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Rammed-Earth Houses: China Shows how to Improve and Respect Traditional Homes

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions (Havana, Cuba), November 2008

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

The pace of change across the South has been blistering. Over the past decade, the overall population has moved from being primarily rural to majority urban. In the process, rural communities have suffered, as they have seen their young and ambitious leave in droves seeking a better life in cities.

More than 200 million Chinese farmers have moved to cities in recent years. It’s easy to see why. Chinese farms are tiny, with the average rural household farming just 0.6 hectares. And incomes are low compared to the cost of living: average annual income was just US$606 in 2007, a third of city salaries.

But it is possible to improve the quality of life in rural areas and in turn boost economic fortunes.

In China, projects that upgrade homes to modern standards while respecting traditional designs and architecture are breathing new life into rural communities. A return to the age-old technique of using earth as the principal building material is saving energy and keeping house costs low.

The tradition of packing earth to build a wall dates back to some of the earliest stretches of the Great Wall of China in 220 BC.

Currently it is estimated that half the world’s population-approximately 3 billion people on six continents – lives or works in buildings constructed of earth.

This traditional building technique is being used in the reconstruction effort to build new homes after the May 12, 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. The earthquake left millions of people homeless in the country’s worst natural disaster in 30 years, and has made low-cost but efficient house building critical.

In western China, villages have been entirely rebuilt from scratch. The application of research and science to the traditional designs – roofs in the pagoda style, with buildings arranged around courtyards – enabled the development of homes that are energy efficient to run, and are more hygienic and earthquake safe. In Yongren County of Yunnan Province, over 7,000 mountain dwellers were moved to better farming land and over 2,000 homes were built in the new village of BaLaWu. Over 30 of the homes were built using rammed earth by the Xi-an team. 

“The original homes had very low living quality,” said team member Hu Rong Rong of the Green Building Research Centre of Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology (http://www.xauat.edu.cn/jdeg/about.html), which oversees building of the new homes. “The architecture layout of the indoor space and courtyard was not reasonable. In the courtyard the areas for living, raising livestock, storing and processing crops were mixed up. The indoor environment was not comfortable. It was cold in the houses during winter and hot during summer. Most of the rooms lacked natural lighting and were dark in the daytime.

“In the poor areas, many people still live in earth houses because of the low cost. However, most of the earth houses have low living quality.

“After we finished the project, through our design, the living quality was improved very much. The dwellers were satisfied with their new houses.”

Land reform in China has brought more hope to the country’s 750 million rural poor, many of whom live on less than US$1 a day. It is hoped that giving the rural poor more control over their lives will bring an improvement in agricultural production, food security and economic prosperity. Reforms also mean the poor have more secure land rights.

Hu said gaining the trust and buy-in of the villagers was critical to the success of the project.

“We built the first home as a demonstration. After we finished, the villagers could experience the advantages of the new home. Most of them decided to use our design and they could choose the one they liked from several proposals.”

Poverty is a big problem in the villages. Incomes are very low, at 2000 RMB per year (US $290). Hu said “families were given a house-building allowance of 8000 RMB (US $1,160) to meet the cost of building materials – and the land was free for them to use.”

“The villagers built the houses by self-help. We helped them to design and build the houses for free,” Hu said.

The houses are pioneering in using natural sources to provide light, heat, waste disposal and gas for cooking and heating.

“We used natural material like earth as a main building material to get good thermal mass and also to reduce CO2 emission,” Hu said.

“We designed a simple family sewage-purge-pool and marsh-gas-well system to reduce pollution and get energy from wastes.”

Using rammed earth has a long history in China. Across Western China, there are many buildings constructed with rammed earth. And using earth has many advantages when resources are scarce or expensive: “Earth buildings avoid deforestation and pollution, and can achieve low energy costs throughout their lifetime,” said Hu.

“With living standards increasing, more and more people would like to use burned bricks and concrete to build new houses, which will consume more energy and bring pollution,” said Hu.

But like any technology, the application of modern science and environmental knowledge to the traditional designs, can reap huge improvements in the quality of the homes and comfort levels. And win people back to the benefits of rammed earth dwellings.

“Building with earth materials can be a way of helping with sustainable management of the earth’s resources,” said Hu.

And Hu is adamant the new, environmentally designed homes respect the wisdom of traditional design.

