Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Friday, September 12, 2008

Modular Housing and Disaster Preparedness: Lessons from Muqattam Hills

No doubt you have read about the recent tragedy at the base of the Muqattam hills.  As more bodies are pulled from the rubble the death toll mounts (it is now  over 50 and climbing).  Insensitive Cairo officials have suggested to the suffering residents in the shanty town  that in a way this tragedy is their own fault -- their fault for living in a disaster prone area.  This is  the typical "blame the victim" mantra of those whom Noam Chomsky calls "the ruling crass".   As if the poor ever had any choice but to live in the most marginal and dangerous areas! Any land that is safe and convenient  is already occupied by the wealthy.  The Egyptian media reports that authorities have been telling slum dwellers to "move to new houses elsewhere"  for a long time now, while residents counter that  the alternative "affordable housing projects"  are either too far away from job opportunities (in which case the marginal benefits of moving are exceeded by the marginal costs of transportation in both time and money terms), or they don't really exist, or they require bribes to obtain. 

The poor have always been discriminated against in this way.  For them a filthy and dangerous environment -- whether it is an environment prone to so-called "natural disasters" (flooding, hurricanes, droughts, sandstorms, malaria outbreaks, brushfires) or "man-made disasters" (toxic waste spills, air pollution, water contamination, radiation hazards etc) or is an environment that is just plain ugly and unhealthy -- is the sin qua non trade off for access to opportunity.  If the environment were clean and beautiful and safe the real estate developers would have snatched it up long ago and turned it into a for-profit enterprise that the poor, by definition, could not participate in.  There is no good housing market for the poor to invest in.

And when it has been decided that marginal or unwanted land can be made safe and can be cleaned up, it suddenly becomes very much wanted and hence officials are always on the lookout for ways to move the poor out.

This is what is really happening in Muqattam, and why the press is distorting the causes and the solutions to the tragedy in Cairo.

The officials are telling the press, and the press is telling the world, that, as reported in The Dallas News (a Texas newsservice that someone with  George Bush's elitist philosophy would enjoy reading):

"Slums such as Manshiyet Nasr at the base of the brittle Muqattam cliffs are filled with migrants looking for work in Cairo, which suffers from a severe housing shortage. Buildings on top of the cliffs and below are crudely constructed and lack basic services.
"Their wastewater is eating away at the mountain," said Hani Rifaat, a local journalist who has covered the issue."

The problem with such news articles  is that while they describe the general problem they belie the possibility of real solutions and serve the interests of the elite. The reports make it sound as if "the migrants" (the great unwashed masses?)  were to blame, giving them the air of being some kind of "invading plague of waste water spewing locusts".

  Some eyewitness reports suggest that the tragedy was caused by government officials themselves, either quarrying for rock or preparing for roads or developments:
"One resident who spoke to the BBC said the local authority had been breaking rocks on the cliffs, which she suspected caused the landslide.

"The people from the authorities for the last nine months were keeping us in our homes and breaking stones every day..  We saw a boulder coming down on us, on our houses, on the children, our belongings, and our neighbours and they pulled them out dead. Just as you see, no-one has done anything to help since yesterday."
Another angry resident said that those responsible for causing the landslide should be held to account:
"These people should have been moved from their houses, and we blame the government for this, and we will not relinquish our rights, and the blood of Egyptians is not cheap.""
The officials should have warned the residents below, and should have moved them during the period of dangerous work acitivity, and should have compensated them for their trouble.  That would have been good.  But the media is also taking this in the wrong direction. The idea of temporarily "moving people from their houses" while dangerous work is being done overhead and the notion that at-risk residents may want to benefit from such safety measures should not be misinterpreted necessarily as a desire by the poor to be moved out of their neighborhoods and relocated.

The poor took the risk of living in the dangerous marginal areas because of the severe trade offs they must make between personal risk and the need for access to opportunities, jobs and services.  They were forced to make that deadly decision because the State has failed to provide safe affordable housing and services on-site or better opportunities elsewhere, because the State has failed to create a viable and efficient transportation system that would make relocation desirable, and because the State and private enterprise have failed to reinvest their wealth in the Egyptian economy.  If relocation led to a better benefit/cost ratio for those most at risk, most would have relocated themselves.  Still, authorities have the audacity to make it appear that the Cairo poor are victims of their own bad decision making:
" We are following the case step by step and providing the care and comfort for the residents," Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said in a statement. "We would like to remind people the danger of building informal housing in dangerous areas.""
Earth to the Prime Minister:  The poor don't need to be reminded of the danger.  They are the one's who do the suffering and dying, and who are forced to take risks you and the other elite wouldn't have the courage to take in order to gamble on a better future for their children.  It is easy from a base of privilege to criticize people whose option constraints force them to make unwise decisions.

