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Sustain able -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Sustain able

In less developed countries, environmentally friendly building flourishes at the intersection of philosophy and practicality.
By Rebekah Daniel



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Around the world, from villages where the night sky shines undimmed by electric lights to cities where generators drown out any crickets that might dare to chirp, Habitat for Humanity builds “green” houses without much debate. The materials are local because anything that must be transported from far away is cost-prohibitive.

The houses are simple and small because they eventually will be maintained by hands less accustomed to grasping tools than holding chalk in a classroom, picking crops in a field or filing papers in an office. They are adequate and secure—with health-improving concrete floors, sanitation systems and ventilation—but not extravagant. They meet an urgent need with a maximum of efficiency and minimum of fuss.

This is the practical side of green building.

In Madagascar, national director Serge Andriamandimby notes that most of the time, environmentally responsible materials are the affordable ones. With the exception of a particular area on the island where it rains about 200 days each year, clay tiles or thatch are used for the roofs, and windows and doors are made of eucalyptus, he says. Typically, house foundations are made of stone or fired clay bricks and then covered with concrete floors, while the walls are made of clay bricks and mortar.

“The practice of using traditional materials such as clay bricks and purpose-grown eucalyptus [instead of native wood] reduces traditional house construction costs (with cement blocks) by half,” Andriamandimby says. “Habitat Madagascar adopted these general design guidelines countrywide to reduce the use of some imported materials (e.g. imported cement) and eliminated the use of others (e.g. iron roofing sheets imported from Europe or Asia). Countrywide, approximately 95 percent of the materials currently utilized by Habitat Madagascar are produced or sourced from members of the beneficiary community.”

Green features of the houses here are not limited to the materials used but extend also to how the materials are put together. Thermally massive walls—14 to 24 inches thick, depending on the material—help insulate houses in the cool winters of the highland region, says Dan Simpson, a program, monitoring and evaluation manager at Habitat’s offices in Atlanta who spent several years working with Habitat in Mozambique and Madagascar. Roofs are traditionally gabled or hipped, steeply pitched and reinforced to help withstand the multiple tropical storms that buffet the country each year.

“It’s rare, too, to find a house with doors or windows opening to the east,” he says. “Traveling on a north-south road, one looks to the west at the eastern exposure of the houses and sees nothing but blank walls closed to the predominant eastern winds. Turn around and look at the western exposure of the houses on the other side of the road, and you see all of the doors and wooden window shutters thrown open to welcome the warming sun.”

Green at Heart

As compelling as the practical reasons for environmentally sustainable building may be, however, they are not the only ones—and perhaps not even the most important ones. Habitat’s Bible-based commitment to be a wise steward of resources, both financial and physical, reinforces green decisions. And philosophically and culturally, cooperating with the dirt that holds up your house, nourishes your crops and shelters your animals is deeply ingrained, especially in less developed regions.

“Land in Madagascar holds great emotional value, thus giving land a deeper meaning than that of purely being economic property,” Andriamandimby says. “In the Malagasy lexicon, tany, or land, has about 11 equivalents in English, varying from land to earth, country, soil, field, place or environment, world, native land, estate, ground or life. Land in the Malagasy mentality is synonymous of identity, and to own land is to be wealthy and alive. Land means life, and the myth of the land as Mother Earth is very strong.”
This dependence on a healthy, functioning natural environment is not exclusive to Madagascar or Africa. The rural and indigenous communities of Latin America see things similarly, as do people all over the world whose livelihoods are closely tied to natural cycles.

“Land is a reference point for collective identity,” says Eric Solera, Habitat’s project manager for community development in Latin America. “The roots that a community has in its land are an intensely important and vital factor, and the group or individual can feel disoriented and out of place if the relationship to a place is broken—for example, by forced eviction or natural disaster.

“There is oft en a sense of sacredness. Land is not merely a measurement or a ‘lot’; it is a system of life. It is equal to what it contains, produces and sustains.”

When a community’s quality of life—and to some extent, its cultural identity—depends on what its environment can “contain, produce and sustain,” the motivation for building houses that are affordable both economically and environmentally is strong. And for an organization whose mission is to build communities in which each person can grow “into all that God intends,” sustainability has a green light for the future.