What does successful use of technology in the post-disaster environment look like and what are the potential risks and pitfalls?
Design and construction is constantly evolving, whether through discovery and development of new materials, new applications of traditional materials, or the use of innovative technologies in the construction sector. In the relatively safe environment of the developed world, these new construction technologies can be safely applied through our rigorous construction and health and safety practices.
But, the same cannot be said for the post-disaster environment, where new technologies are often trialled on vulnerable communities, untested, ill-thought through and poorly controlled.
Disasters and conflicts create devastation and destruction, but they also present an opportunity to improve the quality and safety of local infrastructure. The post-disaster period is when communities and governments are more open to change, but they are also vulnerable to mis-selling of new construction technologies.
This time is seen as an opportunity by western designers to develop new technologies (designs, software, equipment or materials), often with mixed success.
Progress, however, is inevitable even in the most remote areas and extreme environments, and the use of modern materials will at some point be unavoidable. So, what does successful use of technology in the post-disaster environment look like and what are the potential risks and pitfalls we should be aware of?
In the confusion and pressure of the post-disaster environment, traditional building methods can be hastily overlooked in favour of new technology and innovative solutions
The perceived success of new technologies should be determined by whether they are positively contributing to a sustainable reconstruction process. In the planning phase of a post-disaster or conflict reconstruction, there are fundamentally two strategic options; strengthen traditional and local building methods or introduce and expand the use of innovative technology and modern building techniques.
In the confusion and pressure of the post-disaster environment, traditional building methods can be hastily overlooked in favour of new technology and innovative solutions.
The unique elements of the post-disaster environment may not be considered, which would otherwise tip the balance in favour of traditional methods. For example, following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, the use of ‘flat-pack’ prefabricated modular construction was used as a short-term solution to reinstate much-needed housing before the impending monsoon season.
In the short-term relief phase, this was successful. It provided shelter for families during the monsoon and subsequent harsh winters, it was not alien in appearance or function to the local communities and, most importantly, was able to survive the multitude of aftershocks that followed without detrimental damage.
Having a successful short-term housing solution removed some of the pressure on the the Nepal government and international NGOs to develop robust long-term recovery plans.
Because of its success as a short-term solution, the technology was then recommended (with modifications) as a longer-term solution due to its rapid assembly and cost effectiveness when procured in bulk.
It was commonly used by NGOs who had the infrastructure and resources to fly the assemblies in to remote Himalayan locations. However, this ‘one size fits all’ rollout neglected the skillsets of the local communities and the benefits of traditional construction on the micro economy of the villages.
This approach will therefore continue the cycle of the communities being reliant on NGOs to fund and deliver reconstruction in the event of another earthquake
It also created the logistical challenge of repairing or replacing assemblies whose materials could not be sourced locally. This approach will therefore continue the cycle of the communities being reliant on NGOs to fund and deliver reconstruction in the event of another earthquake.
As well as whole packaged solutions, there are examples of products sold as innovative solutions to “build back better”. Recycled materials, such as fibreboard and partitions, are sold as “cheap and safe” innovative solutions without any appropriate testing of their suitability to the local environment.
These products are sold or recommended by manufacturers, not always by impartial subject matter experts. In an often confused and sensitive time following a disaster, it can be very easy for communities to be mis-sold or invest in such solutions.
As international consultants, we use modern, innovative solutions and technologies in our day-to-day projects and can easily be excited by the prospect of innovation, especially in such challenging and unique environments. However, strengthening the capacity, skills and knowledge of the local construction industry (from designers to unskilled labour) is critical to the success of post-disaster and recovery.
We must be mindful to not create designs and deliver long-term construction on behalf of a local community without engaging in training and providing guidance and experience. We must be conscious and impartial in our selection of technologies and innovative solutions. Ultimately, the solution must work in the environment, accounting for the geographical, logistical, cultural and social factors.
Cara Buchan is Principal Architect at WYG
Glyn Utting is associate programme manager at WYG