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Low cost disaster housing

May 27, 2015

Q. Hi Nick,

I run a small business designing, engineering and building low cost, environmentally friendly houses. In the past, I have worked alongside my father to assist in the development of remote communities in Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and remote Aboriginal communities in Australia. We have developed several innovative systems of building and water storage which are simple, cost effective, can be easily made cyclone or earthquake proof,and can be easily flat packed into shipping containers.

The buildings and subfloors are designed to be assembled in a day using basic tools, and will remain permanent (but can be easily disassembled and moved). I feel this would suit the purpose of disaster relief perfectly, and help disaster stricken communities rebuild immediately, rather than providing them with inadequate, or temporary shelter (quite often with little improvement to preexisting structures).

We have a small, hard working team of builders, engineers and architects, who would all love the opportunity to work alongside local communities to develop or rebuild. The aid work we have done in the past has proven to be very successful, and has helped to educate locals with practical knowledge as well as many life skills. However, previous funding has only allowed for small scale developments.

How would you recommend I get involved with some larger humanitarian organizations?


A. Hi Alex – thanks for the question. First off I want to point out that I am completely unable to speak to the merits of your particular technology, but this is a question I get a lot – not on this blog, but in my day job at a humanitarian organization. Every time there is a disaster in the news I reliably get 4-5 emails from people and companies with some kind of product or service to help humanitarian responders. The vast majority of them get ignored, for a couple of major reasons:

  • International humanitarian organizations are very conservative about adopting new technologies. They worry that, while your shelter solution¬†might be better, there might also be some hidden flaw that will end up causing unintended grief to them and others. Under pressure and with tight time constraints, procurement managers tend to play it safe and go with tried and tested solutions.
  • Procurement for disasters is typically managed regionally, with requests for bids from suppliers published in the relevant region. If you don’t see those, it can be very hard to compete.
  • Finding the right person in a humanitarian organization to champion your idea can be really hard.

That isn’t to say that humanitarian organizations are uninterested in innovation and new solutions though – most of the major ones conduct regular field trials of new approaches and products. So here are a couple of tips that I have for connecting and getting on the inside track:

  • Don’t contact organizations in the weeks after a major disaster. Everyone is busy, and is not interested in testing something new.
  • Understand the structure of the organization you’re targeting. In your case you need to figure out who is responsible for shelter, site planning, refugee or displacement issues, or infrastructure. Figuring out exactly who it is you want to talk to is an art, not a science.
  • Understand what solution the organization is currently using, and be able to talk about the two side-by-side.
  • Look for ways to get a demonstration unit to the organization at no cost to them. Even if the cost is modest, this can be a big impediment for organizations whose major revenue is linked to specific donor budgets. Either front the cost yourself, or look to see if a foundation or private donor might fund a public trial of the technology.
  • You might want to approach a local university to see if they would be interested in conducting a side-by-side trial of your solution – an independent endorsement can go a long way.

Hope that helps!


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