Helping to rebuild homes after the Asia tsunami gave Hareth Pochee an insight into disaster relief. Here he outlines how building services professionals can get involved

Whatever the motivation may be, a career or placement in the field of disaster aid relief or international development can be both immensely challenging and rewarding. The type of work may differ from the familiar design team roles, but the skills of architecture, structural engineering, project management, quantity surveying and, in particular, civil and building services engineering all play an integral part.

Disaster relief and international development can be both distinct and closely related. A country’s level of development may affect its vulnerability or its ability to react and recover from a disaster. Disaster relief and development projects often face similar problems and share common solutions, and emergency relief often evolves into development. In the aftermath of the south Asian tsunami in 2004, for example, the reconstruction of housing and infrastructure provided an opportunity to develop services such as water supply, electrification and healthcare.

In general, disaster relief or humanitarian aid is concerned with saving lives, alleviating suffering and maintaining human dignity in response to disasters, be they natural or manmade, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion 1986. From an engineering context, this may include providing water, sanitation and illumination1.

Disasters can be rapid onset, such as the earthquake in May in Sichuan, China, or slow onset, such as the Ethiopian famines and, more controversially, global climate change. Emergency solutions implemented for disaster relief may not be sustainable in the long term.

In contrast to emergency aid, international development (development aid or development co-operation) aims to maintain or improve the livelihood, quality of life and environment of people of developing countries. This can involve economics, education, gender, technology, healthcare, environmental sustainability and politics.

Specific development aims may include eradication of extreme poverty, providing sustainable access to safe drinking water and the provision of primary school education for all children2. A key aspiration of development solutions is that they should be as economically and environmentally sustainable as possible.

The role of services engineers

In emergency relief, design and construction engineering skills are commonly needed for:

  • water – sourcing, storage, treatment and distribution
  • sanitation – latrines, excreta disposal, foul drainage, storm water drainage
  • mechanical and electrical – pipes, pumps, electricity generation, electrical distribution, telecommunications.

In a development context, these skills are also highly sought after, although the applications and solutions may be different to those of an emergency. Building services engineers who join development programmes may find their role similar to that of their normal working life, that is as part of an architectural design team developing infrastructure, building services and environmental designs.

Engineers may also find themselves in roles that draw upon their general skills of problem-solving and management along with their experience of procurement, design and construction. They may find themselves acting as project managers, architects, quantity surveyors and builders.

How to get involved

There are many ways of getting involved with disaster relief or international development. It is not even necessary to leave home to help: engineers can provide design advice remotely via the internet or working in their normal workplace as part of a remote design team.

Overseas positions range from full-time professional posts to holiday-type voluntary placements, paid for by the individual. In general, disaster relief is more difficult to work in full-time because of the typical Catch 22 situation of needing experience to get a job but needing a job to get experience. The charity RedR (Register of Engineers for Disaster Relief)3 is an invaluable source of contacts and resources. It also provides helpful courses and publications4.

It is important to question and understand the principles, aims, methods, experience and expertise of a project or organisation before deciding to become involved. My personal experiences have ranged from the highly professional, organised and informed to the complete opposite.

References and further reading

  • 1 Sphere Project Handbook, The Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response (
  • 2 United Nations Development Programme : Millennium Development Goals (
  • 3 -
  • 4 Engineering in Emergencies : A Practical Guide for Relief Workers, Jan Davis and Robert Lambert, ITDG Publishing

New homes for tsunami families in Sri Lanka

The 2004 tsunami caused devastation across a huge swath of south Asia. Batticaloa, in Sri Lanka, suffered particularly severe destruction and subsequent displacement of people.

In 2005, while working for the New Zealand organisation Operation Phoenix, I set up a joint house reconstruction project in Batticaloa with the local division of the charity Habitat for Humanity.

As an engineer with Max Fordham, I have a background in building physics and M&E engineering, but my roles in the Sri Lanka project included project manager, construction supervisor, architect, fundraiser, mason, carpenter and labourer.

Habitat for Humanity was experienced in the finance, design and construction of temporary and new homes in Sri Lanka because it had helped families displaced by the country’s civil conflict since 1994. The tsunami redevelopment homes, however, provided a unique set of challenges for the team.

One of these was how to reconcile the budget with different social expectations of what a house should be, inconsistency with other organisations’ designs and government requirements relating to size.

To help resolve the problem, I worked with Habitat for Humanity to develop a robust, affordable and adaptable house design for use in Batticloa. The significant features of the design were:

  • established local construction techniques and materials
  • the layout of rooms and windows was readily adaptable for each specific site
  • size was consistent with the local average before the tsunami
  • easily extendable – site specific extension drawings were developed with the occupiers.

Providing healthcare for remote communities in Nepal

This “telemedicine” centre is designed to provide families in a remote area, where there is only one doctor for 250,000 people, with access to healthcare in person and remotely via the internet. The design, by a team from Max Fordham working with the architect Nick Lawrence, won the Asia section of the 2007 AMD Open Architecture Network competition.

Temperatures in this part of Nepal typically range from 0°C to 28°C, and both heating and cooling are required in parts of the building. The design uses the architectural form as an integral part of the heating, cooling, ventilation and strategies.

A well-insulated, well-sealed, high thermal mass structure is proposed, which will help to minimise heat loss and to control summer temperatures using night cooling.

Being data-intensive, a large proportion of the building energy consumption is associated with keeping the servers running. Some of this energy will be returned into the building as heat, which will help to reduce the energy requirement for heating.

Data flow is integral to the design of the telemedicine hub building. Part of the competition was to propose a communications system design. The proposal is that an internet connection will be provided to the hub building.

Wireless digital data transmission aerials are to be mounted on the chimney at 10m above ground level to provide a local network. A directional data beam will connect the hub to the remote clinic in the valley. Beam transmission is less vulnerable than cables to the local hazards of earthquakes, landslides and floods.

Repeater aerials across the valley will provide local connectivity for community health workers in remote villages. The aerials are to be self-powered with a photovoltaic panel and a battery pack, which will allow the community health workers to use them to recharge their laptops and voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) mobile phones.

This will give the health workers a wide range of access to patients, and allow them to remain in the field for long periods while maintaining close contact with their colleagues at the telemedicine hub and across the world.

The Max Fordham and Nick Lawrence team are working with the project facilitator, Architecture for Humanity, to organise their first visit to the site, in Achham.

Job opportunities and training

Practical Action, formerly Intermediate Technology Development Group (

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (

International Development Architecture for Humanity

Engineers Without Borders (

Habitat for Humanity (

Article 25, formerly Architects for Aid (

Voluntary Service Overseas (