RMS Impact Trek Nepal 2017: Exploring Bhimtar and Eklephant

Contributed by Caroline Fox

On our first day in the field we headed up to Bhimtar, a rural fishing community about 45 minutes from the main road and where we are staying.  Bhimtar was badly impacted by the earthquake, with most houses completely destroyed.  Since the earthquake occurred just before midday on a Saturday, most people were down by the nearby river and children were not in school.  All buildings in the village were destroyed, killing most livestock, but fortunately human fatalities were limited to the few people who had stayed inside.  Looking around the village it’s difficult to see where the original houses once were with rubble mostly cleared, but there is the occasional glimpse of where a wall once stood traced out on the ground.  Now, the temporary structures that people are living in are made of corrugated metal or wood and are dispersed more widely.  It’s hard to imagine living in these temporary homes for almost 2 years, but this year has seen the first wave of government funding enabling homeowners to rebuild.  With only a few months until the monsoon begins, the construction season is short, but it’s exciting to see new permanent homes starting to rise up across the village.  

Shoveling dirt into wheelbarrow

Hailey and Emily mastering the 2-person shovel technique

To meet requirements to receive a government grant after the earthquake, homeowners must meet building code, but with costs much higher than traditional rural building techniques, and the grant only covering around 50% of the cost of the new construction, rebuilding using earthquake-resistant methods is often cost-prohibitive for homeowners.  The first house we saw under construction was a confined masonry building, an innovative and more affordable design that Build Change have been instrumental in advocating and seeking approval for.  

As we walked around the village, we passed many more confined-concrete buildings beginning construction, with a wide cross-section of the community working together.  Men and women, young and old, were involved sharing the heavy labour.  Concrete is mixed by hand, and in the more remote communities, cement and rebars need to be transported in by foot.  We had a go at shoveling and carting a few barrow-fulls of dirt, which left us sweating and exhausted.  Although we weren’t much help, we managed to provide some amusement to the locals, who took over our photo-op, snapping some pics on their phones and having a good laugh at us.    

In the afternoon, we headed to Eklephant, where we saw a retrofitted house, along with several other neighbouring damaged homes.  The damage to the houses varied from roof collapse and more minor damage to walls to one building where an entire third of the building had been destroyed. All three homes below are planned to be retrofitted:

New retrofitted house in Eklephant

A newly retrofitted house in Eklephant

I normally think of retrofitting as a preventative measure that is used where a building is undamaged, but it was cool, if surprising, to see some of the heavily damaged buildings that could still be restored using the same techniques.  Retrofitting is typically about half the cost of building a new earthquake-resistant house, and although the government subsidy that homeowners receive is lower, the amount that they need to invest in their new home

in addition to the subsidy is much lower too.  Retrofitting has other advantages including lower environmental costs compared to a new build and allowing families to maintain a more familiar home and lifestyle (often using the ground floor for livestock and top floor as a grain store) than the new single story construction houses.  Build Change have been working hard to have the value of retrofitting recognized by the government in Nepal, and the new subsidies that are now being provided as a result will lower the financial burden of re-building an earthquake-resistant house, and allow more homeowners to go back to their homes.

Build Change’s focus is to support homeowner-driven construction, so these types of cost-effective approach are extremely important to enable these rural communities to recover.  It’s an exciting time for reconstruction in Nepal, and it will be great to see the progress that is made by the next Impact Trek!


Retrofit Type Design Approved: A Turning Point in Nepal’s Reconstruction!

completed retrofit house

An estimated 500,000 Nepali earthquake-affected homeowners in Nepal can now choose to retrofit their damaged homes. In doing so, an estimated 2.5 million lives would be made safe from future earthquakes and 30 megatons of construction materials, and 1 billion USD could be saved.

The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) approved the retrofitting type design submitted by Build Change for stone masonry buildings in mud mortar on June 4th, 2017, after review by Technical Committee including representatives from the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) and leading Nepali structural experts.

By approving this retrofit type design, the Government of Nepal opens the door to retrofitting being used at scale by homeowners across the earthquake affected areas to seismically strengthen their earthquake damaged houses.

This is a turning point in the history of Nepal’s reconstruction, as for the first time, a clearly defined retrofit solution is made available to the large numbers of homeowners with earthquake damaged mud and stone rural houses.

House being retrofitted


House after retrofitting is done


What is retrofitting?
Retrofitting is an innovative and cost-effective method of seismically strengthening existing houses by strengthening structural elements and stabilizing the current structure, making them earthquake resistant.



Why is retrofitting so important for the Nepal reconstruction as a whole?
After the disastrous earthquake of April 2015, almost all the training and technical assistance systems promoted for the reconstruction have been aimed at new construction only. Whereas an estimated half a million of the earthquake affected houses are only partially damaged, i.e. still standing but cracked and unsafe for occupancy. What these homeowners and their homes need is retrofitting, not new construction.

Why is retrofitting so important for Nepali homeowners?
Retrofitting allows homeowners to return rapidly to their seismically strengthened home and to renew their agrarian lifestyle. This is especially important in rural villages where houses are both a home and a farm. Nepali rural houses usually consist of a barn, a granary and a home, all in one. Retrofitting a rural house not only protects families and their livestock from the impact of future earthquake damage, but also enables families to return to their pre-earthquake level of economic productivity, thus restoring livelihoods.

Build Change’s experience with retrofitting around the world
Build Change addresses the retrofitting of houses and schools as part of its programming in Indonesia, Haiti, Guatemala, Colombia, the Philippines and Nepal.

Build Change’s approach to retrofitting rural homes in Nepal
In rural Nepal, where plan configuration, building materials, and construction methods exhibit minimal variations, a finite number of “type-design” retrofit solutions can be developed that are applicable for much of the housing stock, simplifying the implementation of retrofitting at scale and making it accessible.

Working in close coordination with Centre for Applied Research and Development (CARD), an autonomous research and development center within the Institute of Engineering (IOE), Build Change has been working to incorporating retrofit type designs for rural houses into the selection of government approved designs.

In addition to the mud & stone type design recently approved by the National Reconstruction Authority, Build Change is currently developing additional type designs for dry stone rural houses as well as for adobe houses which are both also common in Nepal.





Many thanks to our amazing team of engineers, architects and social mobilizers as well as our fantastic supporters and partners; Mercy Corps, World Vision, United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), HELVETAS, ARSOW-NEPAL, CARD and Department for International Development (DFID). With your help, the strategic vision of retrofit type designs for rural Nepal has now been incorporated by the government and will be championed at national level, a turning point in the history of Nepal’s reconstruction.

Video and Pictures
Here is the link to a video released in September 2016 about Build Change’s retrofit program in Nepal: https://youtu.be/_iBA2NCOqug

Further success stories explaining the benefits of retrofitting in rural Nepal are available on the Build Change website here:





Nepal: a Set of Challenges & Opportunities

Contributed by Maria Grazia Frontoso

At 11:56am on 25 April 2015, Central Nepal was hit by a massive earthquake (7.8 magnitude), causing devastation to many parts of the country.  Luckily it happened when many people were not in their houses so the number of casualties was small compared to the number of destroyed or damaged houses.

Temporary shelter in Nepal

Example of temporary shelter.

During the RMS Impact Trek in March 2017 I didn’t expect to see lots of houses still highly damaged neither many people (4 million) still living in temporary shelters. Almost 2 years after the earthquake! Rebuilding lost homes and livelihood is a slow and drawn-out process in an under-developed and bureaucratic country like Nepal.

For villages completely flattened by the earthquake rebuilding houses from scratch is the only option.

With a few issues:

  • Construction codes are not always applied. “This is how it works in the informal economy: someone constructs a building without official authorization or planning approval. The builder meets an inspector in a café. Coffee is drunk and cigarettes are smoked, some money changes hands, and now there is a certificate to show that the building is ‘authorized’ and complies with the regulation (Robert Muir-Wood, The Cure for Catastrophe)”.
  • There is a gap between construction code & real needs of people. This is because the components of building regulation are not integrated in a holistic manner, and there is no common set of risk or safety levels underpinning the building performance requirements.
  • In very poor villages there is no clear ownership of land after the earthquake
  • Homeowners are not consulted during the design & rebuilding process and are often assigned to a new house they don’t want to live in it.

For damaged houses a valuable option to consider is retrofitting, a series of techniques aimed at strengthening older buildings to make them more resistant. Retrofitting can be used for both damaged and non-damaged buildings, in the latter case for prevention.

