7 March 2012

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.
IFRC SRU.

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