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‘Owner-driven’ reconstruction is key to rebuilding communities affected by disasters in Global South

"We have found over and over again that local residents should not only be involved but should take ‘ownership’ of the process of planning and constructing their homes"

Homelessness caused by tsunamis, flooding and civil war offers opportunities to build safer housing and improve long-term development if local communities take ownership of the process – according to a Cambridge researcher.

Jaime Royo-Olid, a PhD candidate at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, has edited a new book titled Building, owning and belonging that brings together 40 years of knowledge of the challenges of providing affordable housing in Sri Lanka, India, South East Asia and South America

More than 30 authors—architects, engineers, lawyers, development economists and anthropologists—share their experiences of creating affordable homes with destroyed or poverty-stricken communities.

The new book will soon be available as a free download from the websites of the Publications Office of the European Union and of UN-Habitat so the successes and failures of the projects covered can reach as many people as possible.

A woman stands in front of her temporary shelter

Ms Rasthurai, an  identified beneficiary of an EU-funded housing programme, with her children in front of their temporary shelter in the town of Pudhukudiruppu, Sri Lanka in 2014. Photo credit: Jaime Royo-Olid

Royo-Olid, who has been an Infrastructure and Reconstruction Programme for the European Commission since 2006, explained: “When conflict and natural disasters cause devastation to communities, there is often an international response.

“Global aid institutions provide financial and technical support to governments working to overcome the emergency needs such as providing transitional shelter. Few, however, engage with the more longstanding obstacles to providing affordable and permanent housing.”

A popular way to rebuild homes in post-disaster circumstances is to build multiple units of a single design as a ‘quick fix’ because it is easier.

This approach ignores the specific circumstances of end-users. For example, post-conflict communities often have high numbers of members with physical disabilities requiring specific adaptations. Sometimes adaptations may be required to comply with religious or mystical beliefs, or economic opportunities. When owners’ needs aren’t taken into account, it can lead to abandoned houses and fragmented communities.

Owner-driven approaches aim instead to work with – as opposed to ‘on behalf of’ – the future inhabitants of those houses

Red house

A new permanent house for a family affected by civil war in Mullativu district, Sri Lanka, constructed as part of the 'Support to conflict-affeted people through housing' project. Photo credit: Charmalee Jayasinghe

All of the projects featured in Building, owning and belonging heavily emphasise the importance of ‘owner-driven’ approaches to the building process or what UN-Habitat’s Sri Lankan architect Lalith Lankatilleke called 30 years ago as ‘people’s process’.

This has long been a cost-effective alternative to the ‘one size fits all’ method of reproducing identical houses for each family and instead builds houses tailored to the needs and aspirations of the future occupier.

This is something the book’s practitioners have repeatedly found to be a key part of long-term success in housing projects.

Royo-Olid said: “We have found over and over again that local residents should not only be involved – what is often rather condescendingly called ‘participation’- but should take ‘ownership’ of the process of planning and constructing their homes. Making people feel decisions were theirs is an opportunity not to be missed - they will be the ones living there, and ultimately they know best what they aspire for with their home.”

Dr Eleanor Parker, Principal Lecturer at Coventry University’s Centre for Disaster Management and Hazards Research, added: “Mass reconstruction projects utilising kits of parts may allow hundreds of houses to be built quickly, but they omit the majority of the activities that seed a resilient and sustainable community, and the design and layout often works against long-term development.”

For Royo-Olid, the book also brings together what he’s learned in his time studying architecture at St John’s College

House builders

Masons being trained in using compressed stabilised earth blocks to construct houses for communities affected by civil war in Batticaloa district, Sri Lanka. Photo credit: Jaime Royo-Olid

Owner-driven approaches aim instead to work with – as opposed to ‘on behalf of’ – the future inhabitants of those houses, from the design process through to completion. In the process owners are trained on how to expand their houses in the future. As outlined in the book, each project had its own method of working with the owners. Some prioritised creating with communities and businesses that use locally-sourced building materials, while others focused on offering financial counselling and advice.

Financial literacy is an important part of owner-driven reconstruction since aid rarely covers the entire cost of new homes. Personal investment, whether labour or money, also helps people ‘own’ their project. However, it can lead to large debt for owners’ which is why several projects included financial training for communities to ensure the burden does not overwhelm the most vulnerable.

For Royo-Olid, the book also brings together what he’s learned in his time studying architecture at St John’s College. It was at St John’s that he says he met the people who inspired him to pursue his passion for social housing.

He went on to work in urban development, infrastructure and reconstruction first as a volunteer with the Architecture Sans Frontières network and then with the EU before returning to St John’s to study for a PhD in in Development Studies looking at the financial side of housing in urban India.

Free copies of the book will be available at the Cambridge book launch on Monday 3 December which has been organised by the Centre of Development Studies. The event starts at 5.30pm in the Alison Richards building and is free and open to all.

Published: 30/11/18

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