Developing holistic building plans -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Developing holistic building plans

By Larry English & Kate Bistline

Before starting to construct a house, we know the house must be designed. We depend on the expertise of architects and engineers to ensure that the completed house will meet the standards. Yet our mission calls us to do more than build houses. How do we design “more than houses”?

First, we must have a shared idea of what it is that we are trying to build. According to the mission statement, we want “decent houses in decent communities in which every person can experience God’s love and can live and grow into all God intends.”

Today the term “community” is often ascribed to people living in a spatial or political entity, such as a suburb, city or county. Community, as such, has no bearing on relationships between people, shared culture, history or future. However, God designed community so that families would benefit from each other materially, socially and spiritually. Because of sin, and its tendency toward self-preservation, God desired that such people would live in relationship with Him, so that no man would rule over another.

To develop a decent community, we must work from the holistic concept of “human habitat,” i.e., a total living environment—physical, social, spiritual and economic—for sustaining and enhancing human life.

Just as the design of a Habitat house in Mozambique differs from the design of a Habitat house in Romania, the design of a Habitat community will also be different. The program that we implement to achieve the decent houses in the decent communities will need to be uniquely designed for the context. Program design depends on an understanding of the context.

Physical context: “Habitat”

Habitat is a builder. It is the physical infrastructure and environment that will provide opportunity for parents to raise their children in a safe, secure and nurturing social environment, and in stable and robust shelter that will provide protection from the elements, and physical and material security. In addition, such habitat should consider proximity to opportunities for employment and/or income generation, and be supported by public amenities and services which should include physical and social infrastructure, recreational amenities, and public transportation. While HFH is primarily focused with shelter, the sustainability of the communities established through its initiatives is dependent on the provision or existence of the holistic physical environment.

Economic and financial context

Habitat is a lender. The financial sustainability of a housing program funded by HFH—i.e., the revolving “Fund for Humanity”—is very much dependent on the income sustainability of its mortgagees. Income stability is, in turn, dependent on the local or national—perhaps even the global—economy. What is important is that we recognize that the target group selected has associated risks, and that these are identified and very carefully considered prior to investment, and that the project and financial system are designed to mitigate these risks.

Social and institutional context

Habitat is a transformer. The needs of the poor extend beyond housing and most often are a higher priority than shelter. Developing a decent community requires collaboration between many players, as noted above. Accordingly, the institution which designs, implements and manages should include such parties. The primary stakeholders—the home partners—are included at inception, and are capacitated to gradually assume responsibility for the environment, as HFH and other implementing partners transition out.

Legal context

The procedures for developing land and the risks of lending money require HFH to understand the legal framework of the country, both in terms of planning statutes and other development legislation, property law, contractual laws, etc. Understanding the extra-legal environment—i.e., the unwritten rules that operate in poor communities—is most important as it is more difficult, even dangerous, to enforce contracts in areas where the laws are not respected or commonly upheld.

To build decent communities, we must start with a plan. The design of living environments is important because they serve to shelter, nurture and enhance the quality of human life. They enable or disable social, spiritual or economic activities. As such, the design must create the space to support a sustainable community, most critically when one is dealing with the poor.

Larry English is director of Program Design and Development for HFH in Africa and the Middle East. Kate Bistline is research and evaluation specialist for HFH in Africa and the Middle East.