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Green Rebuilding: Sustainable Development in Post-Tsunami Sri Lanka

This week, members of the nonprofit Rebuilding Community International (RCI) left for Sri Lanka to establish a field office for the organization's sustainable-redevelopment pilot projects in the wake of last December's tsunami disaster. GreenerBuildings editor Emily Rabin caught up with Greg Acker, RCI's director of building programs, to discuss the environmental and social benefits of sustainable redevelopment -- and why projects like RCI's might help mitigate the devastating effects of future natural disasters.

Emily Rabin: Greg, as director of building programs you're in charge of everything from hiring technical consultants and managing professional teams to formulating sustainable design approaches for a variety of climates and cultures. What's your professional background and how did you first become involved in this project?

Greg Acker:
I have known RCI's co-founders, Gary and Jan Woodruff, since the late 1980s when I designed a passive solar home for them. Joining RCI's board was coming full circle for me. Upon graduating from college in 1968, I became a Peace Corps architect in Colombia for three years. I started out building one-room school houses in the Amazon and then lived and worked in urban invasion "barrios" to bring order to the chaos: pedestrian streets, water, electricity, sewers, and prototypical houses. After the Peace Corps, I lived in Chile for two more years. As I learned more about the economic and social inequities in the world, I became involved with sustainable design.

My now 30+ year career has focused on environmentally appropriate buildings. I had been hoping to return to working in the less-developed countries, so when Jan and Gary asked me to join their effort, there was no hesitation.

ER: What are the goals of Rebuilding Community International, and how do you plan to achieve them?

The tsunami eliminated entire villages, but in that disaster lies the opportunity to rebuild smarter -- to approach community planning from a sustainable model. RCI is working both to restore buildings and to address the underlying conditions that make poor communities extremely sensitive to natural hazards. Self-sufficient communities are less vulnerable to future earthquakes, tsunamis, or global shortages of food and materials.

Specifically, RCI applies a holistic approach that encourages collaboration to find solutions that promote social and economic growth and ecological balance; implements cash-for-work and training programs to accelerate recovery and give hope to those who've lost livelihoods; integrates green building and sustainable planning techniques to safeguard natural resources and increase resilience to future disasters; and constructs new sustainable-business facilities to strengthen local economies and foster self-reliance.

Green building has reached a certain critical mass in the U.S. and Europe. We're hoping to encourage green building in the rest of the world in order to work toward global environmental health.

ER: There is a common (and often mistaken) perception that green building techniques are more expensive than tradition building methods. Given the urgency of redeveloping communities after last December's tsunami disaster, why build green?

Usually traditional building techniques in the developing world are already very green since materials are locally made, have low embodied energy, and can be built with trades historically abundant in the region. The weak link in this chain is the method of construction and its vulnerability to severe disruptions like earthquakes and tsunamis. However, the same traditional materials can provide structural stability when properly designed.

In Sri Lanka, it is RCI's hope to synergize the local building traditions by first providing updated approaches to the uses of traditional materials and, secondly, to investigate alternative construction materials and practices which would be appropriate as a economic driver for the reconstruction effort. Our primary concern is using local materials and labor and creating new construction industry opportunities without importing building materials.

Pre-tsunami, Sri Lanka built an average of 5,000 houses a year. Presently 100,000 houses must be rebuilt. There is no choice but to build green, including structural stability for the inevitable next earthquake or tsunami.

ER: Aside from building with local materials, what are some green features of the community planning and reconstruction projects your organization will be undertaking?

RCI does not have a cookie-cutter plan of action, although general conceptual planning models include: sustainable replacement infrastructure opportunities including water, energy, natural sewage treatment, and food production. Water strategies include rainwater harvesting and reuse of drinking water and stormwater runoff for dual-flush toilets and irrigation. Energy strategies for this hot, humid climate will be passive approaches: orientation of streets and housing to capture prevailing breezes; a community solar electric (photovoltaic) plant with batteries for nighttime lighting and refrigeration (particularly at the new health clinic). Natural sewage treatment will be with biological methods (the "Living Machine" approach proven to work in the U.S.) and composting for fertilizers. Food production will be community gardens for food and as a community income stream. All these strategies lead to job creation and economic self-sufficiency.