Another news report  suggests that the collapse was ironically due to efforts to stabilize the cliffs, but makes it appear as though "the community" below had been holding up this work, and thus are somehow responsible for their own suffering:
Resident Mohammed Hussein said contractors have been working on shoring up the cliffs as they became increasingly unstable, but they could not complete their work until the government resettled the community below.
"The contractor who is stabilizing the mountain asked the government to resettle everyone at least 32 miles from the mountain because he didn't want the rocks he was removing to fall on the people," Hussein told AP Television News. "The rocks are soaked with water and so are more brittle and prone to falling."
Strangely the odd figure cited -- "32 miles" -- for protecting people from falling rocks (do rocks fall that far?) is chillingly similar to the distance of the desert settlement area of Qattamiya, the  proposed eviction and resettlement site where the government would like to send the Zabaleen so that they can gentrify Muqattam.  According to scholars studying the issue, the relocation program provided by the government is merely a subterfuge to destroy the Zabaleen way of life:

"Community leaders emphasized 4 main failings of the proposed relocation programme—no warning, no consultation, no compensation and no provision for resettlement. These all contribute to the lack of any attempt to develop solutions, which would minimize the impact of the evictions and the disruption caused to those who have to move. The government's short-term proposals for the relocation of the Zabaleen recycling activities will, nevertheless, lead to long-term eviction of garbage collectors as they are forced, under economic hardship, to move from their homes in Muqattam, in which they have lived for decades and in which they have often invested a considerable proportion of their income over the years. Where provision is made for resettlement, this is almost always at a distant site (eastern settlement of Qattamiya in New Cairo City) where the people are expected to build, once again, their homes but on land currently with little or no provision for infrastructure and services. Those evicted would rarely receive any financial support for rebuilding. The land site on which they are to be relocated is also very often of poor quality. Needless to say, all of this will be done in the name of the government's concern for the welfare of the ‘less favoured’ families, with legislation to protect ‘the environment’ as a justification.

"Such long-term ‘imposed’ evictions within the Zabaleen settlement reflect the differences in political power within the society, where economic interests resort to the law or to municipal authorities who have the power to evict people supposedly ‘in the public good’. In this case, local governments will play a major role in initiating the evictions, where future supply of land for housing in Muqattam area is constrained and the cost of the cheapest house in the new location artificially raised by inappropriate or inefficient bureaucratic controls. It is this combination of people with very limited incomes, and high housing and land prices which ensure that the cheapest legal accommodation is beyond their reach, thus forcing them to enter the illegal housing and land markets. The Zabaleen have a very weak legal position from which to fight eviction or at least to negotiate concessions for time and support for moving and acquiring alternative accommodation and for compensation. Many low-income people within the Zabaleen settlement, facing the threat of eviction, point out how it is their cheap labour that underpins the city's economy, yet the city has no legal accommodation which they can afford. This fact is evident in the words of a female respondent, ‘…we contribute to the city's economy and support through our labour the very people who want us to move…why then are we pursued so persistently?’ Or the words of a woman questioning the endless evictions which dispossessed the poor ‘….we do not claim much. We are not demanding free accommodation. We do not pretend that we are living like other Cairene middle-class. We wish to live in cheap housing. Why is it not allowed?’...