The Government in Nepal seems to favor demolishing old damaged houses and building new houses. But people (especially in the villages) are not happy with this approach. Homeowners may not want to live in places where the new houses are built or cannot afford to live in a new-built house with same characteristics/dimensions of the previous one. For example, with the money provided by the Government it would be possible to build only a very small ‘safe’ house while homeowners are typically used to live in a big 3-story house (100m2), for hosting cattle, living and storing food.

Homeowners would just like to go back to their previous-but-safer house.

House in Eklephant that is going to be retrofitted

House in Eklephant (to be retrofitted).

But there is also a difference in risk-cost-benefit relationship between new and existing construction. Sometimes it is more cost-effective (or easier?) to implement risk mitigation measures when designing and constructing new buildings as compared to retrofitting existing buildings. So, the overall picture is quite complex.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

This is, in a nutshell, how Build Change works: not building or retrofitting safer houses but instead teaching and transferring such knowledge to the local community, for a lifetime.

Build Change starts from the need and demand of the local population. New technologies are introduced during the retrofitting work but those technologies must be affordable in order to have a sustainable shift in building design & performance.

During the entire RMS Impact Trek, I looked at / thought of the many challenges of a poor country like Nepal affected by a natural catastrophe. With a single question in my mind: what can we do to make places like Nepal more resilient?

Kathmandu Garden of Dreams

Kathmandu – Garden of Dreams.

I wish I have a panacea to share with all of you but starting with a few ideas of what can be a game changer:

  • Build Change is contributing to include retrofitting in all the standard practices for safe buildings and is making a mindshift at the decision level to assess post-catastrophes damages. This is a long path but it will slowly put more attention on prevention rather than post-catastrophes from the public / private sectors and decision makers.
  • RMS & the insurance industry can play a big role in jointly designing alternative transfer risks products, microinsurance, etc.. & entering new markets. While there is probably not enough demand for property insurance, agricultural insurance is a great potential to low-income farmers and their community. Market-based solutions could include providing lower premiums if farms have been retrofitted, for example. RMS & the insurance industry can benefit from the in-depth knowledge of the local community provided by Build Change.
  • And you, reading this blog & listen to the experience of your colleagues, can bring awareness to the people around you, helping to bridge the protection gap and contributing to a more resilient society.

RMS Impact Trek Nepal 2017: A Change in Perspective

Paul Lewis in field in NepalContributed by Paul Lewis 

After several days in Nepal, including two days in the field, my views have changed. My assumption was that everyone was building new homes to replace those destroyed by the 2015 earthquake, and that these new homes would be better, safer, and more capable of serving the needs of the people that lived in them. I thought this was simply an issue of technical skill, logistics, labor and material resources, and money. But the truth is more nuanced and complicated, and Build Change is tackling the issue of home retrofitting. According to Build Change, retrofitting these damaged homes can be cost effective and provide the same space that existed before the home was damaged, in some cases far more than a new home. Because of a lack of funds, new homes often need to be smaller and that impairs how people use their homes as a residence and as a source of income. Multi-story homes provide shelter for people, food and animals that new home solutions often struggle to provide. 

model community building

Model community building designed and overseen by Build Change engineers

Build Change is helping to provide the technical expertise, training, organization and planning to make retrofits a potential solution for the government, NGO’s and homeowners. Winding through all these challenges takes both expertise and persistence that is exhibited in the staff at Build Change. It’s not an easy job, and I found the thought of rebuilding or retrofitting tens of thousands of homes overwhelming. However, my sense of the staff at Build Change is that they are not overwhelmed, but desire more resources to provide help more quickly. 

Some homes of course need to be completely rebuilt from the ground up. When we visited the village of Ektephant, we saw several new homes under construction. Those connected to Build Change were being constructed by people trained to build homes to code, with proper materials, and with proper techniques. To further help these small communities, Build Change is working on micro planning to help home spacing, use of land, drainage, and a feeling of community. What are the future challenges? I think it will be funding, certainly, but it will also be the ability of Build Change to lead and not be daunted. 


Not Just Houses, but Homes: What it means to be “homeowner-driven”

Contributed by Hailey Mitchell

Have you ever thought about building your own house? Not just selecting the finishes, assembling IKEA furniture, or maybe laying a bathroom tile or two. I mean really starting from scratch: removing soil, mixing concrete (by hand), tying steel rebar, laying blocks… Would it change the way you felt about the building? Now imagine doing this in the wake of immense tragedy while you are living in a temporary shelter. This is exactly what is being done in villages across Nepal. But how? And why?

Construction sites in Nepal

Scenes from a rural construction sites.

My interest in participating in the Impact Trek (aside from the once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit Nepal and to see the Himalayas, which had been a dream of mine for years) was to witness firsthand how local people were being empowered by Build Change to reconstruct their communities. As someone with both personal and professional interests in catastrophe risk and disaster management, it can be confusing when there are so many aid organizations that exist in the “resilience” or “safe housing” space – how can you know which ones are making a real difference in a community thousands of miles away? I had many questions and, admittedly, a healthy dose of skepticism before I left for Nepal: I was nervous that we would witness the plight of regions affected by disaster and then aided with rows and rows of donated houses built by external experts and left empty.

Five years ago I walked away from a university project in community and environmental development on the Eastern Cape of South Africa with an appreciation for the importance of engaging local communities in long-term change efforts, but I had little experience in housing. Through RMS I had learned that Build Change was “homeowner-driven.” In my initial understanding, this meant that the homeowners were somewhat involved in the decision-making process for the retrofitting or reconstruction of their home. I didn’t know just how involved they were, or how critical it would be to the success of Build Change. I looked forward to the trip but was still concerned on what we would see.

The use of locally available resources is important for construction materials, but also for the construction process! Bamboo was a popular material with which to build scaffolding.

Flash-forward a few months. The “light bulb” moment was when we were in Bhimtar village, at our second construction site for the day and the first that wasn’t a model home. I saw multiple generations of men and women working together to move soil, dig foundations, and fasten perfectly spaced steel ties to re-bar. An elderly man navigated a wheelbarrow full of stone across the construction site, deftly balancing the heavy load. Someone in the distance mixed a large pile of concrete with just a shovel. In the hot sun, three women in brightly colored skirts swung pickaxes into the earth and paused to glance curiously at our group. Two things were clear: that building houses without what we would consider modern construction equipment is really tough (obvious), and that I should go to the gym more often (obvious now). It was an impressive scene.

I asked Arun, our Build Change staffer guide for the day: “so, how is it decided who will receive the first new home?” He looked at me a bit funny, so I clarified. “In each village – as they reconstruct homes, who decides what family will get to live in each new structure?” As a New York City resident, I suppose I was picturing a housing lottery of some sort, where homes are built and then it is decided who will live in the first, then the next, and so on. Maybe there’s a town hall meeting. “They’re building their own homes,” he said. “The community will help to build, but this family – this is their house.”

Homeowner-driven. It clicked. This is what it means to be homeowner-driven.

Women play an important role in construction efforts at all the sites we saw. Here a woman takes a break from breaking up soil for removal to check in on the progress of the rebar installation.

Noll Tufani, country director for Build Change in Nepal, puts it this way: “It means to give the opportunity to homeowners to take life decisions into their own hands, and to become responsible for reconstruction of their homes, not because they’re told to, but because they’ve thought it through, they’ve decided it was the best thing [for their family].”

Why is this important, and what are the outcomes?

Knowledge sharing and trust. With a government subsidy for funding and training from Build Change, the people in these villages are really building their own homes, from the ground up, together with their families. This means that Build Change is not just providing an asset. Instead, they involve the community by training builders so that the homeowner can rely on someone locally to help them construct a safe house – then not only is there the obvious outcome of an earthquake-resistant home, but now there is a community that has done this once and therefore should be able to do it again. Down the road, should another disaster strike, they’ll be able to rebuild. Or, the same homeowner and builder could decide to expand the house to meet a family’s growing needs in a way that is safe. By enabling local people, the knowledge stays in the area and can continue to grow and spread.

Cultural sensitivity. The type of house is critically important to the various cultures and ethnic groups within the diverse country of Nepal. We heard over and over again that Build Change wants to adhere the designs to the local practices, such as designing homes that fit the need of grain storage on the upper floor, as much as possible. Houses need to be culturally appropriate: if everyone in the village has a wood house, and we start building reinforced concrete – it doesn’t matter how much “better” or safer we say the house is. It doesn’t fit in, it’s not respectful of local culture, and it might not be trusted by local people. Noel told us that they’ve seen examples of culturally inappropriate houses used as animal sheds. A new house is not any safer if it’s empty.