Conceptual green strategies in the reconstructed buildings include: low-technology and embodied energy (including reuse of salvage material); low energy consumption; long-lasting, durable materials; structural integrity; passive solar for water heating and interior natural lighting; design for natural ventilation and cooling; and recycled building materials and zero waste of construction materials.

ER: How will your program work with local communities? What is their role in assisting the redevelopment effort?

Four members of RCI are currently spending five weeks in Sri Lanka to assess which planning and reconstruction projects are most appropriate to pursue. One of the key goals is to form partnerships with local NGOs and design professionals. They will also seek direction from larger Sri Lankan community; to ensure that outcomes meet a community's social, economic, and environmental needs, RCI will involve survivors (including marginalized groups) in planning and implementing community rebuilding projects.

The benefits of this community-driven approach include (1) strengthening of community bonds as stakeholders; (2) healing of psycho-social trauma; (3) development of vital leadership, management, problem-solving, and technical capacities as a job-creation effort; (4) building consensus and commitment to change; (5) bridging cross-cultural and political differences; and (6) giving survivors hope that the future is more within their control.

ER: What are some of the challenges you expect to encounter during this redevelopment effort, and how do you plan to overcome them?

The world places great value on a disaster-relief approach that makes communities disaster resilient while fostering social, economic, and environmental progress. A sustainable design approach focuses on long-term solutions to each piece of the redevelopment from the social, economic, and environmental imperative.

One of the greatest opportunities lies in the collaboration with local professionals and survivors. RCI does not pretend to know all the answers; we are just beginning to learn what the appropriate response could be.

In the U.S., our challenge is start-up funding. Once our organization establishes a successful track record, the funding will come from international disaster-assistance grants (e.g., USAID) as well. In the near term, however, we must rely on the generosity of donors to launch, run, and evaluate our pilot community rebuilding program. Our goal is to raise the necessary funds as a demonstration of our good faith to the government of Sri Lanka and secure land donations for our building projects.

First and foremost, this is a partnership. We have the advantage of having two Sri Lankans on our board and advisory council. We will hire local people to manage our field office and oversee construction projects. Our volunteers will live in the villages where we partner and create friendships which will foster more direct, individual support for these communities for years to come.

ER: What aspects of the project are you most looking forward to?

First, the privilege of living and working with tsunami survivors. Secondly, demonstrating that sustainable approaches for the basics of life (food, water, shelter, and community) are the best planning and design strategies for global environmental health.

ER: Are there any particular cultural challenges you're likely to face?

The cultural challenges are on both sides of the ocean. The international community has called for a paradigm shift in disaster relief. With increasing evidence that natural disasters are not "natural," the U.N. and other large multinational agencies support a shift from conventional disaster aid that "treats symptoms" (i.e., returns communities to "normalcy") to sustainable disaster recovery that "cures the disease" (i.e., changes the underlying conditions that make communities vulnerable to natural disasters). The challenge is for relief agencies to support long-term thinking and for nationals not to take the most expedient route and rebuild as the villages as they were before the tsunami.

Another challenge is to not make matters worse with the reconstruction. The tsunami ravaged coastal ecosystems, particularly areas made vulnerable long before the earthquake by harmful environmental practices (for example, blast fishing on coral reefs) that destroyed natural protective barriers. In areas where natural protection was intact -- mangroves, sand dunes, etc. -- tsunami destruction was minimal. The massive reconstruction effort just now beginning poses great risk of further eroding the fragile natural environment on which rural Sri Lankans depend for their lives and livelihoods.

ER: What advice do you have for other communities seeking to undertake large-scale sustainable redevelopment projects? Are there any parallels between disaster relief and major urban revitalizaton efforts?

There are many parallels. What is learned in small-scale redevelopment is a real demonstration of green technologies and construction practices which can be incorporated into large urban redevelopment around the world. This is a particular opportunity for China, which plans to begin housing 400 million rural farmers in new cities over the next four years.

The environmental health of the planet rests with major builders like China and with the U.S., the world's largest per capita consumer of natural resources. We have much to learn from traditional societies. What is learned in Sri Lanka will hopefully export to China to make their construction efforts greener. And hopefully, the lessons learned will eventually extend to the U.S.

More information about Rebuilding Community International is available online.

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