"Despite safety concerns about construction procedures within the Muqattam area since the 1993 rock collapse, another undeclared justification for evictions is ‘redevelopment’. This implies the use of the cleared land more intensively, so allowing developers to make very large profits redeveloping such sites, especially if they can avoid the cost of re-housing those evicted. Since the Zabaleen settlements lower the value of the surrounding land and its housing, and in a bid to ‘beautify’ Cairo and to maintain or enhance land values, developers may make large profits by doing nothing more than clearing the site and holding the empty land for property speculation. If Zabaleen settlements are judged to be illegal, even if they have been there for many decades, this is a convenient excuse to bulldoze them without compensation.
Nevertheless, the unwillingness or inability of government authorities to help increase the supply and reduce the cost of housing, and of land for housing, and to ensure the provision of infrastructure and services, have left such poor groups with no option but to accept housing that is inadequate, overcrowded, insecure and poorly located. The failure of the administration leaves the urban poor with no choice but to come up with its own solutions. Such poor communities have no access to public low-cost housing finance institutions, eventually having no alternative other than to rely on illegally occupying land or on acquiring illegal subdivisions as the only way of obtaining land on which they can develop their informal dwellings. This is also attributed to the fact that government ‘low-cost’ housing projects within the new Eastern desert Communities have delivered too little, since they often ended up in the hands of middle-class groups. Selected sites for relocation, such as Cairo's new Eastern desert settlement of Qattamiya, were too far from city centre and housing too costly for low-income households. The government did not consider the provision of services such as transport and water. Ironically, the government machinery set up to respond to the housing problems of the poor has in fact been used against them. This is so despite an earlier 1980s official policy, which sought to regularize (legalize) and upgrade Zabaleen areas."(Fahmy and Sutton 2005, p. 831)
Waste Water to Blame?

If waste water weakening the rocks was a major contributor to the recent deadly landslide, as officials say (and is very likely), we would have to acknowledge  that it is the wastewater disposal systems of the buildings on the top of the cliffs that were the cause of the problem, and  not the infrastructure (or lack of infrastructure) of the poorest shanty dwellings underneath the cliffs (water flows down, not up!). The problem is that real estate is usually priced so that the wealthier residents live on top of the hills and in the stable areas, and the poorer residents usually live in the most unstable zones "downstream".   So there is a class dimension to this tragedy that is not being addressed, and a question about why one group of people is allowed to engage in activities that can bring disaster to another more vulnerable group.  Egypt is a police state, filled with beurocrats, tax collectors and inspectors (there is a classic film called "Muffatish Al' Am"  -- The General Inspector -- that pokes fun at this aspect of Egyptian society) and the area of the collapse is less that a quarter mile SSE from the GTZ (German Technical Development) headquarters and a quarter mile NNE from an internationally funded football field where the residents of Manshiyet Nasser play a yearly soccer match with the Donor and Development community, and where prizes are given out for great planning initiatives.  My wife and I know this from personal experience, attending these events.  The GTZ has been responsible for putting in the water and sewer pipes in the area and conducting research and surveys.  How could such a thing be allowed to happen in their backyard?

 (The red icon shows the area of the rock slide at  30° 2'43.27"N,   31°17'13.73"Eas identified by Dave Petley, the Wilson Professor at Durham University in England on his Landslide Blog).

One of the reasons a tragedy like this could happen so close to a center of active development research and project management, I feel, is simply a callous disregard for the poor.  While there are many committed people in development work, institutions are part of a machinery that rewards people who serve the agendas of the political elite, and the elite cultivate a tacit disdain for the poor that makes their jobs easier.  As Noam Chomsky famously wrote in The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many:

"It's not so much that racism [or classism] is in our genes. What is in our genes is the need for protecting our self-image.  It's probably in our nature to find a way to recast anything that we do in some way that makes it possible for us to live with it.
It's the same in the broader social sphere, where there are insitutions functioning, and systems of oppression and domination.  The people who are in control, who are harming others -- those people will constuct justifications for themselves. They may do it in sophisicated ways or unsophisticated ways, but they're going to do it. That much is human nature...
Take sophisticated ones.  One of the intellectual gurus of the modern period... was Reinhold Niebuhr. He was called the 'theologian of the establishment'.  He was revered by the Kennedy liberal types...
... something made him appealing - his concept of the 'paradox of grace.'  What it comes down to is this: No matter how much you try to do good, you're always going to do harm...
That's very appealing advice for people who are planning to enter a life of crime - to say 'No matter how much I try to do good, I'm always going to harm people. I can't get out of it,." It's a wonderful idea for a Mafia don.  He can go ahead and do whatever he feels like. If he harms people, 'Oh my God, the paradox of grace.'
That may well explain why Niebuhur was so appealing to American intellectuals in the post-World War II period. They were preparing to enter a life of major crime. They were going to be either managers or the apologists for a period of global conquest.
Running the world is obviously going to entail enormous crimes. So they think, "Isn't it nice to have this doctrine behind us? Of course we're superbenevolent and humane, but the paradox of grace..."(p. 74)

I believe that in addition to a belief in the paradox of Grace there  is also a simple disconnect between those who have the power to "help" the poor and their supposed beneficiaries -- those who have never truly lived with the poor and who have never been poor can rarely develop a deep understanding of the needs and priorities of the poor.