“The new earth house design should consider the local culture. It should be proved that both the house style and the construction technique can be accepted by the users.”

Resources

  • The Rural Development Institute focuses on land rights for the poor and has a series of articles on China’s land reforms. Website: www.rdiland.org
  • Rural DeveIopment Institute has recently been given an award from the World Bank’s Development Marketplace competition to create Legal Aid and Education Centres in China’s countryside. Website:www.rdiland.org/PDF/092808_WorldBankComp.pdf
  • A blog gives more details on the Chinese rammed earth project. 
    Website:www.51xuewen.com
  • Earth Architecture, a book and blog on the practice of building with earth, including contemporary designs and projects. 
    Website: www.eartharchitecture.org
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Cuba’s Hurricane Recovery Solution

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions (Havana, Cuba), November 2008

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

The frequency of extreme weather in the past decade has been attributed to global warming (http://tinyurl.com/5peel). Many scientists believe the future will bring even more turbulent weather events and disasters. The devastation and hardship brought by natural disasters can eradicate development gains, and destroy livelihoods and health. It is critical countries help people to get back to their normal lives as fast as possible.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (http://www.ipcc.ch) says extreme weather events will become more frequent, more widespread and/or more intense during the 21st century. Extreme weather is already costly for countries in the global South. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) found that the cost of droughts, storm surges, hurricanes and floods reached a record US$210 billion in 2005.

The Caribbean island of Cuba (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuba) was particularly affected in 2008 by extreme weather, as the island was battered by two devastating hurricanes – Ike and Gustav – and a lesser one, Paloma.  It was the only time that three major hurricanes have hit Cuba in the same season, with just a 10 day gap between Gustav and Ike. The hurricanes were described as the “worst ever” storms by Cuban officials

The cost to Cuba has been high: Damages from Ike and Gustav are estimated at more than US$5 billion (http://tinyurl.com/ba7xny).

Between 2001 and 2005, Cuba experienced seven major hurricanes. Half a million houses were damaged, and 90,000 destroyed. In the 2008 storms, 619,981 homes were damaged and 70,409 destroyed, with 468,995 homes losing their roof tiles.

But Cuba has developed a pioneering way to quickly rebuild after disasters on a tight budget and using local resources. By using so-called ecomaterials – construction materials that are ecologically and economically viable – the Cuban approach erects sturdy homes, rather than just temporary shelters.

It is a common experience after a disaster in a developing country for all the resources to be spent on imported emergency shelter – tents, shacks, plastic sheeting – that then become permanent and inadequate homes. These makeshift dwellings provide poor security and shelter from the elements. For Cuba, the enormous scale of the repair and reconstruction job is especially difficult because of the fuel shortages and building supply restrictions brought on by the United States’ embargo on the country (http://tinyurl.com/4alwrb). In turn, Cubans are adaptable and creative with their solutions.

The Cuban approach builds permanent homes that can be expanded, teaches homebuilding skills and creates permanent employment in manufacturing building materials.

By developing technologies to manufacture building materials – bricks, concrete blocks, cement, roofing tiles, bamboo furniture – on site using local resources, the approach lets homeless people themselves rebuild sturdy, high-quality homes, rather than waiting for outside building crews to come and do it, or being dependent on expensive, imported building materials. By doing this, jobs are created and wealth and gets the community back on its feet after the disaster.

“This is all about going back to the roots: wood, concrete and bricks,” said the passionate brains behind this approach, Fernando Martirena, a professor at CIDEM  — the Centre for Research and Development of Structures and Materials — at the Universidad Central de Las Villas, in Santa Clara , Cuba (www.ecosur.org).

“The so-called free market has demonstrated it can not tackle this problem of the urgent housing crisis in the world.”

At the heart of the Cuban approach are easy-to-use machines that produce the building materials. They range from hand-cranked presses that make mud and clay bricks, to vibrating presses for concrete brick making.

Training the homeless population to do the building themselves allows reconstruction work to begin straight away, rather than waiting for professional building crews to arrive on the scene. It is also psychologically more empowering for the people to be active participants in the rebuilding of their lives. The pride the people have in their new homes is visible.

And quality has been critical for the programme so it can become sustainable and long-lasting:

“The driving force for this project is need,” Martirena said. “If we want to obtain sustainability, we must go beyond need. After disaster, need is the driving force. But after two years, when most things have been completed, it must be a business. Good, beautiful, cheap. Normally, this technology is cheaper than industrial technology.”

