What is environmental impact? -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

What is environmental impact?

By Karan Kennedy

The topic for this issue of “The Forum” is Environmental Impact and Housing Innovation. In exploring this theme, we realized right away that it would cause confusion. Most people think about “environmental impact” in terms of how their program or intervention is impacting the environment, but we wanted to explore how local environments are impacting the Habitat program and the construction innovations that result when we steadfastly focus on serving the poor.

As we explored the topic, we realized that many of the words we use have multiple meanings depending on the local context – what do we mean when we use words like sustainable, durable, affordable, decent houses and decent communities? How do we balance affordability and durability? What makes a community sustainable?

The articles in this issue underscore three approaches that Habitat for Humanity is taking as we struggle with these questions.

Building community through partnerships: In Turkey, an innovative project combines the efforts of the private sector, academics and local government to build a sustainable community for victims of the 1999 earthquake. In China, Habitat for Humanity partners with the Yunnan Disabled People’s Federation, Leprosy Mission International and local government to build houses and community structures specifically designed for leprosy-affected people. Both projects are not only building decent housing but also addressing the spiritual, social and economic needs that are essential to decent communities.

Improving on traditional technologies to lower house costs and serve a lower income group: In Kyrgyzstan, a cane reed technology is revived and combined with an innovative under-the-floor heating system to produce a house that is low in cost and energy efficient. In Mozambique, a canico reed house is designed with a concrete floor and tin roof to produce a low-cost house that is also durable and half the cost of the normal Habitat house. In Mexico and Honduras, soil-compressed blocks replace the more expensive cement blocks. This technology has been used by Habitat in Africa for many years and is reminiscent of the adobe construction that is traditional in Latin America/Caribbean.

Using renewable, low-cost energy sources: For Habitat East Bay in San Francisco, California (USA), sustainable means “green” building. This affiliate illustrates how using energy efficient building technologies can produce a house that is affordable and save on energy costs for years to come. In Armenia, solar-powered water heater systems save Habitat homeowners as much as 20 percent of monthly income, the cost of heating water in homemade immersion electrical boilers that are not only costly but unsafe.

While it is interesting to find commonalities in our approaches, it is inspiring to note the diversity and how solutions are tailored to specific needs. Even as Habitat is searching for innovative ways to “scale up,” it is still true that innovation also comes from the compassionate efforts of Peace Corps volunteers working with Habitat to help Teresa Timba build a decent home for her three children.

Karan Kennedy is director of international projects.