The Publication of Habitat for Humanity International | June / July 2001
What is poverty housing?

What is simple, decent housing?
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'What is simple, decent housing?'

By Pat Curry

Piracicaba, Brazil
For Gloria Parajes, the difference between her old bamboo shack and her family’s Habitat for Humanity house was monumental. “The floor was bamboo and had holes in it,” she says. “The roof had holes, and the children got wet when it rained.” As for her Habitat house, she says: “This is a stable house, especially on rainy days.”

Her dream Habitat house in the Philippines is about the size of a large tool shed in the United States. Even so, it is a far cry from the precarious shack her family once called home.

Her house has a steel-reinforced concrete floor, a water-seal toilet (similar to those found in American campers), a kitchen/eating space with a counter, a sink with running water, electricity, an insulated metal roof with hurricane straps, windows with glass panes (many rural Filipino houses have open windows) and two partitioned sleeping areas.

Throughout the world, Habitat for Humanity helps families build simple, decent housing within the context of their local communities. But what constitutes simple and decent? That depends.

House size: The size of a simple, decent house typically reflects local standards.

In the United States, the standard shared by Habitat affiliates is a 1,050-square-foot house with a kitchen/dining area, a living room, three bedrooms and one bathroom. Around the world, however, the standard is guided by local culture, customs, materials and weather.

Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.
By comparison, the typical U.S. Habitat house is big enough to hold about three of the houses that Habitat typically builds in the Asia/Pacific region, according to A/P construction manager Jack Blanchette.

“Habitat houses in Latin America/Caribbean can go to extremes,” says LA/C construction adviser Fernando Chavarria. “In Jamaica, they have the studio house—one room with a bathroom, with a corner for a kitchen. Then, house sizes range from that to bigger houses in Bolivia and Brazil. We respect very much the particular needs of the community and the local materials that are used.”

Materials: Construction materials and techniques vary widely. In India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, baked brick is the material of choice. In Fiji, the houses may be built from block or timber or even blocks of stabilized soil.

In Latin America, concrete block is the most common building material for Habitat houses, often reinforced with steel bars. This is important because we are in a seismic area, says Chavarria.

Throughout Africa, solid roofing materials make all the difference to homeowners. Across the continent we use corrugated iron sheet or cement tiles for the roofs, says Mary Wasserman, construction manager in that region. Such permanent materials eliminate the time required in perpetually gathering thatch.

Materials and fixtures used inside the houses also are driven by local custom and availability. Thats why Habitat houses in Portugal have ceramic tile floors and bidets. Such items might be considered an upgrade in American houses, but ceramic tile is cheap and plentiful in southern Europe and even the most meager of houses in Portugal have bidets, says Doug Dahlgren, who recently served there as construction consultant.

Utilities: While a house in the United States without running water or electricity would never meet a simple, decent standard, it is considered acceptable in many developing countries.

Throughout Africa, Latin America and Asia, there may be few Habitat houses with electricity or indoor plumbing. But all houses are built with toilets appropriate to the area. Often, water-seal toilets are installed.

Insulation: Proper insulation is another key factor in Habitats simple, decent approach.

In the United States, Habitat families frequently experience reduced heating and cooling costs. Homeowners around the world benefit as well. In the Philippines, the roofing system calls for sandwiching an inch of Styrofoam insulation between sheets of metal to reduce heat build-up in the tropical climate. In Romania, extensive insulation has changed the lives of families facing bitter winters. Now, instead of spending all their time gathering wood for heat, Dahlgren says, families have time for more constructive activities.

Pat Curry is a writer based in Athens, Ga.

Reprinted from Habitat World Magazine, June/July 2001.
This article may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
©2001 Habitat for Humanity International


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