To stay prepared for future natural disasters that destroy or damage homes, the Cubans have established strategic reserves of micro-concrete roofing tiles. The lightweight but strong tiles can be used to quickly erect a small module home, and then the home can be expanded and built on as resources and time allow.

Martirena, a former UNHABITAT award-winner, believes this approach to building materials brings prosperity back to rural areas and helps stem the flood of people to cities and urban sprawl seen across the global South.

“You have to go back to the origin of the problem: people are looking for money and better jobs. It is not because they like the cities; they hate the cities!”

“Bamboo harvesting (for furniture making) can bring people three times more income than they would make in the cities. They are really making money.”

For Cuba, this has been a journey from a highly centralised and fuel-dependent approach to house building, to a decentralised, low-fuel approach. From 1959, the year of the revolution, until 1988, Cuba built housing using a centralised factory method to make building materials. Prefabricated houses were erected across the country. The materials were delivered by road and rail, all fuelled by cheap oil from the former Soviet Union.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, oil became scarce and the transport network the building industry depended on fell apart. This time was called the “special period.”

Apart from natural disasters, Cuba’s housing stock has suffered under the US embargo. The country’s housing began to decay as repairs were not happening and new houses were not being built. When people did want to do the repairs themselves, the lack of building supplies made it difficult for them to do so. Cuba realized it had to do things differently: the solutions had to be local, energy-efficient, and easy to use.

CIDEM oversees workshops, training and building teams across the country. It tests new materials and designs in its labs before they are deployed as building solutions. The ecomaterials are chosen for low energy use and the ability to recycle waste. Being inexpensive, they offer a sustainable solution for the poor.

In the community of Jatibonico, single mothers make up 40 percent of those who have benefited from the building projects. One woman proudly showed off the home she had built in the Spanish style, complete with Greco-roman columns on the porch. It has a clean, modern bathroom with shower and toilet.

Martirena is currently working on a book of case studies about CIDEM’s projects helping Cubans cope with reduced oil dependency.

CIDEM collaborates with universities around the world and has 19 workshops employing over 200 people in Cuba, and 15 in other countries in Latin America and Africa. It works with the Ecosur initiative and all the machines and advice on how to use them is available from the Ecosur website (www.ecosur.org).

Resources

  • “How Cuba Survived Peak Oil” is an award-winning film on how Cuba transitioned from a highly mechanized, industrial agricultural system to one using organic methods of farming and local, urban gardens. It is an unusual look into the Cuban culture during this economic crisis, which they call “The Special Period.” Website:http://www.powerofcommunity.org/cm/index.php
  • Global Greenhouse Warming is a website that tracks extreme weather events around the world: drought, flooding, severe storms, severe winter, tropical cyclone, wildfires, and extreme heat waves.Website:http://www.global-greenhouse-warming.com/extreme-weather.html
  • Cuba Hurricanes: Real-time reports of current hurricane threats to Cuba provided by an office in Old Havana. Also information on hurricanes of historical significance to Cuba. Website: http://www.cubahurricanes.org/
  • Gerd Niemoeller has developed flat pack, cardboard homes that can be deployed quickly after a disaster and can become permanent homes. Website: http://tinyurl.com/6t6jtf and the company website: http://www.wall.de/en/home
  • CIDEM and Ecosur specialise in building low-cost community housing using eco-materials. They have projects around the world and are based in Cuba. Website: http://www.ecosur.org

Sponsored by BSHF. BSHF is now called World Habitat and it aims to seek out and share the best solutions to housing problems from around the world.

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Geothermal Energy to Boost Global South’s Development

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The geothermal heat produced by the earth’s molten core is a resource receiving more and more attention across the global South. Properly harnessed, geothermal energy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geothermal_energy) offers a low-cost, non-polluting source of power and hot water that does not harm the environment or contribute to climate change (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_change).

The country that has made the most of this resource is the Scandinavian island nation of Iceland (http://www.visiticeland.com/), one of the world’s most volcanically active places.

The country was once one of the poorest in Europe, dependent on fishing as its main income source. But by 2007-2008, Iceland was ranked as having the highest level of human development in the world.

One of the contributors to this impressive improvement in human development is the tapping of the country’s geothermal energy reserves (http://www.geothermal.is/).

