The first few days and weeks after a natural disaster are all about human rescue. This is the part the TV news cameras are drawn to—people being pulled from earthquake-destroyed houses, miraculous reunions of tsunami-separated families. But after the cameras are gone, a prosaic but deeply pressing problem remains: what to do with all the rubble of destroyed buildings?
Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, it took vast teams of local citizens, government employees and aid workers more than a year and a half just to remove half of the more than 350 million cubic feet of rubble. Rubble is not only unsightly, it also prevents rebuilding and can be hazardous to human and environmental health, as it can contain asbestos, heavy metals and other harmful materials. And once the rubble is removed, it’s not always clear what to do with it—some can be recycled, but much ends up in landfills or huge piles.
Gerard Steijn, a Dutch sustainability consultant, had this problem in mind when he founded The Mobile Factory, a company that’s figured out a way to turn rubble into interlocking, Lego-like bricks. This takes care of two problems: the need to clear debris, and the need to create new housing for those displaced by disaster.
“Worldwide, 63.5 million refugees—victims of disasters and wars—are year after year living in soggy tent camps, without any hope of a future, while the source for decent, affordable homes is lying around them,” Steijn says.
The Mobile Factory fits its equipment into two shipping containers that can easily be sent to disaster areas across the globe. The equipment sorts, separates, crushes and filters the rubble into liquid concrete, which is molded into stacking blocks called “Q-Brixx.” The interlocking nature of the Q-Brixx, combined with reinforcement rods (which can be bamboo, a common cheap building material in many countries), makes them stable, a good choice for earthquake prone areas.
Working under an European Union commission, The Mobile Factory has built prototype transitional shelters and homes on its own campus. This month, they’ll launch a pilot project in Haiti, working with some 30 Haitian families in an area called Petit Paradis. A member of each family will partner with The Mobile Factory to learn its technique, eventually producing their own Q-Brixx home. The homes will range in size from about 645 to 1,075 square feet, and the families will receive payments during the building process that can go towards a deposit on buying the homes. Through a “rent-to-own” system, the families should be able to fully own the homes within about 10 years.
Steijn hopes to spread The Mobile Factory’s model by selling or leasing its technology and training to international NGOs, national and local authorities and others involved in rebuilding efforts around the world. Since they save costs on the supply chain and use homeowners’ own labor for building, each home should cost less than $20,000, which makes the company’s system competitive, price-wise, with existing construction techniques, Steijn says. The homes meet Dutch building standards and are able to withstand relatively severe earthquakes.
Finding innovative solutions to housing refugees has become a bit of a pet issue in many design and architecture circles lately, spurred by the Syrian refugee crisis and a number of recent natural disasters like the Nepal earthquake. There are modular shelters designed to be constructed by refugees themselves. There are flat-pack cube shelters made of plywood. There are bamboo dorms for refugee children. There have even been efforts to rebuild using rubble before—a project in Haiti built houses from chunks of rubble mixed with mortar, while a concept from a Japanese architect used rubble to fill in wooden house frameworks in Nepal.
If The Mobile Factory’s work is successful, it stands to create a safer and more permanent-solution than many temporary shelters currently making the design rounds. Plus, it could help deal with a major environmental hazard. That could be good news for anyone living without a home following a disaster or displacement, and to the rest of us as well.