7 March 2012

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.

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