Building change through changing buildings

Denver nonprofit recognized for its work in earthquake-prone countries

Dr. Elizabeth Hausler, founder of Build Change, working in China.

On Jan. 26, 2001 the ground of Gujarat, India shook for more than 2 minutes. The earthquake killed between 13,000 and 20,000 people, injured 167,000 and destroyed nearly 400,000 homes. The images and statistics were shocking, but what surprised civil engineering Ph. D. candidate Elizabeth Hausler, were the number of people who died or were injured due to the collapse of approximately 100 multi-story buildings.

Two years later, Hausler decided to combine her knowledge in civil engineering and her eagerness to save lives by founding Build Change, a Denver-based nonprofit dedicated to building stronger and safer homes in developing nations.

“It’s a manmade problem,” Hausler says. “It’s not the earthquake that kills people, it’s the collapse of the poorly built buildings that do.”

Since 2004, the Denver-based organization has built more than 48,000 disaster-resistant buildings for approximately 245,000 people — yet its mission goes beyond building sustainable homes.

Post-disaster recon work in Ecuador. Courtesy of Build Change

With a philosophy of empowerment, Build Change has trained more than 25,000 local engineers and builders, creating 12,000 jobs around the world.

“We’re normally working in developing countries and nations where poverty is an issue and a barrier to building safely,” Hausler says. “If people had access to higher incomes, they would be more likely to improve their homes and build stronger construction in the first place.”

Cultural awareness is another cornerstone of the organization’s philosophy. After Hausler traveled to India in 2002 and spoke with homeowners about their experience during the reconstruction process, she found that it is problematic for international aid to come in and build houses that deviate from the structure familiar to the people of a given culture. For example, many of the homes built after the 2001 earthquake in Mundra, Gujarat had the toilet built inside when the norm is to have it outside.

“The last thing we want to do after an earthquake is put someone in a more traumatic condition where they’re given a house and they don’t believe it’s strong enough to protect their family,” Hausler says. “We have learned and the industry has learned how necessary it is to engage the homeowner in the decision-making process.”

While Build Change strives to make strong homes across the globe, it has prioritized six countries that have experienced particularly adverse natural disasters: Indonesia, the Philippines, Haiti, Nepal, Colombia and Guatemala. The later two were chosen for being earthquake-prone and as expansion points into the rest of Latin America.

“We want to have networks and connections there so we have the opportunity to step into situations when needed,” Hausler says.

While a majority of the funding for the organization has been through other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Hausler says it’s difficult to raise funds for prevention programs since people are usually more open to donating money after a disaster hits a certain area.

Which is why it was a joyful moment for Hausler and the Build Change team when they were named recipients of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship earlier this year.

Retrofitting a house in Nepal. Courtesy of Build Change

Each year, the Skoll Award recognizes transformative leaders whose organizations aim at creating large-scale change in the world. During the 14th annual world forum in Oxford, England at the beginning of April, Build Change was awarded $1.25 million along with three other innovating organizations.

Hausler plans to allocate a majority of the money to prevention planning.

“We’re looking at it as a bridge to help us scale these prevention programs to the next level,” Hausler says. “We’d like to get to the point where larger donors, development banks and governments are investing in prevention at a large scale.”

Through allocating the majority of this funding to Build Change’s prevention program, Hausler hopes people will understand the value and cost effectiveness of retrofitting homes, such as strengthening a deteriorating wall to prevent its collapse, for example.

Hausler hopes to retrofit 5,000 homes per year in addition to building better-engineered buildings in disaster prone areas. She notes that for every $1 spent in prevention, $7 is saved in disaster response.

“I feel like housing is a basic human right,” Hausler says. “Everyone should have access to a house, and not only a house but a safe and strong one that would protect them in an earthquake.”

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