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

Guest Blogger – The Benefits of Multi-Hazard Engineering

Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean Tsunami are among the most serious and devastating natural disasters in recent history. They are both known worldwide for the many lives lost and the extreme property damage that resulted. Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, primarily hitting Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Hurricane Katrina was a Category 3 hurricane when it made landfall and was the costliest hurricane in the history of the United States, causing $81.2 billion in damage. New Orleans was among the cities to be hit the hardest, as protective levees broke and much of the city flooded. Storm surge wave heights exceeded twenty feet and flooded 80% of the city. The Gulf Coast of Mississippi was equally devastated by storm surge and wave action as well as winds. The Indian Ocean, or Boxing Day, Tsunami occurred on December 26, 2004, originating off the northwest coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Its destructive effects were felt across the Indian Ocean and all the way to the eastern coast of Africa. The tsunami resulted from a magnitude 9.2 subduction earthquake. The waves propagated from the epicenter of the earthquake and caused the most damage in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India. Wave heights exceeded 10 meters and reached several kilometers inland in Thailand, as shown below by the markers placed along the coast in Phuket. It is estimated that 230,000 people were killed as a result of the tsunami, in part because of the absence of a warning system. The tsunami was especially devastating in small Asian fishing villages that were built along the coast. Not only did these disasters cause immediate destruction, but for some areas much of the devastation remains today, as shown in the image above, taken two years after the Indian Ocean Tsunami.

Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean Tsunami remain pivotal events in my life due to personal experiences with the resulting devastation. I had the opportunity to visit New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina with my Computational Methods class at the University of Notre Dame to study the levee system and its failure. I was also involved in forensic engineering research that used satellite imagery and aerial photography to investigate the causes of damage to structures near the coast in Mississippi. In addition, I participated in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, Interdisciplinary Studies in Tsunami Impacts and Mitigation (ISTIM), at the University of Notre Dame during the Summer of 2007. As part of this program, we traveled to Phuket, Thailand to see first-hand the devastation caused by the tsunami and learn how to better design and build structures to prevent future deaths and destruction from similar disasters. While the occurrence of these hazards is beyond our control, novel structural engineering approaches have the ability to reduce their consequences.

It became apparent during these site visits and research experiences that structures in these areas are affected by multiple hazards, leading to unexpected effects. For example, many structures close to the coast in the southeastern United States are not only affected by the strong winds associated with a hurricane but also the damaging effects of storm surge and waves. This can be seen in the images below, taken after Hurricane Katrina, which show complete destruction of homes due storm surge and waves (left) in close proximity to homes that suffered minor wind damage but were elevated from the storm surge (right). In addition, the Indian Ocean Tsunami showed that structures near the coast in strong seismic areas may be affected by both earthquakes and tsunamis. And finally, the 2010 Haiti Earthquake occurred in an area typically affected by hurricanes. Therefore, most structures are not vulnerable to one single hazard and managing hazards individually may not yield the most efficient and effective designs. In addition, the most extreme load conditions, two hazards acting together, may not be considered.

These and similar observations are what generated the relatively new area of multi-hazard engineering. Multi-hazard engineering aims to use available resources most effectively to design safe structures that are able to withstand a range of natural hazards. This approach involves an understanding of all of the hazards that could potentially affect a structure and the use of this knowledge to determine which aspects of the structure may be most vulnerable. Then, robust design features can be incorporated in order to enhance performance when considering individual hazards or the combined loading from several hazards. Post-disaster site visits and satellite imagery are invaluable to the determination of these robust design features. For example, the building shown below is in the region hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. The lower level of the structure bore the brunt of the damage. The walls perpendicular to the wave direction have been completely destroyed. The structure, however, remained standing. After the perpendicular walls were broken, the water was able to flow through the first floor diminishing the overall loads on the structure. Post-disaster photography, such as this, can help in determining better design practices for the future. Breakaway walls on the lower levels of structures in tsunami-prone regions would allow the water to flow through instead of causing a build-up in the pressure and the forces on the ocean-side wall and other foundation components.


