How to build disaster-resilient homes in the Philippines

A man helps with the construction of tents at an evactuation center in Pontevedra, Capiz in the Philippines. Over a million houses were severely damaged by Haiyan, half of them totally destroyed, according to data from the local disaster management bureau. Photo by: Blue Motus / International Organization for Migration / CC BY-NC-ND

Three weeks after Super Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines, relief efforts are now focused on rebuilding those areas most devastated by the storm, and one of the first steps is building homes that will be more resilient to climate-related pressures.

Considered one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to natural calamities like floods, earthquakes and typhoons, the Philippines is at the forefront of disaster resiliency efforts. With a significant portion of its population living in makeshift structures in slum areas, the need for disaster-resilient homes is urgent. One of the country’s top architects argued that, with or without disasters, climate adaptability and resiliency in construction just cannot be delayed further.

“I think even without disasters, we have to be prepared in terms of our structures. It is high time that whenever we design or someone wants to build a structure, [we should] always consider disaster resiliency strategies,” Rey Gabitan, a senior official with the United Architects of the Philippines, told Devex. “We are very vulnerable.”

Over a million houses were severely damaged by Haiyan, half of them totally destroyed, according to data from the local disaster management bureau. The storm may have passed, but how to live beyond that will be another steep climb for the survivors.

The tragedy proved three things. First, the effects of climate change are inevitable and will only get worse in the near future. Second, the government’s lack of sufficient disaster-preparation efforts will result to more calamity-related deaths. Third, people will continue to struggle in the vicious cycle of poverty, rebuilding their lives only for them to be destroyed again by the next calamity.

Although policy and governance play a huge role in tackling these issues, giving people resilient homes — against earthquakes, seasonal floods and typhoons — and engaging them in the process will be a good start.

But how do we build homes that will resist the onslaught of floods, earthquakes and typhoons like Haiyan? Here are some essential tips to keep in mind:

  1. Four-sided slope roof.According to Gabitan, the best structure for the roof of a house — especially during storms — is a four-sided slope like an elongated pyramid with a rectangular base that lessens wind pressure and decreases the risk of structural destruction over time.Canopies or eaves should also be minimized or — if possible — avoided. Eaves are basically the edges of the roof or overhangs that ensure no water drips inside when it rains.“[It] makes the whole house more prone to the effects of the storm especially the strong wind. The strong lift of the wind can strip the roof away so a narrower canopy is preferred, but better if there is no overhang altogether,” Gabitan explained.

  2. Storm shutters, installation.Most Philippine houses have windows, even in the slums with cheap glass, but the risk is that most of these materials cannot withstand 200 km/h winds, so the glass breaks and makes those inside even more vulnerable. This can be easily fixed by installing storm shutters. Gabitan also recommends the louver-type window frame as it can cover the glass windows to lessen the pressure during a storm.Also, during the onslaught of the typhoon, several people perished after being hit by corrugated iron sheets flying like paper due to the strong winds. This is a construction flaw that could have been prevented easily with a simple and effective installation process and framing.“The recommended method to attach the roof is to use the old method of ‘strap’ to attach the main frame of the house. It makes the grip of the metal roof sheets to the frame stronger,” said Gabitan, adding that using this method instead of the old nail and hammer will be cheaper in the long run. Metal frames is the way to go, coupled with appropriate installation angles for additional support, added Louie Baclagon from Habitat for Humanity Philippines.

  3. Right materials.Homes should be also be built using earthquake-resilient materials, aside from typhoon-resilient ones. Baclagon explained that using the load-bearing design will be perfect for this purpose because it will be adaptable to the movement of the ground, lessening the potential damage to the house.This is echoed by Gabitan saying that this concept, much like the natural “dumping” effect, is seen in “earth bags.” Earth bags are regular sacks — usually old rice sacks, filled with sand, gravel or soil — used to build structures.“One material that is very cheap and very easy to use is what we call ‘earth bags.’ If it’s properly utilized, it can be very strong,” he noted. “It becomes earthquake-resilient because the material has a natural dumping effect. Even if the ground shakes or moves, the impact is minimized.”He cautioned, however, that whatever materials builders use, when they are not used properly and effectively, including symmetry and balance, the whole concept will crash down.

  4. Location.Every year, Filipinos brace themselves for floods during the rainy season, so making houses flood-resilient is a no-brainer. Elevating homes and putting them on stilts can be an option, but this will be a band-aid solution because of the risk it poses when an earthquake hits.“The problem with building houses on stilts is that it’s not necessarily earthquake-resilient except if additional braces are built. The houses are anchored in soft foundation. For disaster resilience, the ultimate solution is finding the right location,” he explained.The Philippine government has geohazard maps, but local governments and developers rarely consult them before pushing through with a development project.

Footing the bill

Sadly, all the recommendations above will prove useless if people lack the financial means to do so. The question of who will pay for the reconstruction and climate-proofing of houses in the hardest-hit areas by Haiyan will be a major challenge.

“Replicability is very important because we’re aware that the cost of construction of these kinds of houses will be very difficult for the typhoon victims to cover,” Gabitan said.

Government housing loans are available, but humanitarian organizations do not see it as a viable solution, given that only members with prior contributions could possibly apply for one, a policy under the government’s social insurance program (SSS) and home development mutual fund (Pag-IBIG fund).

At this stage of the reconstruction and rehabilitation process, Habitat for Humanity is currently providing survivors 5,000 emergency shelters funded by the U.K. Department for International Development. The organization is expected to distribute over 80,000 basic kits to help people rebuild their homes in the coming weeks, and is hoping to build 10,000 permanent homes by the beginning of 2014.

The United Architects of the Philippines, meanwhile, is tying up with the government’s housing agency in terms of design, planning and land use management for the permanent housing of the typhoon victims. Both have different approaches, but they face the same challenge — funding.

“We’re open to partnerships [especially on funding] with different organizations, both local and international, in this project of permanent housing [for the typhoon victims],” said Gabitan.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.

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