The designation of houses as ‘temporary’, ‘permanent’ or even the highly confusing phrase ‘semi-permanent’ often has the effect of obfuscating the true value and nature of what is being delivered. Temporary shelters are almost never temporary (whether in India, sub-Saharan Africa, the West or anywhere else). Similarly, no building is ever entirely permanent; without maintenance any structure will degrade and eventually fail. Most buildings are a mixture of permanent and temporary. The structure might last indefinitely if looked after, but the roof, cladding, doors and windows need to be periodically replaced.
An extensive study of post-disaster housing reconstruction projects by CARE in India over the last 15 years found that approaches which sought to maximise cost efficiency by designing buildings with durable primary structures and less durable cladding were entirely appropriate but were often lost in translation and not sufficiently understood, or agreed to, by beneficiaries. The terminology used did not translate well from English and was not even clearly understood by the project staff, let alone the recipients of the houses.
The key lesson from this is that humanitarian actors need to think hard about how houses they build or help build will be used and maintained and how to clearly describe that so that what they are offering is understood and in line with people’s wishes and capacities. However houses are delivered, whether built by agencies or by people themselves with support from agencies, future projects should develop maintenance manuals which explain the durability of each key element of a house, and how householders can maintain each part to maximise its life. Rather than temporary or permanent, let’s start thinking about life to first maintenance (which is technical jargon for how long something will last before it needs maintenance).
Let’s be more honest and open about what is built after disasters, and recognise that it is not appropriate to deliver buildings which are meant to be temporary to vulnerable people without their understanding and without a viable plan to replace them.