7 March 2012

How to navigate this blog?

The bulk of the content of this blog can be found sorted in posts that can be accessed through the right hand bar of the blog where you will find the following four categories of posts, or by simple clicking below:

Call for R&D Projects

Conference Themes

Conference Presentations
Humanitarian Agency Presentation (4) Producer Display (7) Producer Presentation (1) Research Presentation (5)
Scoping Study

The presentations of the conference can be found under the third category. It suffices to click on the presentation you want to see, and the post will open. On the post, you’ll find an introduction to the presentation and a link to where to consult the full presentation.

For more details about navigating this blog, please consult the tab ‘how to navigate this blog’ above.

Introduction: sheltering process and product

The challenge of the Steel Days Conference was to enhance the common understanding – of humanitarians, academics and producers – of good practices of using steel for sheltering. We had the expertise we needed, tailor made presentations on the subject and an overall productive atmosphere.
But, how much did we advance on the issue of steel for humanitarian sheltering? This conference was a momentum, a step in a process carried by a far larger group of people than just the IFRC SRU team or the participants of the conference. The fact that the starting point of the conference was practical – ‘what do we do today in sheltering’ –, laying open steel sheltering through case studies and R&D efforts, enabled to look at sheltering issues on a less abstract level. Still, although we have advanced on what exactly should be changed, researched and developed to improve steel sheltering, it is mostly the link between process and product aspects that lightened up the steel days.
Jim Kennedy: Even if there were specific presentations on the (literally) nuts and bolts of steel-frame shelter designs, what excited the interest of the participants were all of the bigger-picture questions surrounding shelter responses, no matter what the material: the mandates of humanitarian organizations and national governments; the complexities of land-tenure issues affecting shelter responses; the importance of post-disaster urban-planning, rather than just approaching reconstruction at the single-shelter level; and the realistic roles and responsibilities of the affected populations themselves, especially in urbanized, complex economies.
The standards for qualitative and effective sheltering, as agreed in the Sphere Standards or the Transitional Settlements series, are not optional. However, the variety of solutions they cover is not exhausted and probably never will be. The standards have proven to trigger most discussion when applied to specific disasters, contexts, materials or techniques.
During the conference, some measures of efficiency that are obviously positive for private companies were disputed by humanitarians, some in-depth reflections of academics deemed unworkable. Humanitarians on the other hand could not always pinpoint exactly where the loss in effectiveness occurred and how that could be remedied in the future. The IFRC SRU saw the benefit of organizing the conference exactly on that level; to give these rather common frictions a platform.
Some themes during the conference were recurrent throughout the presentations and the discussions afterwards. We attempted to line them up in the themes which is our record of the conference. It is just our record; we’d rather have it debated than agreed upon. It therefore contains a mixture of fragments of presentations and discussions on the one hand, and more personal thoughts about ways forward.

Theme 1: Non-malleability of steel

Jim Kennedy: “Unlike some materials used more commonly in rural, ‘traditional’ shelter responses – mud, or planks and poles of timber – steel offers its material strength and produce-ability in exchange for a rigidity and a need to be precision-hard lined, if it is to be an effective construction element. Once it gets to the point of field delivery, unlike mud or wood branches, steel just is not very malleable.”
Many steel solutions are pre-fabricated or entail a certain pre-fabrication of elements. This has an impact on the sheltering process. First of all, planning of steel sheltering solutions often takes more time than of more ‘malleable’ solutions (see cases Vietnam, case of Haiti). Steel solutions often can’t be adjusted as easily as for example wooden constructions, therefore there is comparatively more need to assure the appropriate solution is developed than with other materials. Maintenance, repair and appropriation of structures by the inhabitants require special care, of which the importance is widely recognised. Johanne Garland: “Expansion of shelters needs to be seen as a given, not an option”.
During construction, this aspect impacts on the use of local labour and skill. If steel solutions are completely pre-fabricated, it means we can use local skill only to that extend as to which local labour is used in a more industrial construction industry. If such a local industry is not available or cannot be set up, the risk is that sheltering solutions need to be sourced from a regional or international market, which would mean that the financial profit of a sheltering operation does not stay in-country.
Jim Kennedy: “Inevitably then, the choice of steel immediately confronts (or should confront) the user with questions and challenges which overflow beyond the merely technical-engineering, precisely because those questions, and their answers cannot be deferred onto the shoulders of the occupants. It is the humanitarian program designer and manager who will have to participate, to a decisive degree, in the answering of those questions about the production-chain strategy and funding, the impact of the duration of the presence of the humanitarian actors themselves, and the increasingly smeared line between housing reconstruction, neighborhood design, and urban planning. And if the humanitarian program designer does not think hard about these questions at the start, the irrefutable prompt from steel is – it may be too late to change later.”
There is no doubt that this is a real problem. Eelko Brouwer (talking about cases of Vietnam): “It was difficult for expansions using local materials to merge with the steel frames…and the designs were not replicated much as the material was unfamiliar to the local people.”
Means to mediate this problem are perhaps not so obvious. There is however another type of practice, more ‘malleable’, of using steel for humanitarian sheltering in combination with other materials, closer to the site and tailor made. Some examples were presented during the conference.