Community participation in construction

The construction we observed was a community effort, and though sometimes the sites did seem to get a bit crowded, everyone played a part. Here, the men gathered have formed an assembly line to bring water to the foundation for it to be mixed with cement.

Empowerment. This is a decision the homeowners have to balance against a lot of other day-to-day priorities: these are often people on the lower end of the economic spectrum in their respective region and so they may have to weigh things like healthcare, or transportation, or any other need. But they’ve made the decision together with their family and they have come to agree that the best use of money is to invest it in a safe house. Therefore, the family becomes very committed to the result – the involvement from the start means that people understand why they are doing or checking for certain qualities, they make sure they’re doing it correctly, and then they can enable to entire community to replicate it. If a program doesn’t start with the homeowner, they may only leave behind a house instead of a fully engaged and educated community.

After realizing why being homeowner-driven is so important to reconstruction efforts, I can’t imagine the impact of what it is like for the people here to build their own homes, to make the difficult decision to spend a critical amount of money and take family safety into their own hands. I can only venture that I would feel empowered and strong, maybe nervous, but certainly resilient. Looking back, I wish I had asked Arun to ask them what this feels like.

I hope that I can use my experience to tell others about the importance of Build Change and what’s happening in Nepal. The takeaway for me is that Build Change is enabling the people we saw not just with houses, but with homes. Homes that can be replicated across villages, in a way that makes sense for the people who live there. Homes that village residents feel responsible for and that they feel comfortable in. Homes that will help them to regain their livelihoods and live safely for generations to come. That’s so much more than just a house.

Surigao, Philippines: Examining Damages after the 6.7-magnitude Earthquake on February 10, 2017

Soft story collapse

Linnel examining the soft story collapse of a building in Surigao

From February 23 to February 25, 2017, Carl and Linnel from our engineering team in the Philippines performed post-earthquake reconnaissance following the 6.7 earthquake in Surigao Del Norte, on the north side of the island Mindinao. The team investigated and documented the response of rural school buildings and informal urban housing in the area, which will help inform our retrofit efforts in Manila and further our understanding of the seismic vulnerability of school buildings. The highest concentration of damaged housing exists in Surigao City, and San Francisco has experienced the most significant damage to schools. Unfortunately, San Francisco is inaccessible due to collapsed bridges and damaged roadways, and the team’s efforts have therefore been focused in Surigao City.
In plane wall cracking and out of plane wall failure due to lack of ring beam

In plane wall cracking and out of plane wall failure due to lack of ring beam

Soft story collapse

Soft story collapse in Surigao, Philippines

Surigao City is a moderately dense city with a population of about 160,000 people. The team flew into Butuan on Thursday, about 4 hours south of Surigao City as the Surigao airport was closed (the runway sustained substantial damage requiring the suspension of service). Many large scale commercial buildings, hotels, and hospitals of masonry construction in the city area have been closed due to sustained damage.
Soft story collapse of 3 story mixed use residential and commercial building

Soft story collapse of 3 story mixed use residential and commercial building

 Masonry gable wall failure.

Masonry gable wall failure.

The Build Change team coordinated with the Provincial Disaster Risk Response Management Office to locate the most heavily impacted areas. They have observed and encountered a wide range of housing typologies including unreinforced masonry, infill masonry, masonry skirt wall, timber post with masonry infill, lightweight timber, and masonry ground story with timber upper-story construction. The majority of homes are limited to 2 stories or less.
 2 story masonry infill construction experiencing permanent tilt due to settlement of foundation. Example of good construction above grade but inadequate foundations

2 story masonry infill construction experiencing permanent tilt due to settlement of foundation. Example of good construction above grade but inadequate foundations.

Minor wall cracking on 2 story masonry infill construction. Neighboring buildings were heavily damaged and ground ruptures were visible, although building foundation did not exhibit damage. Example of good construction and good building response.

Minor wall cracking on 2 story masonry infill construction. Neighboring buildings were heavily damaged and ground ruptures were visible, although building foundation did not exhibit damage. Example of good construction and good building response.

Wall out of plane failure of school building due to lack of a ring beam

Wall out of plane failure of school building due to lack of a ring beam

The team observed damage in all building typologies, however only in buildings that exhibited noticeably substandard construction were severely damaged or collapsed. Encouragingly, buildings that used common Philippines construction practices either experienced minor damage or no damage at all, even when neighboring homes were completely destroyed.

The most common failures for masonry construction were out of plane wall failure. The most common for timber was soft story failure and a lack of complete lateral system.
The team completed their reconnaissance on Saturday, February 25 and returned to Manila. The results and observations will be used to continue development of retrofit manuals for urban environments such as those in Metro Manila.

Damages from the Pidie Jaya Earthquake: School Assessments and Checking in on Build Change-advised Houses

Day 4 – 22 December 2016 in Pidie Jaya District

Today we had a chance to join the government team that conducts assessments for school buildings. Their team is divided into three groups, each with an engineer from the Ministry of Public Works, and a representative from each of BPKP (Financial Investigation Agency of Aceh Province), BNPB, and DepEd Pidie Jaya. The team will assess 54 schools that are reported to have high or moderate damage by the school staff. Schools which are deemed highly damaged will be demolished and replaced with a temporary emergency school.

We split our team into two, Danny and Didi went to assess some nearby villages, and Ani joined the government team for school assessments to learn how the government assessment process works. Ani and the government team visited 5 schools. Some schools showed no damage (or no new damage) due to the earthquake, even though the building was reported to be highly or moderately damaged. We did find damages similar to those we had seen elsewhere, including collapsed gable walls and cracking near openings and at wall-column connections. There was a long crack in the side walls and gable walls, found at all schools and a similarly designed library building. Few buildings had collapsed. The engineers from the Ministry of Public Works do not use any forms or tools during assessment, and instead identifies what is missing, pieces that need to be added or repaired, and categorizes the damage accordingly. They will classify a building as highly damaged if the structural frames are broken or have collapsed.


The school assessment team


The corner of a damaged school in Pidie Jaya


Side of a damaged school in Pidie Jaya










Our second team went to two additional villages in Trienggadeng sub-district: Tampui and Peulandok Teunong. Tampui is more remote, near the forest in the hills, but still easy to access. We found about 50% of houses in the area are timber framed. The majority of houses sit on stilts and look to be about 50 years old. The columns are not on the foundation on many of these houses, and nearly 75% of the houses in the villages are damaged. Most of the damaged houses are confined masonry. We found similar problems here as with the confined masonry houses in other villages: building height (floor to ring beam) was about 4 meters or more and had no other reinforcement in the wall, short connections between the rebar of columns and beams, insufficient concrete cover, poor concrete quality, and improper bricklaying techniques. All houses use CGI roofs and timber roof framing, except several old timber framed houses that use sago palm for the roof. There are still many people living in tents in front of their houses, afraid to go back inside.


Interior of Damaged home in Triengadeng


Exterior of damaged home in Trienggadeng









Day 5 – 23 December 2016 at Aceh Besar District

On the last day, we visited two villages in Peukan Bada, in the Aceh Besar district, where we provided technical assistance in 2006. We visited houses in Lampisang and Keuneu Eu villages, some of which were not under our technical supervision. All of the homeowners did not make any changes to the houses since they were built, except for one house (Jamal) which had been expanded to the back and rear. The other two houses extended the roof at the front.  We did not see any major damages to the houses, and the structure frames are still in good condition. The only damaged we found at two houses was the plastering or covering of some columns had chipped off, but the rebar remained unexposed. We found two houses with cracking near the openings or windows, however according to the homeowners the cracks have been there since around 2007 or 2008.


Extension of roof on front of house


Column and roof joint


Exterior corner of house


Small crack near window


Exterior of home








The roof structure and coverings are also still in good condition with no leakage reported. The wall paint is also still looking fine and has not been repainted, despite thin cracking lines on wall surfaces at two houses. The only major damages we found on all houses is the wooden window and door frames look rotten. All of the homeowners still remember Mercy Corps and Build Change, and one of them even still has set of drawings of her house. We shared our bluebook with them as well.

Aceh Earthquake Response Day 3: Brickmakers and Damaged Buildings in Meredeu & Bandar Baru Sub-districts


Today we visited two more affected sub-districts in Pidie Jaya. In the morning we went to Bandar Baru sub-district and visited two schools. The buildings are confined masonry, and include teacher housing. Walls have collapsed in a few of the classrooms and the library building.


