New standards help define the mission -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

New standards help define the mission

By Ted Baumann

Habitat for Humanity International is in the final stages of developing a set of Housing Quality Standards

These Housing Quality Standards (HQS) will set the minimum performance standards for new or rehabilitated houses built by Habitat for Humanity, or with its support, anywhere in the world. These will be rolled out during FY2010 and become effective in FY2011; from that time on, in order to be counted in HFHI delivery statistics, a new house or a rehabilitated house will need to meet these standards.

A key motivation for adopting the HQS is the relationship between housing and health.

If the HQS are interpreted correctly and sustainably in local conditions, they should contribute significantly to the health outcomes for the families we serve. And if we are able to verify that the majority of the houses we build or facilitate meet these standards, we can plausibly make the case that the impact of our work on health is positive.

HFHI has worked without ministry-wide housing standards for most of our existence.

Any standards applied to definitions for “new” and “rehabilitated” houses rely on local building codes. In recent years, however, the variety of delivery options has expanded significantly, driven by the desire to match our delivery models to the reality of our home-partners’ livelihoods. For example, rather than locate houses on the fringes of a city to reduce cost, we are helping families incrementally improve existing housing that is located close to where they work.

Incremental interventions are an increasingly important metric in counting the number of families served each year. However, the ultimate goal remains for families to eventually move to a standard of housing that is decent and adequate. The HSQ is one way for us to measure when that standard has been reached through incremental interventions.

Fortunately, most new houses built with HFHI support over the years meet the new HQS.

A more diverse, context-specific, and demand-driven approach to housing delivery, however, requires us to set some minimum performance standards to ensure that HFH houses are truly decent and adequate in terms of the human need for shelter.

Performance standards vs. construction specs

“Performance standards” are about habitat rather than just a house. The HQS thus set out what a house must do for the family living in it, such as providing protection from the elements, adequate living space, culturally-acceptable living arrangements, access to biologically-adequate water and sanitation, transportation, and socio-economic amenities, and so on. The HQS do not specify how those outcomes are achieved―in other words, they are not construction specifications.

“Construction specifications” tell us how a house should be physically built: with what materials, on what site conditions, perhaps with a certain number of doors and windows, and so on. Performance standards, on the other hand, define the minimum things a house must do for its inhabitants in order to be considered “decent” and “adequate” – in other words, what sort of habitat the house provides.

It is entirely possible for a house to meet physical construction specifications but still be inadequate for the family living in it.

For example, a house built on land acquired cheaply because it is in an economically undesirable or unhealthy location, in order to reduce the sale price and/or monthly loan repayment to the home-partner, is a false economy. The home-partner may be able to afford the initial purchase price, only to suffer the health or livelihood consequences of an unhealthy or uneconomic environment.

A house might be considered structurally sound, but be laid out in such a way as to undermine privacy and thereby encourage conflict within the household. Or the house could be fine structurally, but have limited access to healthy water.

Incremental repair or improvement by homeowners accessing HFH-supported housing microfinance loans may produce outcomes that reflect short-term priorities (such as a larger house) at the expense of longer-term priorities, such as adequate protection from the elements, or an unsustainable impact on the natural environment.

In all of these cases, the new Housing Quality Standards require HFH to take these factors into account when designing a project.

But in none of these cases would the HQS force HFH to adopt a particular building technology. For example, in the tropics, a bamboo frame house with woven palm walls might be perfectly adequate to meet performance standards relating to protection from the elements. In other words, the HQS are based on a distinction between form and function.

How the Housing Quality Standards were developed

It may surprise many people, but there is no globally-accepted performance standard for “housing.” There are various recommendations relating to “habitat” more broadly, covering tenure, water and sanitation provision, community amenities, and so on. And of course, most countries have some sort of “building code” covering the physical construction of a dwelling. But no global organizations or institutions have ever developed a set of standards prescribing what a dwelling should provide for its inhabitants in order to be considered “safe, decent, and adequate.”

This gap presents HFHI with both a challenge and an opportunity.

The challenge is that donors, who are increasingly demanding verifiable statistical analysis of development outcomes, might eventually insist that we adhere to standards developed by someone else – standards that might not fit our work and mission. The opportunity is that we can influence the global development community in developing and applying standards for decent housing.

The development of the HQS started with a logical premise: HFH should never provide housing that performs below the minimum recommended for people in disaster relief situations. Fortunately, the SPHERE project developed a set of “Minimum Standards in Disaster Response” that includes shelter performance standards. Accordingly, the development of the HQS started with the SPHERE standards as a minimum and built on them through a period of intensive engagement with HFH players in the field.


The immediate implications of adopting the HQS will vary depending on the situation. In most developed and middle-income countries, there will be little change since most new houses already meet these performance standards.

In less-developed countries, however, the HQS will require national organizations to strike a balance between housing adequacy, cost and targeting of the neediest. Pursuing adequacy as defined by the HQS may lead to instances where long-term considerations of health and safety override short-term considerations of cost.

Finding ways of meeting families’ housing needs that are sustainable both for HFH and for the home-partner is an integral part of our mission. Defining the challenge explicitly, as the HQS does, will strengthen the incentive to explore creative new ways to serve families.

Standards at a glance

Drawn from a variety of globally recognized housing standards including the Millennium Development Goals, International Residential Building codes, UN-HABITAT, and SPHERE Guidelines, these performance standards define the quality of a new house built by HFH, or partner organization, or of a house that has been rehabilitated. These standards also set a consistent bar for when a series of incremental improvements achieve the goal of simple and decent housing.


  • Covered area: Each person in the household has a usable covered floor area of no less than 3.5 square meters (37.5 square feet) OR comprises a minimum of two rooms. If the minimum standard for usable space has not yet been met, the house is situated so as to allow for future extension.
  • Materials: Locally sourced materials and labour are used without adversely affecting the local economy or environment, and enable the maintenance and upgrading of the house using local tools and resources.
  • Location: The house is safely located; risks from natural hazards including earthquakes, volcanic activity, landslides, flooding or high winds are minimized, and the area is not prone to diseases or significant vector (disease carrying agents) risks.


  • Disaster mitigation: In disaster prone-areas, construction and material specifications mitigate against future natural disasters.
  • Safety: Structural materials are durable enough to allow safe refuge and exit in case of a natural disaster.

Secure tenure

  • Tenure: Land and property ownership and/or use rights for buildings or locations are established prior to occupation and permitted use is agreed as necessary. Where use rights do not exist, there is de facto protection against evictions.


  • Quality: Water is palatable, and of sufficient quality to be drunk and used for personal and domestic hygiene without causing significant risk to health.
  • Access and quantity: There is safe and equitable access to and/ or adequate storage of sufficient quantity of water for drinking, cooking and personal and domestic hygiene. Public water points are sufficiently close to households to enable use of the minimum water requirement


  • Access to toilets: Communities have adequate numbers of toilets, sufficiently close to their dwellings, to allow them rapid, safe and acceptable access at all times of the day and night.
  • Design, construction and use of toilets – Toilets are sited, designed, constructed and maintained in such a way as to be comfortable, hygienic and safe to use.
  • Drainage: Dwelling has an environment in which the health and other risks posed by water erosion and standing water, including storm water, floodwater, domestic wastewater and wastewater from medical facilities, are minimized.

Ted Baumann is director of international housing programs in the HFHI Global Programs department.