One of the buildings still standing after the West Sumatra earthquake in September was the office of Build Change, an international nonprofit social enterprise that designs earthquake-resistant houses. The office on Jalan Beringin in north Padang is in a rented building and not one conceived by Build Change, and so it survived through luck rather than design.
The organization’s literature states its underlying belief that badly designed buildings, not earthquakes, kill people, and it works hard to minimize loss of life and buildings in such disasters through better design practices.
Elizabeth Hausler, chief executive of the organization, founded Build Change in 2004. She had previously studied earthquake engineering at the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned her PhD, and spent eight months researching earthquake-resistant construction in Gujarat, India, after it was devastated by an earthquake in 2001.
“I started to think that it’s a man-made problem, so there must be some man-made solutions,” she said.
When Hausler started the Build Change, she did not expect staff would be physically building houses but only providing technical advice, because construction is both expensive and time-consuming. But in 2005, when Build Change started its first project for tsunami victims in Aceh, Hausler said they built 33 houses in partnership with local builders, and helped to improve the design and construction of more than 4,200 homes built with partner organizations. (The organization also has offices in China and the United States.)
“[In Aceh] we also trained professional construction workers and high school students, those who went to SMK or STM [high school-level technical schools]
The organization also helped homeowners hire and train construction workers.
After finishing its Aceh project in 2007, Build Change moved to West Sumatra the following year to provide training and technical assistance following earthquakes there in March and September of 2007.
Following last month’s quake, some homeowners visited the group’s office to ask if their houses were still safe to live in.
“When we had made sure that our team was OK, and helped people understand the damage [to their houses], the next thing we did was go out to see the houses that we had helped build,” Hausler said.
The group had helped reconstruct houses in Pesisir Selatan and Solok, particularly the neighborhoods of Agam and Tanah Datar.
“We’ve been going around in Agam and Tanah Datar and all of the homeowners that met our [building] standards, their houses are fine, there’s no damage, so we’re really happy about that,” she said.
Hausler said residents who saw their houses damaged or destroyed in 2007 and again in this latest earthquake are now more open to following the lead of Build Change. “I think there’s even more momentum for us to be able to convince more people to build an earthquake-resistant house,” she said.
The local government has also utilized training and information from Build Change. “One public works department asked us to train their staff, so we did a training course for 161 employees,” she said.
Hausler said Build Change learned a lot from its work in Aceh and planned to give similar advice and help in Padang. Its first step will be to visit Pariaman, the area most-affected by the quake, to see what more can be learned from the damage suffered.
Build Change employs 14 Indonesian staff in its Padang branch office, and most are professional construction workers. They help homeowners design houses to their individual needs, including budget, the types of the materials they prefer and the size of the plot.
“What I realized was that it really helps to empower homeowners to drive the process themselves,” Hausler said. “The more they’re involved, the keener they are to listen to rebuilding advice.”
Hausler — who was in Jakarta this week to attend a fund-raising event for Padang, organized in conjunction with Globe Media, the parent company of the Jakarta Globe — said Build Change had provided technical assistance to 655 low-income homeowners in Padang since 2008. The organization is partly funded by grants from several institutions, including US-based Echoing Green, the Draper Richards Foundation and the Mulago Foundation.
“Now, with this new earthquake and large-scale reconstruction program, we hope our work can help at least 10,000 homeowners to build safer houses,” Hausler said.