developed by engineers at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP) and other institutions, the transfer of safe construction techniques with adobe or rammed earth to the final users has proven to be extremely difficult. This is a complex, multidimensional problem affecting millions of persons around the world, who today live in poverty and under unacceptable seismic risk.

The Pisco (Peru) earthquake of August 15th 2007, which caused the death of almost 600 persons and the destruction of about 50 thousand homes mainly built with adobe, provided an opportunity to try an innovative approach to the reconstruction effort in low-income communities where their adobe houses had been severely damaged or had collapsed due to the seismic action.  A pilot reconstruction program was developed by the PUCP and CarePeru (a development ONG) to take advantage of a small reconstruction bonus offered by the Peruvian government to all the families who lost their homes. The pilot program was considered successful: around a thousand persons received classroom instruction, almost three hundred persons received practical training on safe construction with reinforced adobe, and nine improved adobe houses were built and donated to the families with greatest need.

This paper describes the results obtained during a project developed at the PUCP as a sequel of the Pisco pilot reconstruction program, with funds from the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute of California, USA.  The project's objective was to develop better tools for the education and training on the construction of improved adobe houses. These tools were aimed at communities located in seismic areas where building with earth is traditional and is the main available building technique because the families do not have the economic resources to buy industrialized construction materials (such as cement, bricks and reinforcement steel).  The project was inspired by the human development capability approach, in the sense that the communities who would benefit from these educational materials should not be mere recipients of aid, but should be agents of their own development through the acquisition of the skills necessary to build safe, sanitary and socially acceptable adobe houses. (It should be clear, however, that these training tools are just one component for the solution of the housing problem. A significant economic and educational effort will always be necessary to acquire the structural reinforcements needed and to educate the families and train the builders in the communities).


A multidisciplinary team was assembled at the PUCP to work on this project. It was composed of a philosopher, a psychologist, an anthropologist, a communicator, three engineers and a student. It was decided to focus on seismic regions in Peru and to develop the following training tools: a construction manual which could be understood by all members of the community, not only by the persons with building experience (almost always men); a video with testimonials of individuals  who had built their improved adobe houses (men, women, and youngsters); a technical video to show how to build an improved adobe house, step by step; and a small shaking table to demonstrate in the field the importance of seismic reinforcement for earthen houses.


It is expected that these communication and teaching tools will be distributed and used in all areas where people build with earth (especially in the poorer areas of Peru and other Andean countries), and that they will be useful to families for the construction of decent homes, which they would value for their improved design, seismic safety, and healthier living environment.


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