The damage that we found in those two schools are quite similar to the damage at the schools we visited earlier in the week: cracks in the walls near windows and doors, and separation between columns, beams, and walls.


One of the buildings with teacher housing has metal roof framing and metal sheet roof covers.


We then went to Jie-jiem village, one of the most affected areas in Bandar Baru sub-district. According to the village leader, there are 77 damaged houses- about 60% houses in the village. The majority are confined masonry houses, and none are more than one story. 35% are timber framed houses, or are combined with a confined masonry portion.

wall-jie-jiemThere was more damage found in confined masonry houses, however some of timber frame house have also been damaged. They had one school that reported damage, but it had already been demolished by the time we arrived.

Building materials are not easily accessible- many people prefer to get their bricks from the Bireuen area (6 hours away). The village leader and some homeowners whom we interviewed are very interested in good construction practices. We gave them some of our bluebooks to help support their reconstruction efforts.


We also visited two villages, one in the Meredeu sub-district, and another in the Trienggadeng sub-district. There are still a lot of people stays in the tent or camp in both villages. The one in Meredeu is much denser than the one in Trienggadeng. About 50% of the houses in Meredeu were timber framed, while in Trienggadeng nearly 70% were confined masonry.


The damage to the confined masonry houses, however, was more obvious in Trienggadeng. We only have a general overview of these two villages, as we did not assess any individual houses.


Brickmaking Kiln in Mee Pawang

We met one brickmaker in Mee Pawang village, in the Trienggadeng sub-district, and visited his kiln. The kiln is badly damaged due to the earthquake. It is similar to the ones used in Lhokseumawe, but the wall is lower (around 1.5 meters tall) and thicker at the bottom. From what we observed the clay that he uses is quite good, which he bought from a producer at Rawasari Hill, just a few kilometers from his kiln. He used a machine for mixing the clay, and the mixture looks fine, although we still found some bricks that were not mixed well. The size is much smaller than the ones in Padang, similar to the ones in Lhokseumawe but a bit thinner (3.5 x 10 x 16 cm). We brought one of his bricks to be tested in our office in Padang.


Brick from Mee Pawang village

There are around 5 kilns in this village. According to the brickmaker we interviewed, however, there are around 40 kilns in neighboring Kuta Pangwa village, where we visited the day before.


Erlilawati near her damaged home

We spoke with Erlilawati, one of the homeowners in Jie-jiem village. When the earthquake happened in the early morning, her husband woke up and quickly brought 4 of their children out of the house while she covered her twin babies while the walls began to collapse around her. The wall collapsed on her, and she suffered a spinal cord injury as a result. Her husband came back into the house to help them escape, but unfortunately more of the house collapsed with him inside. Luckily, some neighbors quickly got them out of the house after the earthquake stopped.


Reports after the Pidie Jaya Earthquake – Day 2 : Damages in Pidie Jaya and Trianggadeng

In the morning we went to the Pidie Jaya District to meet with the head of the district’s Department of Education (DP). On our way there, we observed some damaged buildings, most of which had suffered wall, column beam, and roof collapses.

Damaged building under constructionDamaged building in Pidie Jaya







We met with representatives from the Ministry of Education, UNICEF, and Save the Children. They are collaborating to build 13 emergency school buildings. They are currently completing structural assessments and intend to complete the construction by December 25, 2016, as requested by the President. The designs have been prepared by the Ministry of Public Works.

Damaged school in TianggadengDamaged wall at school









We then assessed four schools in the Trianggadeng sub-district, which is one of the areas that was most affected. Three of them are comprised of confined masonry buildings, and one of them has a timber frame and wood panel building. One of the confined masonry schools that we observed is badly damaged, while the rest sustained moderate damage. Common damages that we observed are collapsed gable walls, wall cracking near windows and doors, and separation between columns, beams, and walls. We also observed poor quality concrete made of brittle, round gravel. Exposed rebar on the concrete frames is old and rusted. The bricks are also of poor quality. Most of the roof framings are made from timber, but two buildings have steel frame roofs.

At the end of the day, we visited Kuta Pangwa, the most affected village in Trianggadeng district. It is near MTSN Pangwa, where we visited on Day 1.  About 90% of the houses in the village sustained wall and roof damage. All of the confined masonry buildings, which make up a majority of houses, were damaged. Timber frame buildings make up about 15% of houses, half of which were also damaged.  17 people were killed in the village as a result of wall collapses. According to residents, only around 9 houses sustained minor damage, while 110 houses sustained moderate to severe damage.  Many affected homeowners are living in tents outside their houses because they are afraid to go back inside.

Building materials are relatively easy to come by. Sand is sourced from a local river, and there are brickmakers that work near the village. We intend to visit the brick kilns on Day 3. Timber, while readily available, is more expensive than brick. With regard to reconstruction planning, all homeowners are currently waiting for the disbursement of government subsidies. Some homeowners prefer to build their homes by themselves or with hired builders. Others prefer to be given the finished product instead of money because they fear that they will spend the subsidy on daily consumption. The majority of village residents are farmers, and a few of them have side jobs as insurance agents or shop owners.

Damages from the Pide Jaya Earthquake Day 1: Bieruen District

Our reconnaissance team is composed of 3 Build Change staff and our driver Danu. Danny is the technical team leader for our current better brickmaking program in Lubuk Alung, West Sumatera. She also led the technical team in our previous technical assistance program in Aceh Tengah in 2015. Elwahyudi is a technical supervisor who is also currently involved in the better brickmaking program with Danny.

We left Sunday at noon from Padang and flew to Medan. We then drove for about 10 hours to Bireuen, one of the three districts that were affected by the earthquake on December 6th in Pidie Jaya. There is no damage in the city and we saw no wood framed buildings. We went directly to Samalanga sub-district, the most affected part of the district, which is about 1 hour from the city. Here, we started to observe several wood framed building types, although confined masonry buildings are still dominant.

We met the Head of BPBD Bireuen and received information on specific villages that have a lot of damaged houses. Two people were killed in Bireuen, caused by cabinet and boards that collapsed on them.

School in Bireuenday-1-school-column

We visited three schools in Bireuen, two of them are side by side and show little damage. The third was three-story religious boarding school (school-pesantren). All the three schools are masonry buildings. The third school we saw has sustained more damage as the column and beam are separated. Unfortunately, they lost one of their teachers during the earthquake. No timber framed school buildings were found in Bireuen.

We then visited Glumpang Bungkok, the most affected village in Bireuen where BPBD reported there are 76 damaged houses (15 of them are heavily damaged). There are 77 resident families in this village. When we arrived, we did not immediately see damaged houses, as several of them are badly damaged inside. Around 70% are confined masonry houses in that village, while others are timber frame with wood wall panel and timber frame with infill masonry. We also found several houses with timber frame upper levels and confined masonry at ground level. Generally, the timber frame ones were constructed much earlier (30-40 years ago) and then the confined masonry was added below at a later stage (10-15 years ago).








Most of the damaged houses, about 90% of them, are confined masonry, although we also observed the timber columns of some timber framed houses shifted from their footing. All houses use CGI roof and timber roof framing. In total we assessed 11 houses, 3 of which are badly damaged. We also interviewed some homeowners, builders, and the village leader (Kecik). Building material such as sand and gravel are widely available since they said they can take them from the river nearby. But for bricks, cement, and other manufactured materials, homeowners need to order from the city which is about 2 hours away. The area is luckily not a tsunami-zone. The Kecik is unsure when reconstruction will begin, as they are still waiting for government’s subsidy.


Street view in Bireuen

At 5 pm we headed to Pidie District (Sigli). Pidie Jaya District is the most affected area is between Bireuen and Pidie. As we left the Bireuen area, we immediately began to see more badly damaged houses and buildings. We stopped at one open space where we learned that the building that had once stood there had collapsed during the earthquake and killed 9 people.


School in Pidie Jaya


Damaged wall in a school – Pidie Jaya








We visited another heavily damaged school in Pidie Jaya District. It is comprised of 4 buildings, all of which are confined masonry, and one building is two stories. There are a lot of structural damages including cracked walls and floors, but no collapse except for ceiling and lighting fixtures. The school is just around 2 km from the coast line and is located in a tsunami-zone.

The emergency response period has been extended until December 27th.


