Energy-Efficient Wooden Houses are also Earthquake Safe

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


In Argentina, an innovative housing project has married good design with energy efficiency, earthquake resilience and the use of local materials and labour. As energy resources continue to be stretched around the global South, innovative building designs will be critical to the creation of sustainable housing for the future.

The happy mix of efficient modern design with affordable local materials and labour can be seen in three row houses designed and built by Buenos Aires-based Estudio BaBO ( in the El Once neighbourhood in Villa La Angostura, Patagonia, southern Argentina.

The wooden houses are built in a Norwegian style. Estudio BaBO, founded in 2007, discovered that the Scandinavian nation’s housing traditions were well suited to the particular needs of the region and the local government.

The local government imposed a number of planning guidelines and restrictions that needed to be met to receive planning permission. This included creating row houses which must be made of wood – a plentiful local resource. They also had to be earthquake-safe since the region is seismically active and be able to withstand the heavy rains common to the region.

Looking around for the right guidance to tackle this brief, Estudio BaBO discovered SINTEF – Norway’s leading disseminator of research-based knowledge to the construction industry ( The Nordic nation has many wooden homes and also has similar environmental conditions and challenges to Patagonia – though its precipitation tends to fall as rain, rather than snow.

The black-painted homes look typically Norwegian, with a tasteful and clean design that does not clash with the forested surroundings. An air chamber has been created inside the homes’ walls allowing for constant ventilation of the wood, which prevents the wood from rotting and extends the life of the house. With the high rainfall of the region, wood is at risk of rotting if allowed to become damp. The air cavity also insulates the house, providing significant energy savings while keeping the interior warm and comfortable.

Adding to the energy efficiency of the design, the windows are double glazed and heat is also circulated through the floor – an efficient way to heat a home because heat rises.

To keep costs down and the project simple, the palette used for the homes is simple but attractive: black, white, wood and metal. The local wood is cypress and is painted black. The interior walls are all white and the floors are made from black granite on the ground floor and cypress wood parquet on the upper floor. The rest of the woodwork in the house is also made of cypress.

Using locally sourced materials also helps to keep costs down.

The project was initially conceived in 2009 and the houses were built in 2010-2011. While wood is plentiful in Patagonia, traditionally the use of wood in construction was rudimentary and local labour skill levels were low. This meant the design had to be simple and easy to build.

“Despite the profusion of wood as a material in the south of Argentina, the lack of specialized knowledge and of a specialized industry narrow its uses to isolated structural elements and interior and exterior finishes,” said one of the architects, Marit Haugen Stabell.

The three units of two-storey row houses each come with a living room, dining room, kitchen, toilet, two bedrooms and a laundry room. Each home also has an outdoor patio. The homes are designed to receive maximum natural light. Deploying this energy efficient design is considered unusual for Argentina and Estudio BaBO has set a new standard for sustainable housing in the country.

It looks like the CLF Houses could inspire others to look again at wood as a building material.


1) A story on how researchers are perfecting wooden home designs to withstand heavy earthquakes. Website:

2) A website packed with photographs of wooden and other houses for inspiration and lesson learning. Website:

3) A step by step slideshow on how a Norwegian wooden house was re-built. Website:

4) Inspirational wooden home decorating ideas from across Scandinavia. Website:

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Disaster Recovery, Ten Years After: The Gujarat, India Experience

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


In the past decade, there have been many devastating natural disasters, from Iran’s 2003 Bam earthquake and the Asian tsunami of 2004 to Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005 and the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti in 2010. All of these events received extensive media attention and drew a large aid response. Those who track natural disasters have noticed a serious increase in frequency over the past decade (

But rapid aid and media attention do not necessarily lead to long-term recovery. More than a year after the earthquake in Haiti, pace of recovery remains slow. Numerous media stories highlighted the lack of progress.

For the people caught up in these tragedies, quickly returning to a normal life is paramount for psychological and physical health. But this is often the hardest part. Some countries do this well and others do not.

On January 26, 2001, an earthquake laid waste to a large region of the Indian state of Gujarat ( Ten years later there is a remarkable recovery that has taken place. So how did they do it?

The 7.9-magnitude quake killed an estimated 20,000 people, injured 150,000, made a million homeless, and destroyed around 8,000 villages. It devastated the Kutch district capital, Bhuj, and other major towns.

In the decade since the earthquake, the state has averaged double-digit growth. Despite having only five percent of the country’s population, Gujarat racks up impressive economic achievements: it has a fifth of India’s exports and a sixth of its industrial production. It has a long-standing entrepreneurial culture based on trade. It can draw on a well-connected global diaspora that ensures a steady inflow of new thinking and investment. Members of this diaspora also contributed to the US $130 million in aid that poured into the region after the quake.