  Another problem  is the nature of development projects:  GTZ and US AID officials we know have  admitted that most development projects are "main-street projects" or "roadside anthropology projects" that are conducted in visible areas and designed for maximum public exposure to make agencies look good when officials come on a tour in their armored air conditioned vehicles.  A few streets back in the same area deplorable conditions are allowed to persist.

One can be sympathetic to the ideas that funding gets spread too thin and that no agency can fix the whole problem, but when there is a known threat to life and limb and solving those problems in creative ways does not become a priority, one must ask whether other less overt agendas aren't really directing activities.

The gentrification of Muqattam

It may be true that  the houses on top of this particular cliff were also low income houses and that badly constructed waste water pipes and shoddy workmanship from people trying to self-provision led to the weakening of that particular hill.  But why weren't those houses targeted for development aid? The number of sensitive and dangerous areas is limited and the government and development agencies have had 14 years since the earthquake to tackle the problem of rockslide dangers to cliffside dwellings.   A reluctance to put safety nets in place or stop waste water discharge seems to be related to a reluctance to  build permanent infrastructure and give informal community residents a chance at legal tenure.  The battle for squatter property rights  seems to often lie behind the way that development occurs (or is neglected).

Another issue impeding creative solutions to the problem is the inability of most governements, development agencies, developers and contractors to think outside the box and explore ideas for modular housing construction and service provision that would create safer conditions.  Developers in Egypt (as in the U.S.) seem very tied to the concept of centralized water and energy provision and waste disposal.  It is what I call a "pipes and cables" approach to development.  The problem with pipes and cables that must originate at some remote central location and terminate in another location, is that they are prone to leakage, breakage or failure. And when they inevitably leak, break, clog, burn out or short circuit, pipes and cables take a long time to be repaired and affect many other people along their path.

One solution for people in dangerous and marginal areas (which is being discovered by housing relief workers in post hurricane New Orleans) is to "plan for disasters" and use modular technologies and systems and components that allow maximum disaster preparedness and flexibility.  In such a scenario pipe and cable lengths are kept as short as possible and housing units are not dependant on any systems that could fail.  A failure of one housing module generally has little effect on another.   If development agencies looked at helping the poor through a disaster preparedness lens, the nature of their sites and services approach would radically change.

Instead, the way Egypt is allowing development to occur is through a model that preserves centralized power structures.  To see this in extremis, one merely has to keep climbing the Muqattam hills, to the plateau on top, where real estate development for the wealthier residents of Cairo is booming. Up there, at the edge of sheer desert, Cairo is going to great expense to pipe in water and electricity and gas, and pipe out sewage.  In a city that is already experiencing water shortages and electricity cuts and sewage overflows, development at the top of Muqattam hills is going on as if there were no resource issues to worry about.

 (in this Google earth image, highlighted in green, you can see the neatly laid out rows of upper middle class housing real estate developments on the plateau just above the informal area where the collapse occurred)

Most of the buildings at the very top of Muqattam hills, as every visitor  who asks a taxi driver to "take me to Muqattam"  knows, are recent "middle class" real estate developments built by unscrupulous companies who take advantage of Egypt's lax building codes.   Though modern in appearance, these buildings and sites also allow wastewater and pollution to become a "downstream" problem" allowing occupancy long before connection to city services is finished, using faulty equipment and materials neglecting repair, and taking short cuts (This has always been at the heart of the environmental justice issue -- when you are poor pollution is always somebody else's profit, when you are wealthier, waste is someone else's problem to deal with).