Theme 2: 'Malleability' of steel

Steel can also be used in a very 'malleable' way (literally as figuratively). The two sessions on retro-fitting (Bill Flinn and Michal Sladek) proved the fact that steel can be part of an integrated locally driven preparedness, response and recovery process, avoiding introduction of pre-fabrication or import all together. The scoping study made in preparation to the conference shows examples of metal pieces used to reinforce existing structures, ranging from scrap metal to measure fit thick steel plates.
Rather than offering complete sheltering solutions, retro-fitting addresses the structural improvement of the already built, or, by extension, what has only been damaged by the disaster. Bill Flinn made a case about the importance of repair after disaster, and prevention before.

Issues of liability in that respect were highlighted during the discussion. Milton Funes: “Retrofitting is not the priority when it comes to disaster response, and on the ground we think twice about this because of the liability that is associated with this.” One possible other way of looking at it, is to measure comparative structural improvement due to retro-fitting rather than focusing on a specific structural standard to be achieved by retro-fitting.
Perhaps something else to highlight under this theme, were some of the producer displays that brought steel closer to local production and combination with local materials. One producer for example presented a mobile steel producing factory that could be used temporarily in a disaster context, producing exactly what is suitable in that context. Other producers spoke of their own decentralised production, and local (by-) products, that from a humanitarian perspective becomes ‘local’ production.
This theme perhaps also ties in to the difference between a ‘technique’ and a ‘product’. Many producers work towards developing an all-encompassing solution to the sheltering problem, and that is often a complete housing solution, a ‘house’. It is not only in respect to the process of sheltering that this is often not preferable, it is also when one considers retro-fitting and repair options that new techniques gain relevance for humanitarian sheltering.

Theme 3: Issues regarding technical quality of steel

Some technical issues are specific to sheltering in steel. Throughout the conference, probably the following ones were most discussed:
A finished steel product produced in a controlled environment has a certain guaranteed quality. This quality can even be consolidated in factory guarantees. In sheltering this rarely happens; it was suggested during the conference that that may be a lost opportunity. A project like ‘Casa Buna’ presented by Habitat for Humanity is an example that is, or is very close, to this type of approach. The steel producing company was in fact part of the project team, not an external supplier.
For many sheltering projects however the ‘controlled’ environment is not so ‘controlled’ or cannot guarantee a certain qualitative output. A first reduction of quality guarantee happens when steel elements are put in place in combination with other elements or according to a specific design that is perhaps not what it should be. Often there is no option to ‘structurally engineer’ a sheltering solution. People expanding their shelter is likely to compound this risk.
The steel quality in itself is in some contexts not guaranteed. Perhaps a gap to be addressed is the lack of insight of humanitarians into the production process of steel elements, which makes it difficult for humanitarians to counter bad practices, and select the good ones.
The importance of local norms and standards was discussed. Jean-Yves L’Hostis: We had to deal with strict requirements in South Africa, so it’s important to think about this when designing structure and performance parameters.” But more often than otherwise, it is the lack of standards that poses a problem. Roel Gijsbers: “There is a lack of appropriate structural norms and calculation methods for humanitarian sheltering. This has to deal with local or continental building codes (which are based on regular/permanent buildings). Current standards for sheltering don’t provide clear information.”
Quality guarantees, norms and standards are also tools to manage liability. Liability is a significant concern in the private sector and becoming more prominent in the humanitarian sector. This issue is particularly relevant in conjunction with retrofitting, but not only. Bill Flinn: “If we build something, and it’s built badly, then of course we should be liable. If we give good advice to people and they build safer, but not entirely safe living, therefore reducing vulnerability, that is something else.”
The ‘norms and standards’ approach covers the gap between technical quality and liability. But, norms and standards require a consensus acceptable to the variety of sheltering contexts. Once norms and standards exist, people are needed who know them, and can apply them. Secondly, you need people who can check whether they have been applied. It is not unthinkable to achieve this. But, norms and standards are just one way of dealing with these uncertainties. Best practice, or ‘rule of thumb’, is also a means to mediate uncertainties, and it has been applied over centuries with good result. The notion of building ‘comparatively better’ is another example.
The actual challenge seems to be to find a way of dealing with uncertainties that fits the humanitarian sheltering practice. Steel requires probably more than other materials to truly affront this problem of norms and standards. Its manufacturing process makes it distinctly different from more ‘traditional’ construction materials.

