Nathan Fieldsend is a graduate structural engineer with WSP Group. He first became involved in development work with the charities Engineers Without Borders and The EcoHouse Initiative, at university. He has previously worked on shelter projects in Brazil and Ecuador. Here, he describes his current work in Haiti, where he is evaluating the medium-term effectiveness of the Shelter response to the earthquake of 2010.
Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake in January 2010. The quake was relatively strong, but the damage inflicted was made much worse because of the country’s limited knowledge about earthquake-resistant construction, and response team’s lack of preparedness. RedR trained local and international aid workers in Haiti for around 10 months after the earthquake, leaving when funding was no longer available. Since then, many of our Members have worked on rebuilding projects, and we have provided technical support to aid workers in the region.
RedR supporter and structural engineer Nathan Fieldsend discusses his experience in the state. ‘I am working with the Swiss Red Cross (SRC) in Léogâne, which was the epicentre of the earthquake. In early 2011 SRC built 600 transitional shelters in rural areas for families who had been displaced. I’m here researching the strengths and weaknesses of prefabricated shelter designs, for the Institution of Structural Engineers. ‘Prefabrication can be attractive for NGOs, particularly in the first few months of disaster relief as it can allow them to quickly construct large numbers of shelters. It can also relieve pressure on local material supplies. ‘But there’s a danger that the shelters can be more expensive than a locally-procured solution, and that the local community don’t get much input into the design. This can leave people with shelters they don’t feel comfortable in, and don’t know how to safely modify and maintain.
‘I have been conducting surveys of the SRC houses. As well as looking at the structure of the houses and how the kit has performed and adapted, I talk to the families about what they think of the house and their future plans for it. Getting to know the family a little through a semi-structured interview also gives us a chance to speak before I look around their home to do a structural assessment. One of the most challenging aspects of the work has been getting the beneficiaries to honestly criticise the design of the house!
‘They are all so grateful for the work of the Red Cross I think they are scared they will offend the staff and then not get any help in the future. I try to explain that their responses are all anonymous, and anything they say will help improve future programmes, but maybe some of this is lost in translation. This is the third country I have visited to report on shelter designs over the past few years, and it has produced the most surprises.
‘One really interesting finding was the differences between the houses built by each organisation. Even Red Cross societies from different nations had deployed different house designs depending largely on what their staff knew or had used before. A large driver for this is funding but there also seems to be a lack of central resource or knowledge sharing facility for people working on the front line. If there were more opportunities to share experience and knowledge – such as through RedR’s Knowledge Point website, where experts will be able to answer questions swiftly, online, potentially the best designs could become more widely used, or their strengths incorporated into other designs.
‘Because it was so badly damaged in the earthquake, Haiti is still rebuilding itself, particularly its infrastructure. This means plans have to be more flexible; for example, there is only one road up into the communities we are working in and it isn’t safe to use after dark. If we get held up for two hours in the morning due to traffic queues caused by a broken down lorry then the timetable for the day can get quite compressed! Working and living abroad has helped me develop skills which will be useful for me back in the office.
‘As well as learning to communicate key points of my research clearly so they can be translated, one of the key things I’ve learnt is to be adaptable. I set my own goals for this research, so it can be a little frustrating if I have to redefine them or find I can’t achieve what I thought was possible. But ensuring what I’m doing fits in with the culture here is ultimately more important than me getting all the results I thought I needed two months ago.'
Photo: Nathan and translator Pierre