We spoke to Muhammad Abdul Karim, whose house in Gumplang Bungkok village was highly damaged during earthquake. He, his wife, and their three children were asleep in one bedroom when they started to feel the shaking. Abdul was frightened- not only was the shaking was so bad that they couldn’t stand, but he also heard loud noises like things were crashing and collapsing outside their bedroom. He thought that day would be his last. He and his family just kept hugging each other. Fortunately, they were able to go out of the house safely after the temblors stopped after about a minute. Abdul got a minor injury on his leg, stumbling through the collapsed bricks. Around 70% wall of their brick house collapsed. The wood roof structure, however, is still fine. Currently, 13 days after earthquake, he and his family still do not dare sleep inside. Now, they live in their family’s house in the same village. He and his family only return to their house in the daylight. He has started to install some used wooden panels to replace the brick walls that collapsed. Abdul remains unsure about when he will have courage to stay in his house again and start to build his home back.

After Hurricane Matthew: Investigating Housing and School Damages in Beaumont & Les Cayes

Today we visited the city of Beaumont located between Jeremie and Camp Perrin in the mountains. We met the Mayor of Beaumont, who described a similar situation as that in Moron. The main street of the town was not very affected by the hurricanes. The majority of the houses and commercial shops are made from unreinforced masonry with heavy roofs. We went with a municipal agent to visit the outskirts of the town. In this area, ­ 80% of houses were made from wood frame and stone masonry infill and 20% were constructed from unreinforced masonry. We saw again here that wood framed houses are much more damaged. The stone masonry is unable to resist the wind force, and we did not see wood cross bracing in the walls. People who lost their home are either staying in an unreinforced masonry school or building makeshift shelters on their property. We asked the construction date of these houses while interviewing the homeowners, usually they do not remember the date as they are more than 30 years old. Most foremen are not building with wood frames anymore and the skills have been lost throughout the years. New houses are built from unreinforced masonry blocks.

Stone infill house with shelter next door

Picture of wood frame and masonry infill houses destroyed in Beaumont. The homeowner used old CGI to make a shelter next to the site of their destroyed home.

We visited two schools in Beaumont. INFODIH is a primary school made from unreinforced masonry and with a wood truss system for the roof. The school was badly damage by the fall of the masonry gable. The pieces of block gable broke some wood truss element and let the wind enter in the classroom. As the other part of the roof did not suffer severe damage once can argue that the roof sheets were blown away after the gable roof fall. Fortunately, the school was not used as an emergency shelter during the hurricane.


INFODHI School roof

The wood truss elements were well connected with gusset plate on both sides, but the roof-to-wall connection consisting of bent rebar wrapped around the truss rafter seemed insufficient. The school is currently shut down and the school materials and furniture are subjected to the elements.

Ecole National de Beaumont without roof

Ecole National de Beaumont, without roof.

We visited the National School of Beaumont and unfortunately the roof damage is severe. The six classrooms do not have a roof anymore. The structural system used for the roof – 2×4 rafters spaced at 1m – is insufficient to resist the wind force. The rafter-to-rafter connection was done poorly and the failure occurred at this weak point. The connection of the rafter to the top of the masonry gable was insufficient, and the wood elements were pulled away from the wall allowing pieces of the masonry gable to fall. The schools of Beaumont that were not damaged by the hurricane are being used as shelters for the families who lost their homes. There is no school running in Beaumont currently.

Rafter to Rafter connection failure

Rafter-to-rafter connection failure

We arrived in Les Cayes in the afternoo, a major city on the southern coast of the island. The city was flooded for days after Hurricane Matthew as the rain had continued to pour. The city center is full of trash and debris, but the majority of the buildings were in unreinforced masonry and were able to resist the strong winds. The majority of light weight roofs have been blown away.

Les Cayes

Main street in Les Cayes

We visited an informal settlement that was dramatically affected by the hurricane and the floods. The structure of the houses have been soaked in water for days and the structures are in really bad condition. The sanitation situation in this zone is a severe concern due to high population density of the neighborhood, the amount of trash and clogged drainage.

Damage in Informal neighborhood in Les Cayes

Damage in Informal neighborhood in Les Cayes

After Hurricane Matthew: Assessing Damages in Moron

Today we drove from Jeremie toward the mountains in the middle of the Grande Anse department. On the bumpy road along the Grande Anse River we saw dozens of houses with heavy damages from the hurricane. The houses are mainly constructed with a wood frame and stone masonry. The wind force shocked the buildings, provoking the fall of the top corners of some walls and cracks near the column joints. The use of mud mortar to place the stones is insufficient to tie the stone together well. We saw houses that withstood the hurricane better when they were plaster with cement mortar. Foreman are using untreated wood to build the frame with a spacing of typically 1m. The wood elements are not saw lumber, but generally round wood approximately 7-10cm diameter. On the most damaged houses we saw that the wood was deteriorated by termites and humidity.

Termite damaged wood

Wood damaged by Termites

The great majority of houses in unreinforced masonry have little cracks, but many have lost their roofs as they were poorly connected to the top of the wall. For this type of building, the wall-to-rafter connection is typically a piece of bent rebar around the rafter. We observed failure of block masonry walls when the span of the wall was more than 4m without a ring beam. Retrofitting would be an interesting solution for these buildings, and would involve adding a ring beam and columns at the corners. Nevertheless, the quality of the blocks should be investigated thoroughly, as they appear to be very fragile.

We saw a few houses built with stone masonry that behaved well, but the connection to the roof failed and the roof was destroyed.

Stone masonry home without roof

Stone masonry building without roof

We arrived in Moron, a town located on a hill surrounded by mountains and not far from a large river. All the trees around the town are destroyed.

Mountains surrounding Moron

The mountains surrounding Moron

We had a talk with the Deputy Mayor, who told us that even if the situation in the city center – where about 90% of the lightweight roofs were blown away – appears critical, the situation in the communal sections 2 and 3 was even more dramatic. These two sections are located on the other side of the river, and the cable bridge crossing the river has been severely damaged by the hurricane. People have to cross the river by foot in order to access the market. In these areas, the houses are built from mud and wood. The Deputy Mayor considers the town completely destroyed.

People crossing the river to the market

People wading through the river to reach the market on the other side

We assessed a few dozen houses in Moron to understand the type of failure and extent of the damage. We met with Samedi Camecise, who lost her house during the hurricane. She described a sudden, total collapse of her house, after which she and her son found shelter in a neighbor’s house made from unreinforced masonry.

Samedi Camecise

Samedi Camecise

The quality of construction materials is a major challenge in the area. We saw pile of sand extracted directly from the river bed. The sand is sold without being washed. The block quality is very poor as many manufacturers put clay in blocks. The CGI are mostly substandard, and were deteriorated and rusted before the hurricane. We interviewed people about their knowledge in quality material selection and it appeared that they have little knowledge due to lack of training. We surveyed material shops in Moron and Jeremie and found that the materials are generally available in the cities but very scarce when not accessible by the road.

Sand pulled from river

Sand pulled from the river bed

Hurricane Matthew: Into Southwestern Haiti to Assess Damages in Jeremie

Reconnaissance team Jeremie

Build Change Team: Clément Davy, Junior Macié, Gaspard Pierristal, Herode Nazaire

The Build Change reconnaissance team for the South and Grande Anse departments is composed of 4 engineers and our driver Ken. Junior is a team leader who has extensive knowledge in retrofit and new construction in confined masonry. Gaspard is the program manager for our current retrofit and reconstruction program in Port au Prince. Herode is a trainer from the block department. Clement has been a project engineer for 2.5 years in Haiti working on house and school retrofits.

We left early Tuesday morning heading to Jeremie in the southwest peninsula of Haiti. Hurricane Matthew hit the coast on October 4th in Les Anglais (see map below) and crossed the peninsula from south to north with maximum sustained winds at 145 mph (230 km/h) and maximum wind gusts at 165 mph (270 km/h). (Source: USAID)

Map of Hurricane Matthew Path through Haiti

Map of Hurricane Matthew Path through Haiti (courtesy of MapAction)

We drove from east to west so we were able to see the evolution of the effect of the hurricane. In Miragoane numerous trees had broken branches, but the vast majority of roofs withstood the winds. In Saint Louis du Sud we started to see broken trees and houses with severe roof damage. Some electrical poles fell, cutting off electricity to the city of Les Cayes. We passed through the city of Cavaillon which was flooded last weekend. After Les Cayes, we took the road toward the north and the mountains. It was striking to see how the landscape had changed. This region is known for being one of the greenest areas in Haiti, however now all the trees have lost their leaves and most of them have fallen branches or are completely broken.