According to the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA), “Iceland is widely considered the success story of the geothermal community. The country of just over 300,000 people is now fully powered by renewable forms of energy, with 17 per cent of electricity and 87 per cent of heating needs provided by geothermal energy.”

Worldwide, geothermal energy supplies power to 24 countries, producing enough electricity to meet the needs of 60 million people (GEA).

The Philippines generates 23 per cent of its electricity from geothermal energy, and is the world’s second biggest producer behind the U.S.  Geothermal energy is also helping provide power in Indonesia, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Mexico.

Energy is critical to advances in human development. Electricity enables the introduction of lighting in homes, the use of washing machines and other modern appliances and of communications tools such as computers and televisions.

Geothermally heated water can be used to heat homes, provide hot water for bathing, heat swimming pools and bathing places and power electricity turbines. Industry can benefit from the low-cost energy, giving a boost to economic development.

And, crucially, it does not harm the natural environment like conventional energy sources such as coal, gas or nuclear power with its legacy of radioactive waste.

While not all countries are as well positioned as volcanically active Iceland or the Philippines, many can find a way to tap this natural resource.

Interest in this power source is increasing in Central and South America, whose energy consumption is forecast to increase by 72 per cent by 2035 (International Energy Outlook 2011).

South America currently relies heavily on hydro-electric power, but this is proving insufficient to meet the growing demand (http://www.esmap.org/esmap/node/1136). A World Bank study says “Latin American and Caribbean countries could boost region-wide electricity supply by 30 percent by 2030 by diversifying the energy mix to include hydropower, natural gas, and renewable energy” (ESMAP).

The report estimates the region has the potential to generate 300 terawatts of geothermal energy per year, roughly equivalent to the output of fifty 1,000-megawatt power plants or the emission of 210 million metric tons of carbon greenhouse gases (ARPA).

The areas best placed to tap this resource are located along the Pacific Rim from Mexico to Chile, and in parts of the Caribbean.

The 2012 Geothermal International Market Overview Report by the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) (http://www.geo-energy.org/reports.aspx) found Argentina, Chile and Peru are moving ahead with plans.

In Argentina, Earth Heat Resources (http://www.earthheat.com.au/) is developing geothermal energy in the volcanic Copahue region in partnership with Xtrata Pachon SA (http://www.xstratacopper.com/EN/Operations/Pages/ElPachon.aspx).

Because of government support and legislation, there are now 83 geothermal exploration concessions under review in Chile, according to Renewable Energy World.com.

The Renewable Energy Center (http://www.ecpamericas.org/initiatives/?id=23) has been established in Chile and is the fruit of a partnership between the US Department of Energy (DOE) and the Chilean National Energy Commission. It is being used to gather data on global best practices and techniques to be adapted for use in Chile, and hopes to become a knowledge source for the region. A law is also in place to oblige power utilities with a capacity above 200 megawatts (MW) to have 10 per cent of their energy come from renewable sources.

Central America has already enthusiastically embraced geothermal resources, according to the report by the GEA.

Currently, El Salvador and Costa Rica derive 24 per cent (204 MW) and 12 per cent (163 MW) of their electricity production from geothermal energy. Nicaragua and Guatemala are also generating a portion of their electricity from geothermal energy.

And Central America has still more geothermal potential it can tap. Estimates place this between 3,000 megawatts and 13,000 megawatts at 50 identified geothermal sites.

Resources

1) Geothermal Basic from the Geothermal Energy Association. Website: http://www.geo-energy.org/currentUse.aspx

2) Geothermal information for children. Website: http://www.eia.gov/kids/energy.cfm?page=geothermal_home-basics

3) Geoexchange: A website connecting contractors, manufacturers , drilling contractors, ground loop installers, engineers, designers, distributors, architects, builders, utilities, training, financing, software and suppliers. Website: http://www.geoexchange.org/

4) Iceland Geothermal: Icelandic geothermal cluster mapping, geothermal energy consumption. Website: http://www.icelandgeothermal.is/index.php/e-samstarfsverkefni/data-collection.html

5) Iceland Geothermal Conference 2013: An international conference on geothermal will be held 5-8 March 2013 at Harpa Conference Centre in Reykjavik, Iceland and is hosted by the Iceland Geothermal initiative. Website:http://geothermalconference.is/

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Kenya Turns to Geothermal Energy for Electricity and Growth

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

In an effort to diversify its power supply and meet growing electricity demand, Kenya is looking to increase its use of geothermal energy sources (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geothermal_electricity). Tapping the abundant heat and steam that lurks underground to drive electric power plants offers a sustainable and long-term source of low-cost energy.

