Post-disaster shelter: Why we have to stop calling permanent buildings temporary

By Team: Humanitarian Emergencies 01st Mar 2016
A house originally described as temporary that has been maintained and upgraded in the years since construction: the owners have added a veranda and extended the length of the house A house originally described as temporary that has been maintained and upgraded in the years since construction: the owners have added a veranda and extended the length of the house

After disasters many international agencies, including CARE, undertake a whole range of projects to help affected people recover, including the construction of houses. These may be described as all sorts of things, including temporary shelter, transitional shelter, durable shelter, semi-permanent shelter, core houses or permanent houses. Which description is used often seems almost arbitrary, decided by a mixture of assumptions about people’s recovery, donor mandates and priorities, government policy and the level of expertise available in agencies. The description rarely matches reality.

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.

Tom Newby

Tom has led CARE International’s Emergency Shelter Team, which is based at CARE International UK, since December 2013. He is a chartered structural engineer with significant private sector experience in the UK and USA, and worked in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, managing shelter programmes for two different organisations. He has been a trustee of Engineers Without Borders UK for many years and led the organisation early in its history.

Under Tom’s leadership, the Emergency Shelter Team provides technical and operational support to CARE’s shelter programmes around the world and disseminates knowledge and best practice around the organisation, providing training and contributing to preparedness planning. Tom has a strong interest in ensuring the right expertise is available to disaster-affected people and improving the way good construction practices are transferred and promoted after disasters, so people can take charge of their own recovery.

For more information on the work of the CARE emergency shelter team, download their 2014-15 annual review.