We passed nearby the city of Camp Perrin which was heavily hit by the hurricane. The city used to be hidden by the trees from the road (see picture). As we continued toward the north we saw that the type of building was changing. There are less and less confined masonry houses and more wood frame with stone masonry infill or mud houses. The houses with heavy roofs do not show severe damage, however the hipped roofs are heavily damaged. One detail that’s worth noting is that some houses with straw roofs are not heavily damaged – only parts of the cover are gone, but the structure is preserved.

Intact straw roofs

Straw roofs, mostly intact.

We drove around the shore toward Jeremie where many houses, more than 80%, are heavily damaged. Many roofs are gone and the walls show cracks or are completely collapsed. Most of these houses were built with wooden roofs and a wood structure with infill masonry or wood panel.

Wide shot of city in Haiti

Damaged trees and houses.

We arrived in Jeremie at midday and we met the general secretary of the mayor’s office of Jeremie, Antoine Dimanche, to introduce Build Change and describe our evaluation work. M. Dimanche proposed that we visit and evaluate the Vocational School of Jeremie, where the roof was blown away by the hurricane. We met Robert Jean Louibert, one of the professors and deputy director at the school. He explained that the school was training 400 students in different vocational skills such as construction, metal work, electricity, hair dressing, and wood work before the hurricane. Now the courses have been suspended, and some parts the building are being used instead to accommodate 104 families who lost their houses. The structure of the school is safe, but the covering of the roof (comprised of metal or wood truss in different sections) is completely damaged.

Families living in school in Jeremie

Families staying in the school in Jeremie after their houses were destroyed

We spoke with Rose Darlene who lost her house in the hurricane and is now staying in the school. She is selling small food items to make a little money and begin to recover from the storm. M. Louibert told us that he would like to reopen the school as early as November, even though the challenges of recovery seem extensive.

We have also completed an assessment of the police station and fire station. The fire station has no damage, but a portion of the roof at the police station was constructed from wood truss and is completely damage.

In addition, we assessed the houses of OAS/Estrella next to the office of MTPTC. The houses are built from confined and non-reinforced masonry. The structures are safe but the roofs are either completely damaged or gone.

RMS Impact Trek: Day 5 – Rebuilding Dhunkarka After the Earthquake

Matt Bussman

By Matt Bussman

I’ll start with a broad idea (not my own) that I believe is generally true: all around the world, local architectural forms have grown organically, mostly out of rural communities, in response to distinct physical environments. A few examples: throughout the floodplains of Southeast Asia, homes rise on stilts to allow the monsoon floods to pass underneath. In the Alps, steeply pitched roofs shed heavy snows. And in the arid mountains of Peru, thick adobe walls keep homes cool during the day and warm at night. In the same way, Nepal’s buildings are largely a product of the land the Nepalese inhabit: in a country of hills and mountains, with few flat and open spaces, rather than sprawling across acres of land, rural homes go vertical: cooking and livestock on the ground floor, sleeping quarters on the second floor, and grain storage in the attic. As for materials: the roads that would ordinarily connect small towns to larger cities are frequently washed out by the rains; as a result, rural villagers (around 81% of Nepal’s population lives in rural areas) often forgo modern materials like steel and reinforced concrete in favor of mud and stone, which can be collected on site. The combination of these attributes – tall homes, with heavy walls built from weak and brittle materials – creates a vulnerability to earthquakes matched hardly anywhere else in the world.

In April 2015, the Mw7.8 Gorkha earthquake stuck between the two major cities in Nepal, Kathmandu and Pokhara. While both urban centers experienced some damage, it was really the rural communities – specifically, these homes made of mud and stone – that took the full force of the shaking. Driving through the countryside a few days ago, a year and a half after the event, the signs of damage are still very obvious, each one a dark cousin to the vulnerabilities above: collapsed walls, piles of broken earth and rock, and landslides across landscape as if it had been only a few weeks ago. It’s not terribly surprising that the recovery has been slow – few roads exist into these villages, and accessing them even to quantify the damage has been excruciating for the government and other organizations. Of the damage and loss estimates that exist, few even bother attaching a dollar value to these self-built homes. Aside from some support immediately after the event, the longer-term recovery of these rural areas has largely faded from the consciousness of the international community.

Village of Dhunkharka

Panorama of Dhunkarka

And yet, the outlook for the villages is not entirely bleak. After the event, the Nepali government promised subsidies of around USD$2,000 for any homeowner whose house was severely damaged or collapsed in the earthquake. Just this week, the first installments (around $500) were disbursed to the first round of eligible homeowners, aiding homeowners and communities to hire builders to construct new homes. Although it may sound low, relative to Nepal’s GDP per capita ($732), the housing subsidy is quite substantial (by comparison, in 1989 after the Loma Prieta earthquake, FEMA offered loans – not grants – of $30,000 to homewoners, at a time when US GDP per capita was around $22,900). Still, the reality remains: to build a traditional mud and stone house – even without any additional earthquake-resistant features – costs $10,000 to $12,000. One in compliance with the Nepali code (the code allows unreinforced masonry homes) and the cost can rise to $15,000.

At the moment, the government’s official line is that the housing subsidy is given only for new home construction. Enter Build Change’s current project in Dhunkharka, a region about four hours southeast of Kathmandu. Here, Build Change engineers are working to demonstrate the technical viability of repairing and retrofitting existing homes that were damaged (but not collapsed) in the earthquake. So far, the results are promising – retrofitting an existing home, even with some repairs to damaged walls, costs significantly less than building a new code-based home (around $3,000 vs. $15,000), and construction is notably faster (around three weeks vs. two months), leading homeowners to have shelter more quickly. If the retrofit project were replicated at scale, it’s likely the total cost for each home could drop entirely within the subsidized amount from the government, if the government were to view repairs and retrofits as a feasible alternative to new construction. Right now, this is a big “if”.

Retrofit in Dhunkarka

Home repair and retrofit in progress in Dhunkharka

So, fingers crossed that the thoughtful engineering and construction Build Change is doing gains traction among local and national leaders. Whether this work is enabled by the Nepalese government may mean the difference between safe housing and no housing for hundreds and thousands of rural families affected by the earthquake.


RMS Impact Trek: Day 4 – Becoming an Observer in Eklephant and Bhimtar

Megan Arnold

By Megan Arnold

When I applied to the Impact Trek, one of the drivers of my desire to go was to see actual earthquake damage first hand. My experience with earthquake damage was numbers – how many buildings and casualties, how much loss in dollars. I’ve seen photos of damage – individual buildings, street blocks, aerial photos – but never quite connected with the reality of it all because I was so removed from it. I could look, sympathize, then move on with my day. However, being here in a remote village of Nepal, I see the scale of damage and it’s so much more than the metric of “177 buildings damaged”…

I stand in the villages of Eklephant and Bhimtar, taking pictures of what was someone’s home – their intimate interiors now exposed to the elements and this foreigner’s camera lens. This building may have housed generations of families, could even have been 4 generations all at once, and their livelihoods. With the sudden and terrifying shaking of earth, what once kept them safe came crumbling down.

The building’s inhabitants, both human and animal, were displaced. Some people lived out in the fields for over a week, wondering every time an aftershock rumbled through, if they would die. People set up shelters with whatever they had on hand or could salvage until the temporary shelters arrived.

Most people are now housed in other family homes or in temporary housing – half-domed structures with of light metal roofs resembling a tunnel, and tarp, wood, or stone walls. Their livestock are right outside, their harvests drying wherever they can find space. They are waiting for government aid to come in so they can start rebuilding, some cannot afford to rebuild even with the additional aid.

Here I am in their village, taking photos of their past lives and their current difficulties. I feel like even more of a foreigner than my blonde hair and blue eyes obviously indicate. I am a foreigner because I have never lost my home. I have never needed to salvage my belongings and lived in temporary shelter. I have never lost my livelihood, nor my food storage. I have never lived outdoors, fearing for my life each time the earth trembled. I have never been without clean water and sanitation. I have never worried where my next meal would come from. I have never lost a loved one under a pile of stone.

Yet, here I am, an observer. I see them going on with their lives and I see the homes that they lost. I listen to them share their experiences. I empathize, but that feels so meaningless considering the hardship they have faced. I want to help these people, and they’re just a fraction of all of the people in Nepal going through this tragedy. There are scores of villages across the region who are even more remote, and also completely flattened.