One of the factors contributing to the successful recovery is effective government action.

The disaster has been turned into an opportunity to jolt the region out of the “Middle Ages and into the modern world,” NGO worker Navin Prasad told the BBC.

All the media attention, support and cash at the time forced the Indian government to pay attention to a region it had ignored in the past.

The army came in to help with the emergency and the Indian government allocated US $2 billion to the reconstruction that followed.

Aid was used well and in the first two years many of the damaged villages were rebuilt. And not just rebuilt to what they were, but completely modernized. New houses were constructed to high standards, with more rooms and lots of light. They also came with running water and a toilet. New facilities like medical centres and communal areas were put in place.

The district capital of Bhuj was levelled in the earthquake. But new plans for the city were drafted in the following years. Now Bhuj has two new ring roads, a new airport, parks and shops. Streets were widened and new water and sewage works installed.

But along with the new infrastructure and plenty of cash, came something more important for the region’s long-term recovery: economic growth. The Indian government created tax-free zones drawing in private investment. An astonishing US $10 billion in private investment has come in with US $7 billion more to come, according to the BBC.

One miraculous turnaround is in the former tiny fishing port of Mundra. Prior to the earthquake, it sat in the middle of a salt marsh. It is now India’s largest private port and rivals Mumbai with its Mundra Port and Special Economic Zone (, incorporated in 2003. The Adani Group, a very large Indian private company with global interests (, owns the port now worth US $7 billion, hiring many people once dependent on aid agencies for income.

The head of the Adani Foundation the charitable wing of the Adani Group, Sushma Oza, told the BBC how the company is spending its profits on further developing the area: “Our own budget for social development in this region is $6m a year, so you can imagine how we are trying to change the lives of people to live in a better way,” she said.

In the western portion of the state, in the administrative district of Kutch which is home to Bhuj, around 300 businesses have been established, including the Welspun towel factory ( The biggest towel factory in the world, it was built in just nine months and makes 250,000 towels a day. An ambitious firm, it bought the British company Christy (, maker of the official Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship towels.

So why towels in Kutch? Welspun chairman Balkrishan Goenka laid down the incentives to the BBC: “There were no local taxes for the first five years and no excise duties. Nor were there indirect taxes to government – they were exempted for five years.”

“Those were the primary benefits,” he said. “More than that there was huge support from the local government so industry can come faster.”

Since the earthquake, 110,000 jobs have been created in Kutch alone. More importantly for the area’s future, it is has gone from neglected backwater to a significant pillar of the Indian economy.

Another driver of recovery was the growth of the dairy industry. The Bhuj dairy plant collapsed in the earthquake and was then rebuilt by the National Dairy Development Board ( The plant can now process 50,000 litres of milk a day and is run by the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (, India’s largest food products marketing organization. It has 2.9 million producer members and represents 15,322 village societies.

Not everyone has turned their lives around, however. Aid workers estimate thousands are still living in temporary shelters. They defecate in the open and few have clean water. Just getting two meals a day is a problem.

There are complaints about the landless and tenants not receiving the same help.

“Many are tribal, others are low-caste communities, some are Muslims – but they all have one thing in common: poverty,” Bharat Parmer, program coordinator for ActionAid International in Kutch, told Alertnet.

“A large number of these people were tenants and did not own land and so it has been much harder for them to claim their rights as rehabilitation was very much focused on home and land owners.”

But local authorities say rehabilitation schemes have been comprehensive, covering all those who were hit by the quake.

“I don’t think that there are people who did not get what they were due – there may be a rare case here and there but we have rehabilitated all that were in need,” said Gunvant Vaghela, the second-most senior civil servant in Kutch district.


1) How to activate support from the global technology community in a disaster. Website:

2) UNICEF: Community-Based Disaster Preparedness Projects (CBDPs) in India have been helping communities restructure to survive when disaster strikes. Website:

3) The US Government has extensive resources online on how to prepare for a wide variety of natural and man-made disasters. Website:

4) The magazine Popular Mechanics has excellent resources on how anyone can prepare their family and community for disasters. Website:

5)  Telecoms Sans Frontiers: Focuses on providing communications in the first days after an emergency. Website:

On the ground reporting from the Associated Press (AP) Archive: India: Earthquake Aftermath Update 

Published: February 2011

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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Innovations In Green Economy: Top Three Agenda

Lima To Delhi: What Can Be Learned On Urban Resilience?

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A New House Kit for Slum Dwellers that is Safe and Easy to Build

Haiti Earthquake Prompts Tech Aid

Rebuilding After Chinese Earthquake: Beautiful Bamboo Homes

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Rebuilding After Chinese Earthquake: Beautiful Bamboo Homes

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


It has been a year since the May 12, 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China that killed more than 70,000 people.