The truth of what Muqattam was being turned into became clear to me when I jumped in a taxi in the elite expatriot garden enclave of Maadi after brunching with some Germans and Americans on their tranquil rooftop and asked the driver to take me to Muqattam so I could continue my Solar CITIES work.  The driver assumed that because I am a foreigner, I wanted to go to the "rich" part of Muqqatam.  I was so busy reading in the taxi I didn't notice until we made the turn-off that we were not on the road to visit my Zabaleen friends at the base of the cliffs, but heading up to the  top of the cliffs.  I said to the driver, "I'm sorry, we seem to be on the wrong road.  I want to go to Muqattam."  He said, "yes, yes, I'm taking you to Muqattam".
I said, "I don't recognize this route."  He said, "Trust me, I'm a taxi driver, I know the way."
He delivered me to an area with new apartment complexes with grass and tree filled gardens, and gardeners redundantly and irresponsibly spraying garden hoses to flood the developers attempts to make the desert bloom.  Needless to say that wastewater was also seeping into the fragile cliffs.
The taxi driver said "this is Muqattam".  I said, "this is not my Muqattam.  I mean Muqattam where the Zabaleen Trash Recyclers live".  He said, incredulously, "why would you want to go down there? That is a horrible place with bad people."  I said, "Excuse me, that is where my friends live, that is where I work, and that is where the really good people are recycling 80% of Cairo's waste so that the city is livable for the rest of you."  He scowled and said he would have to charge me more to bring me to that part of Muqattam. He said, "I brought you to the Muqattam that any person like you should want to go to. I don't go to that other Muqattam".  I said, "then I'll pay you nothing and get out and walk".

After much arguing I prevailed upon him, but he only took me to the entrance to the slum, refusing to go in any deeper into the narrow roads of the garbage community.   The experience, however, gave me a first hand look at the prejudice against the urban poor and the garbage recycling community, and a glimpse at how the people who are "the king of the hill" live.  But to read the news reports you would think that it is always the poor, the victims of the rockslide and their immediate neighbors, whose icky wastewater caused the deadly problem.

 (Image: No wonder Google Earth was banned by the ruling elite of Bahrain and other Arab Gulf states -- the cameras in the sky don't lie.  Here you can see (highlighted in  green to bring out the lawns)  the wealthier real estate developments on the plateau at the top of Muqattam cliffs, constrasted by the arid desert soil surrounding them and the shanty town below the plateau on the left, where water is often unavailable for days.  The waste water from these upscale hilltops developments is also weakening the cliffs and causing them to collapse on the heads of the poor down below.  Of course, wealthier upstream folks have always flushed their waste problems downstream, claiming "its not our problem.")

Who you calling a Migrant in search of work? We've lived here for half a century working as builders and recyclers!

It is a matter of how the issue is framed.  Framing drives policy.  The base of the brittle Muqattam cliffs are indeed filled with former migrants, as the Dallas News report said -- but they are migrants who have been in Cairo for as long as 50 years, forced to move to the city because the progessive failure of land reform policies (most of the good land has now ended up in the hands of a few wealthy families engaged in lucrative agro-export businesses -- see Mitchell 2002).  If the residents of the informal communities of Manshiyat Nasser are "migrants in search of work", then so are most of the rich white people who live in Southern California and work in the movie industry.  The residents of Manshiyat Nasser  have been fighting for land tenure rights and for infrastructure investments and environmental services for a long time, some for more than half a century.  But these citizens of the city have been denied basic services, like reliable safe wastewater service, because real estate developers with influence in the government and ties to international development agencies see the Muqqattam area and Manhiyet Nasser's "informal areas" as some of the most valuable real estate in the Cairo area, and they want "the poor" to move out. Casting them as "migrants" makes it sound as though the people of  Muqqattam were a "shiftless" lot whom "the authorities" (those authorized to bully and intimidate) can feel free to move about like so many pieces on a chessboard.   According to Habitat International (Fahmy and Sutton 2005 "Cairo's Zabaleen Garbage Recyclers: Multi-Nationals' Takeover and State Relocation Plans") the Manshiyet Nasser/Muqqatam lowland area is now being seen as some of the most valuable real estate in Egypt with direct access to the airport and to downtown Cairo -- the perfect bedroom community location for the well-to-do involved in international business.

(Photo shows the easy access (highways highlighted in red) to both downtown and the airport from the Muqattam (blue pin) and Darb Al Ahmar (green pin) neighborhoods.  The "hidden agenda" of the development agencies and government is to gentrify these areas and move the poor out.)

