Urbanized – A documentary

Gary Hustwit’s newest documentary, Urbanized, documents the design of urban life. They estimate that 75% of people will live in urban areas by 2050, making urban planning of vital importance. The trailer is below, but I would check out the website and take the time to view the full film for the cost of $6.99 (USD).


Pallet Houses – Southern Methodist University

As a symbol of sustainability, Southern Methodist University‘s new Master’s of Arts in Sustainability and Development unveiled a new “pallet house.” The 250-square-foot house was constructed using 55 shipping pallets. Check out the images here.

Shipping pallets is an innovative idea for recycling materials into housing. What ideas do you have? Submit your proposals at http://sheltersforall.org/.

Are Sustainability and Resiliance Mutually Exclusive?

A recent article in the Bulletin for Earthquake Engineering outlines the ways in which sustainability and hazard-resilience can and must work together for safe housing in Haiti. “While many agree that sustainable redevelopment and self-reliance is essential for Haiti, few appreciate how it can be practically achieved, particularly in the domain of urban residential redevelopment” (p. 2).

The authors outline the types of materials have been used in Haiti: “Historically, due to the lack of wood, for use either as formwork or as a partitioning alternative, and the high cost of steel, cement and quality aggregate, Haitians employed construction with heavy masonry walls made of hand pressed concrete masonry units (CMUs) and lightly reinforced, undersized concrete columns, made with inferior raw materials and having inadequate strength and ductility. This combination, along with the lack of beams that would better engage the columns against earthquake loads, created systems that actually performed well under strong winds common to the Caribbean, but were conversely proven to be extremely vulnerable to earthquakes, failing through brittle collapse modes, as documented in the authors’ personal reconnaissance database through their field work in Haiti” (p. 2).

The authors explain that Haiti has a unique mix of requirements — it is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, has suffered massive deforestation, and is in areas prone to both earthquakes and hurricanes. Moreover, Haiti’s government shows very little oversight in construction. They conclude, “The lack of locally-available construction materials, including the wood necessary for formwork to cast earthquake-resilient concrete frames, the steel necessary to provide strength and robust ductile behavior, or the quality masonry for confined or load bearing masonry construction makes the expense of this style of construction too great to serve the needs of the majority of displaced Haitians living in extreme poverty” (p. 4).

They conclude, “As Haiti has taught us, vulnerability stems from two potential sources: (1) lack of knowledge and (2) lack of resources to implement this knowledge properly… The only remedy is to flank these efforts with policies that encourage and support research to develop alternative, low-cost, sustainable housing that provides hazard resilience, while operating within the economic and cultural constraints of these regions so that all families will have a legitimate pathway to empowerment.” (p. 7).

Do you have ideas for how to make buildings both sustainable and resilient in Haiti? Submit your proposal to sheltersforall.org.

Guest Blogger – A REAL Picture of Brazil’s Favelas


It’s easy for us gringos to glamorize the favelas, which are the slums of Brazil.  They are portrayed in films and photos nestled on scenic hills with breathtaking views overlooking the beaches and abundant natural beauty that the country offers.  Despite the fortunate favelas where this is true, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of favelas bear no resemblance to the photo above or the famous Rio de Janeiro locations portrayed in films.  The photo below is a more accurate depiction of the current state of living environments that are made available to low-income Brazilians.



Like most of the slums around the world, the favelas are occupied by the individuals and families who are the unfortunate byproducts of their country’s failure to provide affordable housing options for its people.  This major lack of proper infrastructure forces people to move to squatting areas.  In this situation, it doesn’t matter what the education or income level of the residents are, if people are forced to build their own homes with no guidance or codes, it will create a living environment that is unfit and unnecessary by today’s standard of living.  This practice essentially wipes away hundreds of years of living environment improvements that have been continuously updated throughout the years.

The birth of the favelas began when mass immigration from Europe created a housing shortage in the city centers.  In order to combat this problem, the government enacted programs to push out the lower income residents to designated spaces at the city’s edges.  Once there, the government took an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to overseeing the development of these communities.  Without any building code enforcement and without basic proper sanitary infrastructure provided by the government, it was inevitable that these communities would spiral out of control to form a sub-standard living environment.  Fast forward 3-7 decades later, and these problems are still being unaddressed, as most favelas have no government representation and are provided with little to no municipal assistance.  In some favelas in the large cities, it is not uncommon for the residents to be dependent on drug lords to provide the most basic services.

Due to the explanations given above and combined with overcrowding, environmental and sanitary issues are of extreme importance in the favelas.  Individual housing units lack plumbing systems, water supply, and proper electricity connections.  Waste collection is also insufficient or in some cases non-existent.  Communal washing areas consist of tubs and buckets of cold water.  Electricity is stolen from any possible source which leads to the extremely unsafe practice of linking hundreds of housing units to one power source in a very crude and haphazard manner.  Even the basic system of mail delivery is virtually impossible.  The majority of building materials used in favela living spaces is that of previously discarded items that were collected and used in makeshift construction, which can include metal sheathing used for roofing and walls.

You can be the one to develop a better housing strategy for those in need in Brazil — visit sheltersforall.org.

