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September 2009 Volume 34, Number 9

MEMBERSHIP & COMMUNITY

Ten years ago, if someone had told Elizabeth Hausler, Ph.D., A.M.ASCE, that she would one day be helping people in rural China build earthquake-resistant houses, she probably would not have believed them. The child of the owner of a masonry construction firm in Plano, Illinois, a rural area just outside Chicago, the 40-year-old now teaches the fundamentals of design and construction to villagers in the Chinese province of Sichuan whose homes collapsed during the 2008 earthquake.

Hausler is the founder and chief executive officer of Build Change, a nonprofit organization that offers training to homeowners, builders, engineers, and government officials in developing countries on ways of designing, funding, and constructing earthquake-resistant houses. “It is sad and unacceptable that so many people are killed because of buildings collapsing during earthquakes, especially those with the least resources to recover after a disaster,” she stated in an e-mail to ASCE News.

Hausler explained that in 2001, approximately halfway through her doctoral program in civil engineering, she began contemplating her future. Then, she explained, three things happened that year: first, an earthquake in Gujarat, India, in January took the lives of more than 20,000 people; second, she met a mechanical engineer, Martin Fisher, Ph.D., who had founded a nonprofit organization that provides equipment to entrepreneurs in Africa; and third, the tragic events of September 11 shocked the nation. Although she did not personally know anyone who was affected by the tragedy, she said that she “felt compelled to use my engineering skills to do good.”

After her graduation, Hausler traveled to Gujarat as part of the Fulbright Scholar Program and gained an insight into how earthquake-resistant houses could be constructed in developing countries. She learned that “it is easier and more sustainable to make minor, low-, or no-cost changes to existing ways of building rather than to introduce a completely new technology that may not be appropriate for the culture and climate or may require materials, skills, or tools that are not available locally,” she  stated.

Since then Hausler has helped design residential structures in India, Indonesia, and China. She stated that the most dangerous houses include those in which unreinforced masonry walls are poorly connected to precast-concrete roof slabs. “Once the masonry wall cracks, there is very little ability to absorb more energy [and] very little reserve capacity to prevent collapse,” she stated.

In contrast, Hausler explained, reinforced, or confined, masonry is a significantly safer construction material and is popular in many developing areas. “It consists of a load-bearing masonry shear wall system confined by reinforced-concrete tie columns and bond beams,” she stated. The masonry wall, she explained, is constructed before the concrete in the tie columns is cast. Toothing the masonry and adding steel between the column and the wall make it possible for the supporting elements to move together and reduce the likelihood of collapse, she stated.

Developing a safe design is not the end of the process for Hausler and her organization, however. She and her staff have developed training programs that give homeowners a better understanding of materials, construction methods, and contracts. She has also had success in encouraging local governments to subsidize the construction and to give contractors incentives to follow the prescribed building standards. (Build Change provides consulting services only and does not fund projects itself.)

In many cases, however, a government subsidy is not sufficient to fund an adequate dwelling, according to Hausler. In China, for example, some homeowners must take out low-interest loans, while others are resorting to their personal accounts or are applying for grants from international agencies.

Indeed, funding is a challenge not only for homeowners but also for Build Change itself. Although it is a nonprofit organization, Hausler explains, it operates like a for-profit engineering design firm that also functions as a construction supervisor, training institute, and applied research firm. “Our clients, typically poor homeowners in rural areas of emerging nations, cannot afford to pay us for our services. So we have to cover our costs through philanthropic contributions,” she stated.

The other challenge, according to Hausler, is combining the economic, technical, and sociopolitical elements in a way that gives homeowners an opportunity to construct earthquake-resistant houses. From the sociopolitical standpoint, “either the homeowner has to want to build an earthquake-resistant house or a local government must enforce a building standard,” she explained, which is why education is perceived as an essential part of the process.

To overcome language and literacy barriers, Hausler and her staff work with local engineers and make liberal use of illustrations in depicting construction methods and materials. She also stated that neither age nor gender has affected the work she has done. “We work together as equals,” she said. “As soon as we demonstrate [our construction ability], the cultural, gender, and age barriers break down,” she stated.

As of press time, the number of houses in China completed or under construction was approximately 947. However, said Hausler, “we are just about to kick off a 2,000-house supervision and training program, so these numbers are likely to change rapidly.” Build Change is headquartered in San Francisco and operates in Sumatra, Indonesia, and in Sichuan, China. To learn more about the organization or to make a donation, visit www.buildchange.org.

 —BRETT HA