What have  the development agencies been doing all these years?

Egypt is the second largest recepient of U.S. AID funds (after Israel) and one of the largest benefactors of German, Italian and Japanese development funding.  The rockslide problem has been a much discussed issue for decades -- during the Cairo Earthquake of 1992 nearly 80 of the extended family members of my Zabaleen friends were killed when the part of Muqqattam cliffs over their dwellings collapsed.  Scores of people were killed in the rockslide of 2002.  But no development agency ever came in to implement the simple measures of wiring the rocks, installing rock fall netting or putting up simple support structures in the most vulnerable areas, even though this is standard practice in rockslide areas (just drive along any cliffside highway and see).

Nor did any agency go to the developments on top of the vulnerable cliffs, whether owned by real estate firms or poor families (depending on location)  and either demand the owners stop discharging wastewater into the cliffs or assist in guttering or piping the water to appropriate wastewater treatment plants -- the very same plants built by the development agencies funding the Egyptian government.

Oversight or Business as Usual?

Is this an oversight, caused by insitutional blind-spots, or is this business as usual -- the same technique used by the city of Los Angeles to keep real estate prices in South Central Los Angeles depressed until all the land can be snatched up by private developers?  In L.A. developers and corrupt city officials  dream of building a convenient businessman's bedroom corridor between LAX airport and downtown L.A.,  In the case of South Central the plot (as revealed to me by a Dunbar Development Corporation Lawyer, but popularized for anybody with ears to hear in the film "Boyz in the Hood") is to manipulate zoning laws to keep liquor stores and gunshops on every other corner,  to cut the funding for the inner-city schools, and to tacitly allow drugs in to the community, so that poor black and hispanic families are plauged by gang-violence and can't organize themselves and accumulate the necessary capital to invest in property.  The situation  forces those with higher educations and opportunities out and thus keeps minority capacity building from occuring.

In Cairo the plot is to claim that a combination of accumulated garbage and infrastructural threats to health and safety make the area "unlivable" so that the authorities can move the Zabaleen out.  The Cairo plan is to then remake the whole neighborhood next to the Autostrad, in much the same way that, 10 minutes walk away on the other road to the Airport (Salah Salem) the Aga Khan foundation has turned Cairo's largest former hazardous garbage dump into the posh and beautiful Al-Azhar park with its expensive lakeside restaurants and fountains.

A better solution from a social welfare and productivity standpoint would be to invest in infrastructure and equipment so that the Zabaleen themselves could turn the area into the model industrial ecology enterprise zone they dream of.  But as more and more governments and private firms begin to see the value of mining garbage, you will see more and more efforts to cut the Zabaleen out of this business (which is what Habitat International proves is behind the multinational takeover of Cairo's waste disposal business).

An internationally recognized disaster like the latest rockslide is exactly what the ruling crass need to shore up their arguments to push through their agenda to displace the Zabaleen.   You can be sure, however, that if and when Muqattam hills is gentrified, all the simple and relatively inexpensive  safety procedures, like curtailing wastewater flow from the hilltop developments into the rocks and putting in rockfall nets, will be speedily observed.  They will also doubtless build a good access road at the base of the cliffs, precisely to avoid the problem of getting emergency vehicles in that is now hampering relief efforts.

An Alternative Vision:  Solar CITIES ideas for Modular Housing and Disaster Preparedness.

(The photographs show our work installing modular solar hot water systems on the monastery beneath the cliffs, a preliminary step in our quest to bring modular industrial ecology solutions to the community.)

Solar CITIES has been working under the Muqattam cliffs for the past two years  to conduct solar energy system training workshops and installations.  Future plans include green collar training for using city garbage to generate biogas (the families directly under the cliffs get no sun, but raise pigs in the shade of the cliffs)  and to tap into the strong desert winds that blow on top of the cliffs to generate electricity.

One of the ways to prevent disasters caused by poorly designed and implemented  energy, water and waste services (with inadequate and faulty "pipes and cables" service causing deprivation, flooding, disease, rockslides and fires)  is to bring the "modular housing" concept to Cairo.