Theme 4: The cost and value of steel

Another issue that perhaps is particular to the use of steel is its generally higher cost. The cost of steel thus does not only impact in terms of how to best spend a sheltering budget. The remaining cost, when the shelter becomes the home of a family, often impacts equally. This issue can have a positive as well as a negative impact; another issue to be ‘mediated’.

Milton Funes report on the CHF sheltering experience in Haiti revealed that people receiving a steel frame shelter were more inclined to invest own funds into the further fitting and upgrading of their shelter than people who had received a wooden frame structure. In that sense, using steel could increase a shelter’s ‘capacity to transition’. But, examples where steel elements are taken out of constructions for the monetary value of the material (or lack of understanding of the role of the steel pieces in the structure) are not rare.
Jim Kennedy: The choices that people make are often quite rational – even though we don’t think so they are right for them. They will take risks that perhaps we would never take, for example removing frames from their house to make money. We need to ask ourselves are we there imposing our very fixed ideas on them?” Cost and quality are often interrelated, finding a balance is crucial.
One of the discussions brought forth the idea that steel structure shelters could be used by the households as collateral for loans. None of the participants had seen examples in the field of this so far. It was however agreed that the worth of steel impacts on the household economy, when steel gets a certain sell-off value in an existing or emerging steel market.

Jean Lamesch: “’in the private sector, prices of steel are known, therefore there should not be any insecurity for humanitarian actors to understand whether the price they pay is acceptable or not.” Still, humanitarians struggle with the price of steel. There have been instances that the prices of steel artificially exploded because humanitarians had little power to object, due to the fact they really needed steel, but also due to lack of understanding of how price setting in the steel sector works.


Theme 5: Steel and scale: quantity and density

Jim Kennedy: “On the one hand we need to support people who will be involved in reconstruction of their houses, but we need to do this to significant scale. We need responses that can respond to the sheer scale of the need while still taking the individual needs of families into account.”
After disasters, the humanitarian community is only able to assist a percentage of the affected population, and a large portion of people are left to build back on their own. This is not bound to improve, considering the increasing occurrence of disasters and an increasingly complex response context. Steel as a material allows for interventions on great scale more easily than many other materials.
There is a fundamental tension between the desire to produce standardized products and products that are context specific. The sheer scale of humanitarian response validates the need to produce large quantities. Caroline Henrotay, in her research and presentation, tries to reconcile this with the fact that the reality undeniably requires solutions fit to a specific context.
Except for quantity, it is also in terms of density that steel has an advantage in comparison to more debated materials and techniques for humanitarian sheltering. Growing urban and suburban areas, more prone to disaster, can harbour more industrial construction processes more easily. On the other hand, the preciseness and strength of steel allows building multiple stories. The humanitarian world hasn’t come far yet in developing how best to deal with disasters in dense areas, and the myriad of possible solutions is still to be unravelled.