– Jeff Loftus, Structural Engineer, B.S. Lehigh University 2007, M.E. University of Southern California 2010


Guest Blogger – Choose Your Own Adventure: The Role of Choice in Housing

Photo by Dustin Mix

I was talking to a friend a few days ago about the book series from grade school called Choose Your Own Adventure. If you don’t remember or aren’t familiar with these books, they were the type where you read a chapter and at the end, based on what you had gathered to that point, would be faced with making a decision on the protagonist’s next action. Based on your choice, you’d be directed to another section of the book and repeat the process until the story was resolved. Books had multiple endings based on the decisions you made, ranging from finding treasure to being defeated by “evil” forces. For us control freaks, these books were addicting. No longer was reading a book a passive, purely observational exercise, but now I could have some sort of influence on the story. I would read these books intensely, combing for the slightest of hints in each chapter as to what decision I should make next and obsessing over getting to the best possible ending. The satisfaction of getting to that ending was such a different feeling than reading a traditional fictional book. The power of transferring the choice of how the story would end from the author to the reader was liberating, addicting, and at times even frustrating. But the ability to direct the story was what drew me in.

In many ways, the urban housing problem in developing countries is a result of a disregard for the theme of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Across the globe, people are born into circumstances that set them up for a life riddled with a lack of choice. Whether it is choice hindered by economics, education, geography, discrimination, or a host of other factors, the world’s poorest often have been at the mercy of decisions and institutions in which they have no voice. Solving the problem of substandard housing in urban slums across the globe is a complicated and dynamic undertaking. However, the basis for any such solution should be the provision of choice; an act of empowerment. Human beings have no inherent desire to live in the squalor and inhumane conditions that define slums. Given the ability to choose between a safe or dangerous home, people will choose safety. Given the ability to choose between sanitary waste systems or an open latrine, people will choose sanitation. Given the ability to protect their families or be exposed to the elements, people will choose protection. The choice to live in a safe and clean environment and to provide shelter for one’s family is human instinct. Having that choice, having the power over the state of one’s situation, is at the core of what it means to have dignity. This dignity, inherent to existing as a human being, is to have access to the things it takes to survive in this world, however dynamic those things may be.

Photo By Dustin Mix

“Housing the world’s poor” is an often used phrase in the discussion of urban slums. If the urban slum problem is going to be addressed, the phrase needs to be more of a result than an action. Empowerment and choice is where the solution lies. Shaping and crafting an environment in which people have the choice and power to influence their living conditions is the most critical engineering task the world faces in addressing this problem. The problem is much bigger and more complex than simply providing a roof to live under. Housing is an indicator of so much more than just the availability of building materials or construction expertise. Housing is a measure and outward illustration of quality of life. The goal of improving the living conditions of the 1 billion people that are currently living in substandard conditions will manifest itself through that indicator.

Photo by Dustin Mix

Choose Your Own Adventure books didn’t always turn out the way I wanted. But as frustrating as it was to admit, I was always responsible for how I got to each ending, through the choices I had made. There won’t always be happy endings, but building systems that allow people the chance to reach a favorable ending is an adventure we all should choose.

Dustin Mix, Structural Engineering Graduate Student at the University of Notre Dame

Housing for All – An Interview with Millard Fuller

Changemakers.com posted an interview with Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, about reaching out to all countries to develop more housing for those in need.

When asked about how he was planning to expand the house-building beyond the 100 countries currently receiving aid from Habitat for Humanity, Fuller responded, “You have natural constituencies. Every country in the world has got big populations here in the United States. So when we started building in the Philippines, we found all the Filipinos we could in this country and started by going to them and saying, ‘Hey, wouldn’t you like to help out in your home country?'”

He goes on, “Our goal is to be in every nation on earth. We’re in 100 countries now. We’ll get the low-hanging fruit first. You don’t climb past fruit in order to go get the fruit that’s in the top of the tree. You get the low-hanging fruit and then eat as you go up. Probably Israel and Saudi Arabia are at the top of the tree. We’re even building in places like Vietnam, Jordan, Egypt, and Indonesia.”

Check out the article here.

Contemporary Earth Construction

Earthen House in Thailand - Photo by Amanda Kovattana

A recent article from The Built and Human Environment Review suggests there are misconceptions about the usefulness of earth housing.

The authors outline the primary problem: unsustainable and unaffordable materials – “A house is composed of several materials such as brick, cement, timber, window frames and several other building materials and the use of bricks as a standard building material began in the early 1900s in most of the African countries. Brick, cement, sand and timber are the major construction materials in Africa up to date which is unaffordable nowadays and an appropriate building material and construction technique needs to devise to solve the urban housing crisis (Zami, 2010)” (p. 86).

The authors suggest taking a closer look at earth construction, outlining examples from Africa and the Middle East. However, before construction takes place, a proper examination of the soil is required – “The identification process involves various tests, which need the use of a laboratory. Apart from the laboratory identification process, local knowledge of the soil and traditional skills are necessary” (p. 87).

The authors then outline some contemporary uses of earth construction in Zimbabwe, Sudan, Kenya, South Africa, Angola, and Mali.

They conclude, “Earth is affordable and available and would be appropriate in the case of low cost house construction in many African countries…  The only challenge that prevents earth becoming the preferred choice of building material amongst the professionals, politicians, decision makers and the clients is acceptability. An awareness and understanding by people to environmental issues such as air pollution, deforestation, land degradation and energy conservation would help them change their attitudes and views towards earth building. The flexibility and simplicity in technology incorporated in earth building affords adaptability and easy transfer of knowledge between different stakeholders in the building industry. Individuals and community as a whole can easily participate in building their own homes in affordable ways.”

What do you think – is earth housing the future of the urban housing crisis? Submit your proposal at sheltersforall.org.