The week of August 23-29, the Christian Science Monitor ran an article by Gregory M. Lamb titled "Factory-built may be Greener: Modular Approach Uses Efficient New Techniques"

The article describes buildings like Kieran Timberlake's modular "Cellophane House" at MoMA, a five story dwelling with an aluminum frame that features translucent walls made from PET -- "essentially the same material used in soda bottles.  Because the frame is bolted together, not welded or glued, it can be disassembled and the materials reused when the house is no longer wanted. The plastic permits light, but not heat, to penetrate the interior. A passive ventilation system between inner and outer walls vents heat in summer and traps it as insulation in winter.
Photovoltaic cells embedded in the plastic generate electricity."  The irony here is that the Zabaleen spend much of their time collecting and recycling PET and aluminum so most of  the raw materials for such a project are already on site.  One thing that is lacking is the factory to build such a modular house.  The other thing that is lacking is the political will to apply such concepts to low cost housing for the poor.
The article goes on to make arguments in favor of modular factory-built housing that anybody working with the poor in developing countries can immediately find utility in:
"Other modular designers are building in additional sustainable features. HOM, a line of vacation homes designed by KAA Design Group in Los Angeles and launched in June, offers low-energy lighting and floors made from cork, a rapidly renewable natural wood. The HOMs range in size from 1,000 square feet to 3,600 square feet and are pulled on their own wheels to the home site in almost-finished condition.

"Envision Prefab, an­­other new startup based in Boca Raton, Fla., uses recycled 40-foot-long steel shipping containers as the building blocks for its modular homes. Smaller, simple versions can be used as temporary, low-cost, or worker housing. They feature waste composting, energy monitors for electrical systems, gray-water recycling, efficient LED lights, and flooring made from renewable bamboo. Insulation between the inner steel wall and a visually pleasing outer wall is made from recycled blue jeans."

Certainly people inside houses built from recycled 40 foot steel shipping containers would have been better able to survive the impact of a rock slide, just as they would be better able to survive hurricanes and earthquakes.  Housing built on-site of brick and mortar immediately collapse under such stresses, but factory built housing can easily be made to withstand many disaster conditions. The Zabaleen Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE), meanwhile,  is one of the premier sites for gathering and recycling cloth and clothing, and has  a surplus of blue jean material.  Still no designers have come to Cairo to show them how to make insulation our pleasing outer walls from blue jeans -- instead families have to save up for years to be able to put a finishing on their ugly brick and concrete structures and for that reason so much of the informal community is so aesthetically unappealing.  And then there is the issue of code compliance -- shanty towns have none, so there is no quality control. But, the article tells us,
"Modular homes must undergo more stringent quality inspections than most site-built homes... The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) is in the process of completing a review of green building standards especially for modular homes...Those standards will help buyers recognize when modular homes have met certain environmental criteria. [One company] already goes far beyond what local building codes call for by designing in many environmentally friendly features..."

All of this would be great news for the urban poor if some influential enough agency was forward thinking enough to implement these ideas.  As the article points out,"“The way that we’ve been building is so antiquated and so broken in many ways.” Building each home on site, [says Michelle Kaufmann, founder and chairman of Michelle Kaufmann Designs in Oakland, Calif.], is “like asking for your car to be built in your driveway for you. It just doesn’t make any sense…. The technology is there, we just haven’t embraced it.”

Solar CITIES would like to see development agencies embrace this technology and start providing attractive, energy efficient, safe factory-built housing for the poor.  We would also like to see investors and entrepreneurs help build factories for making safe efficient housing modules in the working class neighborhoods of Manshiyet Nasser, where workers routinely build their own houses, understand the problems and threats and know exactly what kind of housing solutions vulnerable populations need.  Such workers would doubtless help their factories produce modules that reduce the need for gas and electricity and make the use of these amenities safer, would produce modules that reduce the need for potable water and reduce the output of wastewater, and modules that would produce energy and food.  Such modular housing initiatives would turn shanty towns into hope-giving enterprise zones almost overnight.

Applied to both the wealthier areas and the poor areas,  with the right designs they would not only be affordable and attractive and efficient, but could be integrated into a computer-designed, factory tested industrial ecology system that would eliminate  problems like the discharge of waste and wastewater that cause so many "downstream" problems, problems like the tragedy of the recent rockslide that killed the already downtrodden people at the bottom of the Muqattam hills.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Long read mate, good stuff.