Theme 6: Innovations in steel sheltering

The process of sheltering can be rationalised and presented regardless of any context or material in much the same way as steel products can be developed regardless of sheltering process or disaster. However, for a product to be effective, it needs to fit into the sheltering process as much as a process needs to be sensitive to the products that are used in it. Often also, techniques to be used in combination with different materials, adjustable to the context, are much more relevant than completely finished sheltering products, 'houses'.
Innovation starts perhaps with a leap of imagination. The confrontation of humanitarian practice with production concerns and academic reflection stimulated that in a way to allow for relevant innovations to float on top. But much depended on the participants of the conference; humanitarians with enough experience and interest to question what needs to be questioned on the one hand, academics and producers that can research and develop, though within the logic of their normal job, for the humanitarian sheltering sector.
The discussions that took place during the display session for example shed some light on the relevance of new products for sheltering. The steel slag blocks for example are by-products of the steel industry and are likely to be used locally rather than transported over great distances. This makes this product more suitable to be used in recovery than emergency sheltering and only in those contexts where a steel industry exists.
An emergency construction industry may lead to innovative shelter recovery processes, the value of steel may lead to a more cash based sheltering approach, as much as the need for locally owned reconstruction may lead to more appropriate retro-fitting products, or the urban challenge leads to new pre-fabricated shelter models for both emergency and recovery phases. There are plenty of opportunities for innovation; be it development of new products, applying techniques in a new manner, developing new techniques or new approaches.

29 February 2012

R&D Project Presentation: S(P)EEDKITS

S(P)EEDKITS is a large scale humanitarian R&D project to start on the 1st of March 2012 dealing with the improvement of emergency response units and tools.

Humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross have sleeping emergency response units (ERU), which start acting immediately after disaster strikes. Each ERU has a specific function, e.g. medical care, sanitation, energy provision, or water supply.

This project will provide kits that can be pre-positioned and mobilized very quickly and easily, that are modular and adaptable, low cost, high-tech in their conception but low-tech in use. These anticipated kits can literally improve the lives of millions of peoples the first hours, days and weeks after a major disaster and this for years to come.

Some specific goals:
Current equipment solutions will be scanned and bottlenecks with respect to large volumes and/or heavy weight will be identified. Then, novel materials and concepts will be developed to drastically reduce the volume and weight for transportation. Examples of targeted innovations: lightweight but durable and thermally isolating tent materials, novel concepts for energy supply (biogas), light weight textiles to store and distribute water and smart packaging of materials. Settlement kit modules will be developed that can be used for debris recuperation and re-use of damaged facilities.

The managing lead of the project is Centexbel, while the IFRC SRU will safeguard the overall quality and relevance to the practice of disaster response. Other end-users, knowledge centres, companies and universities in the consortium are the Norwegian Refugee Council, Artsen Zonder Grenzen, The Netherlands Red Cross, Waste, Practica, Sioen Industries, D’Appolonia, De Mobiele Fabriek, IBBK, Millson BV, Free University Brussels, Technical University Eindhoven and the Politecnico di Milano.

The project will start in March 2012 and will last for 4 years.

Project funded by the EC via FP7


28 February 2012

R&D Project Presentation: Reciproboo Shelter Kit

Our goal is to see the simple, but extremely strong, reciprocal frame roof concept adopted worldwide as a framing solution for the hundreds of thousands of relief tarpaulins delivered each year by Aid Agencies.

Specifically we see the steel kit as a first phase emergency shelter that will also encourage the use of sustainable bamboo resources worldwide.

The 4 pole reciprocal frame in the Reciproboo roof design is the most efficient means of spanning a roof, using 33% less steel then conventional tent frames.  This remarkable fact is at the heart of the design of the ReciproBoo shelter.

By simply overlapping 4 standard steel poles in turn, the advantages of this little known, but well proven, construction concept are becoming clear. Our work with steel has discovered that this reciprocal frame, when cross-lashed with only a couple of metres of sisal twine, has special physical advantages, when inclined as a roof for shelter construction.

For attaching ropes to the end of poles we designed a simple steel hook, that can be made from a standard steel tent peg and doubles as a ridge pole support. It was then possible to replace 3 of the side poles with ropes, thereby saving a considerable amount of steel. This single ridge pole together with its opposite counterpart “the ground”, perform as two trusses to create a rigid roof frame. The result is a unique shelter roof that self-supports a huge loading of available insulation materials making it cooler in the tropics or warmer at altitude. Using no high-tech fittings (all materials are already available in the relief sector), the shelter can be easily repaired, worked on and elevated by beneficiaries. For additional shelter benefits and details see www.reciproboo.org

After an independent successful workshop in Sudan and University Engineering projects now underway, we expect this framing solution to be soon widely adopted.

We see our role, as a not for profit group, to share and coordinate this increasing international interest.  As all the components are already available we believe there is an opportunity for an NGO, working with a commercial interest if necessary, to assemble and distribute the Reciproboo shelter kit in the near future.

A Reciproboo shelter kit (including 2 tarpaulins) costs US$ 46.