Designing low income urban housing comes with its own set of unique challenges without consideration of the multiple hazards with which the structures may be faced. A multi-hazard approach, however, can readily be incorporated into the design stages in order to ensure that the resources that are available are being used to most effectively resist the hazards. It is envisaged that a strong, multi-faceted structural system promises to mitigate damage from many hazards. Structural engineers have the unique ability to positively influence society in an important way by improving the resiliency of structures to hazards, allowing people all over the world to have access to safe structures in which to live and work, Shelters For All!

– Megan McCullough, Civil Engineering Graduate Student, NatHaz Modeling Laboratory, Department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences, University of Notre Dame

Sustainable Housing: South African Case Studies



Photo by Corvair Owner

A 2010 article from Construction Management and Economics outlines nine case studies of different types of sustainable housing worldwide with the goal of improving the living conditions of those in South Africa. They examined these cases in terms of the seven principles of sustainable construction (Kibert 1994; Hill and Bowen 1995): 1) Minimize resource consumption, 2) Maximize resource reuse, 3) Use renewable or recyclable resources, 4) Protect the natural environment, 5) Create a healthy, non-toxic environment, 6) Pursue quality in the built environment, and 7) Promote socio-economic sustainability. From those seven principles, 49 indicators of sustainability were used to assess the merits of the construction.

Many sustainability practices had been implemented in these cases — energy- and water-efficiency, reuse of old buildings, non-use of toxic materials, consideration for the natural environment. However, the support of sustainable building by the users was still low, and there were still high initial costs to developing sustainable housing.
What other factors need to be considered when thinking about sustainable housing?

Guest Blogger: Protecting Coastal Villages in the Developing World

On December 26th, 2004 the Indian Ocean tsunami caused devastation in fourteen countries including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.  Nearly two and half years later in the summer of 2007 I was doing research on sustainable structural design to resist natural hazards through a National Science Foundation program at the University of Notre Dame, which ended with a field study in Thailand.  Little did I know that this trip would be an eye-opening experience that would forever change my life.

I didn’t realize the need for sustainable housing in the developing world until I witnessed it first hand.  I was shocked to see that two years after the horrific event, communities in Phuket and Khoa Lak, Thailand were still in shambles.  Walls had been ripped out of houses leaving only the structural frames.  The remains of buildings were filled with debris of all sorts, and structural beams were bent and deformed beyond repair.  (See photos below).

Photo by Mary Beth Oshnack

Photo by Mary Beth Oshnack

Photo by Mary Beth Oshnack

While it was encouraging that reconstruction had begun in some villages, (see more photos) it saddened me to see buildings being constructed in the exact same areas where others were destroyed. Were these new structures destined to be subject to the same fate as their predecessors in the wake of another disaster?  For larger commercial structures like hotels, developers are willing to build closer to the shoreline and therefore risk being inundated in order to promote tourism and enable the guests to enjoy the natural beauty of the ocean.  It helps that these hotel chains can afford to rebuild after a structure is lost. But what is the solution for fishing communities who have to be near the sea to sustain their source of livelihood?  Can we provide shelters to help them live safely in the event of a natural disaster?

Photo by Mary Beth Oshnack

My trip to Thailand encouraged me to continue my research on tsunami inundation.  While as a graduate student at Oregon State University, I found that small seawalls cause a skyward deflection of incoming tsunami waves that dissipates energy, reducing the force on landward structures.  More on this research can be found here.

Discovering the degree to which a design concept like small seawalls could help entire communities in the wake of a disaster was a really rewarding experience for me.  I used my knowledge, experience, and passion for the subject to help find a solution to a problem that I genuinely cared about. And now I’m asking you to do the same! Let’s find a way to make affordable yet durable housing available in areas where materials are scare and challenges like growing populations and the threat of natural disasters are eminent.  Let’s find shelters for all!

– Mary Beth Oshnack, Senior Engineer in Training, GAI Consultants Inc. (Pittsburgh, PA)

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

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


Focus on What’s Important – Haiti Photos, January 14, 2010

Photo from National Geographic

Today we’re going to look back at the images of Haiti immediately after the magnitude 7 earthquake that struck nearly 2 years ago.

Photo from the National Geographic

Photo from National Geographic

There is a real need for sustainable, safe housing. You can be the one to change the future of places like Haiti. Join the challenge at