For me, this is where Build Change comes in. Their impact goes beyond the rebuilding 143 homes in this village. Their mission is to scale the rebuilding and retrofitting process across the country. They are demonstrating earthquake-safe building practices and training builders to retrofit. They built model homes that have diagrams even non-Nepali readers (myself included) can have some understanding of. They have completed retrofits and are working with the government to design more affordable new constructions. They are striving to address the unique living conditions of the villages in the reconstruction.

There is a lot of work ahead to rebuild these villages in Nepal and Build Change is in the thick of it. They are scoping out how to scale rebuilds and retrofits to the hundreds of thousands of people who need it. It has been an amazing experience to see their impact firsthand.

RMS Impact Trek: Day 3 – Retrofits in Dhunkarka

By Alastair Norris

We are now all completely submerged in Nepali time and the first four days have quickly slipped by providing in a huge mix of emotions. I completely echo the words of Christine and Matt on how much of a culture shock it was arriving in Kathmandu four days ago, but what once seemed so strange to us all now feels like the normal way of life.

As Christine mentioned in her blog, the five of us parted company yesterday, with Matt B. and I heading to Dhunkarka whilst Christine, Meghan, and Matt N. went to Sindupalchowk. After 3 hours of travelling (that felt more like riding an elephant than being in a jeep) we arrived at Build Change’s current retrofit houses in the region and were greeted by Kiran and Manoj, the respective site managers. At 25 and 27 they both have solid heads on their shoulders and are each leading a team of 6 workers from the village.The workers all want to learn how to retrofit these buildings so they can provide safer homes to more families in the community and it was very heartwarming to hear the pride they have in working for Build Change.

These houses were chosen for retrofitting by the local village council due to both the damage level sustained, enough to require retrofit but not enough for rebuilding, and the financial position for the family. They are typical buildings of the area consisting of 3 floors with approx 120m2 of floor area – the first for living, the second sleeping, and third for storage of crops. The retrofit includes a number of structural alterations, including new columns and beams to tie the walls and floors together – these can be either wood or concrete, through stones connecting the inner and outer leaves of the wall to ensure they do not separate in an earthquake, horizontal bracing within the floor to restrain the walls further and a ring beam at the top of the house to hold the walls together. The build time for these houses is 8 to 12 weeks, which is unbelievably fast given everything that they have to get done and means a lot of hours spent on site, even requiring them to work every weekend! Seeing these buildings has allowed us to identify a number of small projects where we may be able to help Build Change streamline their designs. These incorporate a number of structural alterations to maintain the high standard of retrofitting whilst reducing the amount of material used and thereby the cost. We intend to work on these further both during our time here in Nepal and when we return to RMS.

Now for the more social side of our time in Dhunkarka! We have met some truly wonderful people and have been amazed by the hospitality of everyone here. So often we have wandered into a local villager’s house to be met by smiles and the offering of food and tea… Back at home we would be phoning the police before they even crossed the threshold! The two Build Change site engineers have been brilliant in helping us explore the place, introducing us to the locals and initiating us in their local Nepali cuisine. Enjoying a beer and Mo Mo’s (a Nepalese food similar to a gyoza) with them in a tiny bar whilst swapping stories about our hobbies, Build Change and the earthquake, was a moment in time I will never forget.

Since arriving in Nepal my overall feeling is of surprise by the slow recovery process that has happened since the earthquake. However, with organisations like Build Change and the Nepali people joining forces, it feels like there is real progress being made. Given time, who knows what can be achieved – especially if you listen to Noll! I know that I speak for all the Trekkers in saying that we hope being here can help them along that journey.

RMS Impact Trek: Day 2 – To the Hills in Sindupalchowk

Christine Waters

By Christine Waters

Nothing could have prepared me for the initial culture shock that set in while touring the streets of Kathmandu on our first day in Nepal. It may have been because I just finished a 24+ hour trip to the other side of the world and had nothing more than a few hours of airplane sleep, but I was extremely overstimulated. Walking (and driving) in Manhattan is a breeze compared to Kathmandu. To put things into perspective, imagine a narrow roadway that looks like it was designed to be a one way (partially paved) road. Now, imagine that same road being used as a two lane street, full of cars, buses, and motorcycles and all the vehicles moving, turning, and stopping wherever and whenever they want. There are no stop signs or stop lights. Now, fill this same road with people. This is what driving/walking in Kathmandu is like. Cars pass each other whenever they want, most times playing chicken with oncoming traffic. In areas with sharp turns, vehicles honk their horn around every corner to alert oncoming traffic of their existence. However, even amid all this chaos, no one is yelling. No one is angry. Everyone is patient. It is unlike anything I have ever witnessed.

The people of Nepal have such an appreciation for everything around them. We had dinner with many of the people from Build Change on Monday night, which was a great opportunity to chat with them about everyday life in Nepal. There was one story that really stuck with me. I mentioned to one woman that I was surprised at how calm everyone is, especially in Kathmandu where it is so crowded. She instantly asked me about my meditation habits. I gave her a slightly embarrassed look as I admitted that I do not meditate. She then proceeded to tell me that mediation is very common in Nepal and it gives people full control of their own minds. She personally went on a 12-day meditation journey where she could not speak for 12 days and only had one meal per day. Each day, she woke up at 4 AM to begin her 2 hours on, 1 hour off meditation sequence. The first 3 days she spent focusing on breathing. The remainder of the time was spent focusing on senses. She explained how difficult the journey was but how much it taught her about herself and her mind. She did admit that she cried during the first 3 days and wanted to give up, but she stuck with it. There was so much passion in her voice as she described her journey. She believes that everyone should experience that journey at some point in their lives and challenged me to begin meditating, even if I started with 5 minutes per day.

After getting to know the people at Build Change, it was time to go into the field. Today (Tuesday) was our first day on site at the Build Change field locations. We were given a choice between two locations: Dhunkharka or Sindupalchowk. Matt Nielsen, Megan Arnold and I decided to go to Sindupalchowk. Matt Bussman and Alastair Norris chose Dhunkharka. Each location is approximately 2.5 hours from Kathmandu. Mansi from Build Change is joining us while we are in Sindupalchowk.

Sindupalchowk is naturally beautiful. It is surrounded by rolling hills, rivers, and lots of greenery. Driving through the winding roads, it is easy to get lost in the beauty that surrounds you.   Unfortunately, Sindupalchowk was one of the worst-affected districts as a result of the April 2015 earthquake. Many homes and schools were completely flattened. It is devastating. As we drove into town, we noticed a long line of people outside a building that overlooked a river. We came to find out that was a line of people asking for aid to repair/replace their damaged homes, even over a year after the earthquake.

When we arrived at the Build Change field office in Sindupalchowk, there were two Nepali men waiting inside. They were there to design their homes with Build Change, as they unfortunately lost theirs in the earthquake. We had a chance to interview them on camera (with Mansi from Build Change as our translator), which we hope to share with everyone after the trek. After the interview, Mansi told us how excited the men were to be interviewed by us and kept telling her they “were there are the right time”. Even though they were discussing something so heartbreaking as rebuilding their destroyed homes, they were so pleasant and positive. This is a common characteristic of the Nepali people.

We also had a chance to see a school that Build Change recently rebuilt. Everything but the roof of the school collapsed during the earthquake. At the same site is a second school with the same damage that they are planning to rebuild. While there, we met additional people from Build Change, as well as people Build Change is collaborating with from World Vision. We had a great round table discussion with the whole group while sitting inside the school. We learned that the Nepal building codes were adopted from India, which were adopted from the British. Because of this, a roof built to code needs to be designed to sustain 47 m/s wind speeds in Nepal. This makes new roofing extremely expensive. As part of my project with Build Change, they have asked me to help lead them in the right direction to prove that 47 m/s is too high for Nepal. If we could do this, this would help them reduce cost in building new roofs, making it more affordable for more people.

We ended the day at the field house, where we were served a delicious meal prepared by one of the caretakers of the field house, who they call “Didi”. Naturally, I can’t write a blog post without commenting on the food. I have been quite impressed by the Nepali cuisine.  It is delicious! The most common meal is a Nepali set. It is essentially a large gold plate with rice in the center, surrounded by smaller portions of vegetables and curries. It is always served with dal (almost like a lentil soup), which you mix with the rice. A full set ends with yogurt, which I’ve been told helps with digestion.  We have eaten this for most meals since we’ve been here, with each place having slightly different variations of the dal and side dishes. The drinks are even more amazing, especially the tea. There are many variations of tea to choose from, my favorite being the iced ginger lemon tea and the hot masala chai. I have yet to discover any chocolate, but will be sure to report back when I do!

