Women huddle around paper to draw house design

Opening the Door to Safe and Sustainable Housing Reconstruction

When a disaster occurs, what is the typical response? Sadness, sympathy, compassion? Social media?

People tend to use Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to raise awareness and express concerns in the wake of a disaster. Yet, with today’s ever-revolving news cycle, people often move on to new stories and neglect consideration for long-term disaster recovery and the degree of effort it requires.

In humanitarian engineering, immediate attention is placed on providing aid promptly and saving lives. Organisations tend to pour resources into immediate solutions. However, a significant stage of the disaster cycle involves long-term recovery.

Recovery is commonly referred to as the rehabilitation of communities following a disaster to bring post-disaster conditions to a level of acceptability. But what is deemed acceptable? The answer varies depending on who you ask. As undergraduates completing our thesis, we proposed that this idea of acceptability encompasses the reconstruction of safer and sustainable shelter outcomes.

Shelter reconstruction contributes significantly to a community’s ability to effectively recover. Housing, however, is often overlooked as a priority by humanitarian organisations. The first point of focus is often the immediate safety of those caught in a disaster, followed by fundamental needs such as food and water. Thus, shelter becomes an afterthought provided through tents and makeshift materials in the early stages of response. This only provides short-term relief and safety in terms of meeting basic human needs and opportunities required to progress communities towards lasting recovery are too often missed. Thus, we believe that sustainable and safer reconstruction of humanitarian shelter can help reduce future risks and vulnerabilities.


Sustainability is a term that has gained significant momentum over recent years. Many associate it with the protection of the environment however it also encapsulates maintaineance with consideration for resources and long-term effects1. It consists of three main areas of concern: environmental; social; economic2.

A common, reappearing argument is that there is a deficiency in prioritising sustainability in humanitarian shelter. As stakeholders are motivated by immediate solutions, shelter reconstruction for communities are often unsustainable. Communities desire immediate shelter but what will happen when another disaster strikes the area? More often than not, houses that are the product of fast reconstruction with minimal sustainability considerations will fail again. Thus, there is a need for sustainability considerations in humanitarian shelter as there are significant gaps that need to be addressed.

Building Back Safer

Shelter is viewed to be a means of protection and security. Hence, shelter becomes redundant if it does not display a degree of safety. Assessments of post-disaster shelter consistently highlight ‘build back safer’ concepts in recovery.

Absolute safety is often seen as an unrealistic dream. However, striving for safer suggests the recognition that communities can do better and improve on what has been, and is currently, accepted. There is an acknowledgement that a seamless strategy from immediate shelter to safe permanent housing is needed.

Research has barely scratched the surface of what sustainable and safer shelter reconstruction demands. Acknowledgement is given to the idea that no single solution exists, however, there is an obvious need for greater effort to be focused on understanding and achieving such shelter outcomes.

Our research project focuses on shelter reconstruction in Nepal following the 2015 earthquake. The earthquake destroyed approximately 500,000 homes, leaving communities in dire need of assistance. We seek to understand and uncover key influencing factors that contribute or act as barriers to sustainable and safer humanitarian shelter. We believe these factors include motivations, participation, supply chain management, planning, and funding. We hope to create a difference within the humanitarian sphere by opening the door to safe and sustainable housing reconstruction.

  1. Caradonna, J.L., 2014. Sustainability: A History. Oxford University Press, Incorporated, Oxford.
  2. Brundtland, G.H., Khalid, M., Agnelli, S., Al-Athel, S., 1987. Our common future. New York.

Interested in learning more about Vivien, Lucy, and Janice’s research? Follow our lab on Facebook to receive updates about their results or follow our blog to stay up to date.

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