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The house that Izhan & Roberta built

Me and roberta (2)There probably aren’t many students that spend their holidays building flat-pack houses in deprived Brazilian favelas. Yet that’s just what Izhan Khan (Engineering, 2012) and Roberta Wilkinson (Natural Sciences, 2013) did this summer.

Izhan and Roberta are part of a student society called Ecohouse Initiative, which was founded by Cambridge students in 2010. The society’s ambitious long-term aim is to drive innovation in the urban developing world in order to combat poverty, resource scarcity and climate change.

As part of the society’s year-round programme of activities, around ten students are sent out each summer on two-month placements to Latin America. Here, Ecohouse works with local NGO Techo – an award-winning organisation that aims to fight extreme poverty by developing transitional housing and social inclusion programs.

Izhan and Roberta went to Brazil where their primary task was to help construct emergency housing for some of the poorest families in the favelas. The houses they built were designed by engineering students at the University in response to the needs of the community and are intended to last around five years. Prototypes are built in Cambridge before the kits are prepared ready for ‘construction weekend’. Students like Izhan and Roberta then head to favelas in Brazil and work alongside Techo staff and local volunteers to build the houses in-situ.

Another world

Arriving in the São Rafael favelas, they discovered that sewage regularly floods the houses and flows down the streets where the children play barefoot. The whole community lives in the shadow of huge power pylons and when it rains people often get electric shocks. Many of the residents earn their living by picking through rubbish for items of value and clean water is only available if you can illegally tap into the pipes. It is, in Roberta’s words, ‘another world’.

Before Ecohouse can start any construction, the existing houses – makeshift shacks cobbled together from wood, cardboard, metal and garbage – are removed. Fifteen deep holes are dug for the foundations, often on plots flowing with sewage. Heavy wooden panels are carried through the narrow streets. Hundreds of nails are hammered in to hold the new house together and the whole thing is painted. Everything needs to be completed within two days, so work often continues into the evening, with the finish touches being made under torchlight. It’s a bit like Grand Designs meets DIY SOS, but all taking place in the midst of some of the world’s poorest communities.

Placement and process

The building of the houses is one of the most tangible, and exciting, parts of Ecohouse’s work. However, it comes after months of research, design work and development.

For the Cambridge students, it is important that they have the chance to meet some of the people that they will be designing houses for next year. Roberta explains: ‘The reasons we send people on placements is to get a really strong idea of who we’re designing for and the actual social context. It is very easy to sit in Cambridge and design a house without actually thinking about who will be living in it. To actually go out and see the communities and talk to the people who live and work there helps you to see how you need to be thinking when designing the houses.’

The whole experience wasn’t just ‘voluntourism’. Roberta says: ‘I was really worried about this before I went, but it was fine because we were working on an ongoing project and were providing the community with specific skills. For Ecohouse, sustainability is always an issue – how can the work be continued after the teams leave?’

Changing places

team photo (2)The students did come back with a few funny stories. Thanks to Google Translate, Roberta’s attempts to discuss her ideas about ‘piles’ – the foundational poles that hold the houses above the ground in order to prevent flood damage – turned into a rather awkward conversation about haemorrhoids. The teams managed to break five hammers in one day and several times put house panels in back-to-front or to put doors where there were supposed to be windows.

These small hurdles give way to a more serious realisation: there are huge problems underlying the poverty of the communities in which Ecohouse works. Often the most desperate need is found in illegal settlements, where it is difficult for the government to act without implicitly condoning the community. Corruption, legal disputes, building regulations, social acceptance issues and institutional indifference also act to slow progress. And it is not just housing itself that is needed, but sewage systems, water, electricity, computer facilities and a safe place for children to play.

However, something as seemingly insignificant as building five temporary houses in a community can have a huge impact. When Roberta describes visiting one of the communities before and after the houses were constructed, she says: ‘It was a completely changed place.’ For some of the residents, living in a flood-proof house is the first step towards living in a permanent home. From there, with a fixed address, they can find an official job, earn more money to support their families, and begin to contribute to the local and national economy.

Making an impact

Back in Cambridge, there are new challenges to explore based on the research conducted over the summer. Can the houses be made smaller, cheaper and to last longer? Can new materials, treatments or coatings make them more resilient? Could a differently shaped house make better use of space? Would it be possible to build a temporary house that could withstand the conditions of the Ecuadorian rainforest?

There has been a tradition of Pembroke undergraduates rising to these challenges and taking part in the Ecohouse Initiative; Izhan and Roberta are just two of the latest students to get involved. So what is the most important thing they have taken away from their experience? Roberta says: ‘It has made me realise that there are a lot of people who need help in the world in very specific ways.’

‘Yeah,’ agrees Izhan, ‘You can’t help but see and feel that in a personal way. I just remember very clearly doodling something on a page in my first year and that’s contributed towards a house that actually got built last weekend and someone will be living it from this week onwards. I don’t think many societies can say that they have that kind of impact.’

For more about Ecohouse Initiative see their website, where Roberta also kept a blog. You can also visit their YouTube channel to watch footage of the projects in action:

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