Overall, my experience in Nepal so far has been wonderful. The people at Build Change have been so warm and welcoming. They are a wonderful group of people with a real passion for their work. They are so kind and are making us feel right at home.  I am extremely grateful for this opportunity and am very thankful to be sharing this adventure with this group of the trekkers. Even though the five of us have only been here for 3 days, I already feel like I’ve known them forever. I cannot wait to see what adventures the next few days bring!

RMS Impact Trek: Day 1 – The Other Side of the World

Matt Nielsen

By Matt Nielsen

Nepal.  The mere mention of the word conjures images of the lofty, snow-covered Himalayas and towering Mount Everest.  Here in Kathmandu, the world of the Sherpa feels as far away from me as everything else that is familiar and known.

Now half a world away from home, I find I’m rediscovering my inherent and natural senses. New smells, strange tastes, constant sounds, bright colors, and the feel of the humid air on my skin all feel new, and overwhelm my mind.  Traffic, consisting of a whirled mixture of cars, scooters, bicycles, and daring pedestrians, moves chaotically through the winding snake-like streets without order.  Horns constantly sound and travelers boldly veer into traffic, often not leaving more than a hair’s length between them and others venturing down this concrete river.  Sidewalks seem not to exist, leaving foot traffic exposed to the frenzied motorcade. Lifeline wires dangle precariously from building to building like synthetic vines creeping through an urban jungle.  Rainwater from the monsoon washes down streets and creates murky lakes along the avenues that seems as if it would swallow a motorbike whole if it got too close.  The sky, broken with clouds, gives a mixture of greys, blacks, and the occasional blue.  Low clouds hug the surrounding mountains like soft blankets, obscuring our views of the loftiest peaks.

As our guide slithers us through the narrow and winding pathways of Kathmandu, we catch glimpses of fallen masonry walls, heaped in red brick piles.  We see bamboo scaffolds covering shaken structures, attempting to salvage the heritage at the heart of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square.  Wooden beams push up tired walls, letting these weathered buildings breathe a last breath.  While the earthquake that took so many lives and leveled entire villages happened over a year and a half prior, rebuilding and recovery in many ways resembled the immediate aftermath.  Response efforts are not the coordinated and fast-moving endeavors we’ve come to expect in the West.  A country lacking highly-organized infrastructure, such as Nepal, has no plan for these disasters.  When the earthquake comes, the rubble is piled, people move homes, and life goes on.

Insurance coverage for homes is a foreign concept here, and aid from NGOs and the government is the only solution they know.  Even that money doesn’t always trickle down to the common homeowner, and citizens are left to fend for themselves in many cases.  We hear stories of people sleeping outside for weeks and months after the quake, while houses are torn down and new ones are built.  Retrofitting is also a foreign concept, but one that could have great impact on those living in more rural areas and without the means to rebuild.  That’s the story we are here to uncover.  How does rebuilding and rebirth of these communities happen?  What can be done to improve the process and relieve unnecessary suffering and death?  How can outreach efforts like these be used on a more massive and grand scale?  How can people like me, who before this week never set foot within 7,000 miles of a place like this, find ways to lessen the impact of catastrophes in areas like this?

As we moved our weary and jet-lagged bodies from our hotel to the Build Change office in Kathmandu on Monday, our mission here began coming in to slightly better focus.  We met with Noll, our personal guru for this trek, and offered up our diverse expertise.  Hours passed as we shared our backgrounds and devised a plan of action.  We spent the afternoon interviewing the local Nepalese staff on their experiences working with Build Change, also delving in to how the earthquake affected them on a personal level.  Some spoke of hardships, protecting families, living outside for months at a time, and rebuilding.  For others, the pain was so sharp and near, that they were understandably unwilling to relive those terrible moments.

I’ve come to find in Nepal, hardship does not overcome life.  Our dinner with 15 of the local Build Change staff was a testament to that fact.  Mugs were filled with Tuborg and Everest beer, while small cymbal-shaped goblets beheld a Nepalese liquor I was too tepid to question.  Music reverberated from the centuries-old wooden timbers and dancers swirled around between ankle-high tables.  As we sat cross-legged on the floor, in the old traditional style of Nepal, we shared stories, had a few laughs, and celebrated recent accomplishments.  The night eventually wound up, and we all parted ways, making new friends and recounting the fun times had throughout the evening.   Good food, good beer, and good company.  Perhaps this foreign land that seemed so shocking mere hours earlier had now shown itself to be familiar after-all.

Day 3 & 4: Manta, Crucita and Portoviejo- A Look at Mixed Use Buildings and Sharing Knowledge

On May 3rd, we went with Gen. Ruiz and Ing. Flores into the barricaded area of Manta, the neighborhood of Tarqui.  This area had the most damage and was a mix of large to small commercial buildings and hotels, plus multi family and single family houses (some mixed use).

Tarqui, Manta, Ecuador

Mostly residential street in Tarqui, Manta

Many of the small and medium sized buildings that had collapsed were already demolished and some were being taken down while we were there.

Three story building being demolished. Manta, Ecuador

Three story building being demolished. Manta, Ecuador


There were buildings with very different performance on the same block and the reason for the difference in performance was not obvious.  Additional investigation is needed to see really why some had collapsed and others did not.


There were several green-tagged residential buildings in the area – particularly along one street. Though one of the homeowners there was telling us that they didn’t know if the green tag for their house was correct because although the exterior looked undamaged, they said many of the walls inside were damaged.

Green-tagged houses in Tarqui, Manta.

Green-tagged houses in Tarqui, Manta.

Tuesday evening we presented a seminar with Ing. Flores in Manta, open to the public.  We spoke about our experiences in housing reconstruction following other earthquakes and Ing. Flores presented on the Construction Code.

Lizzie presenting in Manta

Lizzie presenting in Manta


On Wednesday we headed to Portoviejo and stopped in Crucita, a coastal town along the way.  Overall Crucita had very little damage compared to Manta to the south and Canoa to the north.  A local business owner told us that only 6 houses had significant damage.  Walter interviewed a builder there to find out about local construction practices.

Walter interviewing a local builder, Oriol, in Crucita.

Walter interviewing a local builder, Oriol, in Crucita.

We then visited downtown Portoviejo, the area in the city with the most damages.  There were not many 1-2 story houses, but some were damaged, particularly when mixed-use.  There were many taller, larger and mixed-use structures, which were damaged in many cases.

Damaged 4-story mixed use buildings in Portoviejo.

Damaged 4-story mixed use buildings in Portoviejo.

We then presented a similar seminar as the previous night with Ing. Flores, but in Portoviejo.

Juan presenting in Portoviejo at the Technical University of Manabi

Juan presenting in Portoviejo at the Technical University of Manabi

Day 2 (Part 2): Canoa and Jama- Analysis of Damaged Homes and Schools

After Canoa, we next headed north to Jama, another coastal town.  In Jama we selected a street in town and compared the building type and performance of each, one-by-one.  There were 7 houses, some with commercial space below.  Six houses were wood framed, 2-stories, and one was reinforced concrete, 3-stories.

Team in Jama on the street surveyed: Ing. Flores, Walter, Lizzie, and Juan

Of the wood framed, 5 had masonry infill at the ground floor and 1 had bamboo lath with plaster overlay at the ground floor.  Four had wood only walls at the upper level while two had mixed wood and masonry infill walls at the upper level.  In general of the wood-framed buildings, we saw the most damage (wall and partial roof collapse) in the upper levels of buildings where wood and masonry infill walls were mixed.  This is probably because the wood walls were not sufficient to resist the larger load imparted by the adjacent heavier masonry infill.  Houses with wood only walls at the upper level generally performed well, with minimal damage (some movement at the floor level at some column joints) except where it appeared the wood was deteriorated and not well maintained.

The concrete frame with infill building fully collapsed at the ground floor level (hinging at the ground floor columns) and the infill was damaged. It was not directly observable, but it was likely that the ground floor had more open area in the from elevation, creating a weak/soft story condition.

Concrete frame with infill - suspected soft/weak story collapse

Concrete frame with infill – suspected soft/weak story collapse

In Jama, we also observed some damages to schools – site wall collapse and building wall collapse.

In general it seems people have a more negative impression of the concrete buildings and are more comfortable with wood after the earthquake, because of the difference in performance and survivability.  We saw a comparative example on the ride back to Manta, when a 2-story concrete frame with infill police station was heavily damaged, and the adjacent wood housing across the street was fully usable, without damage.


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