HFH Vanuatu explores innovative construction techniques -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

HFH Vanuatu explores innovative construction techniques

By Vanessa J. Daniel

Vanuatu is an independent republic consisting of 83 tropical islands east of Australia and west of Fiji, with a population of over 200,000 (mostly Melanesian people). A teetering infrastructure was left behind by the French and British who, until 1980 when it was known as “The New Hebrides,” jointly ruled the nation. Although many of the people live throughout Vanuatu, the eight largest islands—which account for 80 percent of the land mass—are 95 percent populated. Recently, however, there has been a lure to the urban areas and especially to the capital, Port Vila. Tourism is the main industry.

In 2001, Habitat for Humanity set up a national office in Port Vila. Housing is a major challenge for the island nation. Often corrugated metal leans together to act as walls creating shanties. A common room will house a multi-generational family with extended members sharing the space. Woven grass mats are placed on the ground at night for beds and the only kitchen is outdoors. If the community is fortunate enough to have running water, the tap is shared by many families. Bathrooms are also often shared by a number of people and can, at times, be bush toilets. There are no doors into these homes, just calico material flapping in the breeze. Large rocks hold roofs in place but only during the good weather. These dwellings are, obviously, extremely susceptible to cyclones. Needless to say, overcrowding and unhealthy and unsanitary living conditions are an issue making Habitat for Humanity Vanuatu essential in the cities.[1]

Meanwhile, rural areas tend to be filled with mostly traditional houses built from local materials (bamboo, grass and thatch). Although charming, they not only pose a security issue but are also vulnerable to pests, flooding and cyclones. In February 2004, for example, Hurricane Ivy damaged more than 10,700 houses on 13 islands. HFH Vanuatu vowed to offer a hand up.

In addition to the poor living conditions and climatic influences, the scattered archipelago consists of mostly volcanic islands, thus adding geological considerations to the list of challenges facing HFH Vanuatu. But social/economical circumstances remain the biggest test. Land disputes between tribes and a rapidly growing population mean there is a shortage of affordable land for affordable housing. Poor families seeking decent homes have to contend with high land prices, costly building materials (especially when imported) and a lack of assets to secure land ownership. The Habitat for Humanity North American model has had to adapt and become flexible for survival.

For the disabled, homeownership is even more difficult as they tend to be less employable with fewer resources available to them. Over the past three years, HFH Vanuatu has helped target this portion of society and has built houses for the blind and physically disabled. Additionally, a prototype disabled washroom is being designed for future recipients.

Since its inception, HFH Vanuatu has undergone an evolution in building construction, constantly upgrading and streamlining its methods to become more and more efficient. In 2004, Concrete Interlocking Block technology from the Philippines replaced plaster and block homes, which had replaced local rock (time consuming and expensive) homes. The CIB homes are earthquake- and cyclone-proof, made from imported cement with local sand and coral. They are easy to assemble and can be made in advance by students (as a six-week learning course) or on site by volunteers (like with the Global Village team from Hong Kong this March) or by homeowners (as part of their sweat equity). As a result, the average cost of a home has been cut. Furthermore, a new roof technology from the UK, but used internationally, was introduced last November. This technology uses cement tiles, which are better than metal because cement is stronger, hurricane-proof and can be made on site. Also, the steeper pitch allows for better airflow, which is needed in this humid, tropical country. The stronger, more elegant tiles are now being implemented in most new home construction. Again, they are locally made by students, volunteers and homeowners.

Looking ahead, HFH Vanuatu aims to continue to improve its building techniques for sustainable living, empower the community with home-building skills and focus on helping more of the disenfranchised. Currently, fund-raising campaigns are underway in Santo for the construction of a regional office, and by Vanuatu Independence Day festivities at the end of July this year our national office (which is currently in the planning stages) should be complete and opening its doors for a celebration of our own.

Vanessa Daniel is an architectural consultant with HFH in the South Pacific.


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[1] Depending on the locale and needs of the home partners, HFH houses typically have cement slab foundations and are made from concrete blocks and wood, with hardwood frames and shutters. Corrugated iron is used for the roofing.