Kenya currently gets most of its electricity from hydroelectric projects. This is great until there is a drought, which there now is. With water resources low, the country has had to turn to fossil fuels to power electricity generators. This means relying on imported diesel, which is both expensive and polluting. It is also not generating enough electricity to keep up with demand.

Electricity blackouts have become common in the country and this is harming economic development. This is a particularly damaging setback in a country that has, in the last five years, gained a deserved reputation for its technological advances in mobile phone applications and Internet services – all needing reliable supplies of electricity.

Kenya is Africa’s largest geothermal producer and has geothermal resources concentrated near a giant volcanic crater in the Great Rift Valley with 14 fields reaching from Lake Magadi to Lake Turkana. There are also low temperature fields in Homa Hills and Massa Mukwe (http://www.gdc.co.ke/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=191&Itemid=163).

Kenya is expecting its gross domestic product (GDP) to grow by 10 per cent from 2012 onwards. The country hopes to become a middle income country by 2030.

Around 1,400 steam wells will be drilled by companies to meet these goals.

There are also many spin-off opportunities from tapping geothermal heat sources. These include using the steam heat for greenhouses growing plants, for cooling and heating buildings, and for drying and pasteurising foods.

Kenya is currently building a 52-megawatt (MW) geothermal project with funding from the United States government. It is also receiving US$149 million funding from the African Development Bank Group (AfDB) to build the Menengai Geothermal Development Project. This plant will be able to generate 400 megawatts of renewable electricity from the Menengai geothermal sources in the steam field located 180 kilometres northwest of the capital, Nairobi (http://www.gdc.co.ke/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=49&Itemid=137).

Speaking at a press conference this month, Gabriel Negatu, AfDB’s Regional Director, said he sees geothermal technology as an important driver of Kenya’s green growth ambition.

“Geothermal generation yields energy that is clean, affordable, reliable and scalable,” he said.

The Geothermal Development Company (GDC) (gdc.co.ke) is a state-owned company in Kenya and recently declared it had tapped steam with a well in the Menengai steam field. GDC started surface exploration in 2009 and has been using two drilling rigs to look for geothermal steam.

The Menengai Geothermal Development Project is slated to be completed by 2016 and will boost the country’s geothermal capability by 20 per cent. It is estimated to be able to power the electricity needs of 500,000 Kenyan households and power the needs of 300,000 small businesses.

Geothermal as a source of energy and electricity can help a country make big development gains. The best example is the Northern European island nation of Iceland. According to Orkustofnun (nea.is/geothermal), Iceland’s National Energy Authority, the country is a successful example of how a small, poor nation (Iceland was one of Europe’s poorest countries in the 20th century), shook off its dependence on burning peat and importing coal for its energy use. By 2007, Iceland was listed in the global Human Development Report as the country with the highest level of human development in the world. And one aspect of this success was the country’s ability to tap its renewable energy resources. Around 84 per cent of the country’s primary energy use comes from renewable resources, and 66 per cent of this is geothermal.

It is estimated Kenya could generate 7,000 megawatts of geothermal power and the Kenyan government is looking to increase the nation’s geothermal capacity from the current 198 MW to 1,700 MW by 2020 and 5,530 MW by 2031.

Resources

1) Home geothermal: A feature from Popular Mechanics on how geothermal can work in the home. Website: http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/hydropowergeothermal/4331401

2) Geothermal Energy Systems: A South African company specialising in setting up geothermal systems for customers. Website: http://www.africanecosystems.co.za/about%20us.html

3) Geothermal Education Office: The basic on tapping this energy source and how it works. Website: http://geothermal.marin.org/pwrheat.html

4) Menengai Geothermal Development Project: A detailed explanation of the project. Website: http://www.climateinvestmentfunds.org/cif/sites/climateinvestmentfunds.org/files/SREP%205%20Kenya%20Project.pdf

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This work is licensed under a
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Southern Innovator was designed and laid out in Iceland using 100% renewable energy, much of which comes from geothermal sources. 

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021