China’s strongest earthquake for more than half a century, with a magnitude of 8.0 (, it devastated large parts of the province of Sichuan. More than 10 million people were made homeless, most of them poor and elderly villagers (cities were not badly damaged).

Getting Sichuan back to normal is critical for not only the province’s people, but for all of China. Sichuan is China’s rice bowl, growing more food than any other province. But despite the abundance of food, Sichuan remains poor and has seen its working age population move away for work. If it is to have a viable future then its communities need to get back to normal as fast as possible – and its farming economy back to full production.

The unprecedented media coverage of the disaster meant people across China saw the scenes of devastation and have since contributed large donations to help with the reconstruction. The Chinese government has pledged to spend US $151 billion on reconstruction projects.

Finding ways to re-house people after large disasters has become an urgent issue over the last five years. From the Asian tsunami to Hurricane Katrina in the United States and multiple hurricane disasters in the Caribbean, restoring communities is critical for the health of the people and the economies they rely on. Experience has shown that temporary shelters have many drawbacks, being usually of poor quality for long-term habitation and a source of health problems.

The temporary shelters erected for the Sichuan homeless are unsuitable for long-term housing: the 12 square metre grey boxes – two sheets of aluminium sandwiching a polystyrene core for insulation – have no heating. The occupants roast inside in the summer and freeze in the winter. They are also located away from the main source of income: the farms.

The dilemma is how to build new, long-term houses that will not cost too much. Inflation has increased the costs of conventional building materials: bricks, cement and steel.

But the use of traditional building materials and home designs offers an alternative. By drawing on the abundant bamboo and wood in Sichuan and by building to traditional designs, cheaper but sturdy and beautiful homes can be built.

An average home now costs around 80,000 yuan (US $11,688). The Chinese government estimates the price is now 820 yuan per square meter for a new home: bamboo homes cost between 300 and 400 yuan per square meter. Government compensation is between 16,000 yuan (US $2,337) and 23,000 yuan (US $3,360) per family. The bamboo houses range in size from 75 to 200 square metres, and in cost from 22,500 yuan to 80,000 yuan for a very large home.

In Daping village, Pengzhou Town, original homes destroyed by the earthquake sit at the edge of a forested hill. Their frames are more or less intact, but the walls and roofs have collapsed. The new houses replacing them are large, two stories high and have solid grey clay tile roofs. The beauty of the designs stands out and sits in stark contrast to the temporary shelters and concrete buildings.

“There are 43 houses and two public buildings being rebuilt in this project,” says team member Hu Rong Rong of the Green Building Research Centre of Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology. “The design and the main building material are based on the ecological and sustainable habitat idea. The place (Sichuan) is rich in bamboo and wood. These natural materials are cheap and friendly to the environment. In some buildings we use light steel which can be also recycled.”

The new homes are built to earthquake resistance standards. Led by Professor LiuJiaping, a team of 15 people from the research centre and two from a design institute developed the home designs and supervised the training of local people. They were joined by 10 people from an NGO called Global Village of Beijing, who managed the project to completion.

“All the designs were discussed with the local people,” continues Hu. “We trained a local construction team, which means the local people would build their own houses by themselves. Both our research center and the local people were involved in developing the home design.

“To get the trust from the local people is a challenge in the project. We resolved it by showing our respect to the local people. Before we started our design we discussed with the local people many times to know what kind of house they like. We built the first house to make them believe us.”

Hu believes it is possible to replicate the homes across Sichuan.

“The design is suitable for other villages in Sichuan which have a similar climate and culture with this village. To rebuild sustainable houses after a disaster we should know well about the local life, environment and culture – try to find the useful technique which was used in their traditional houses and upgrade the traditional house to meet the need of their modern life.”

Others have not been as lucky as these villagers. In the village of Yuan Bao, Chen Jingzhong, 66, has had to build a makeshift shack: “They wanted to get us to build our own houses but they didn’t give us enough money,” Chen told the Telegraph Magazine. “All we could afford was this shack, which we built ourselves, with our own hands and without any help from anyone.”

ResourcesArchitecture for Humanity: By tapping a network of more than 40,000 professionals willing to lend time and expertise to help those who would not otherwise be able to afford their services, they bring design, construction and development services where they are most critically needed.
Website: www.architectureforhumanity.orgChinese Red Cross: The Red Cross Society of China is accepting donations for disaster reconstruction and is coordinating rebuilding efforts in Sichuan
Website: Niemoeller has developed flat pack, cardboard homes that can be deployed quickly after a disaster and can become permanent homes.
Website: and the company
Website: 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. Building and Social Housing Foundation: An independent research organization promoting sustainable development and innovation in housing through collaborative research and knowledge transfer.

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