Building Safer Homes Before The Next China Quake

Elizabeth Hausler, the founder and CEO of the small non-profit Build Change i i

Elizabeth Hausler, the founder and CEO of the small nonprofit Build Change, is working to make sure that when people rebuild their houses, they make them stronger and safer than the structures that collapsed in the earthquake in China last May. Hausler has a Ph.D. in civil engineering. Andrea Hsu/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu/NPR
Elizabeth Hausler, the founder and CEO of the small non-profit Build Change

Elizabeth Hausler, the founder and CEO of the small nonprofit Build Change, is working to make sure that when people rebuild their houses, they make them stronger and safer than the structures that collapsed in the earthquake in China last May. Hausler has a Ph.D. in civil engineering.

Andrea Hsu/NPR
At a busy construction site in the village of Xinle, outside of Mianzhu, 11 homes are being rebuilt. i i

At a busy construction site in the village of Xinle, outside of Mianzhu, 11 homes are being rebuilt at a frantic pace. Hausler is working to make sure the construction is being done correctly. Andrea Hsu/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu/NPR
At a busy construction site in the village of Xinle, outside of Mianzhu, 11 homes are being rebuilt.

At a busy construction site in the village of Xinle, outside of Mianzhu, 11 homes are being rebuilt at a frantic pace. Hausler is working to make sure the construction is being done correctly.

Andrea Hsu/NPR

In the countryside of China's Sichuan province, Elizabeth Hausler is trying to spread a vital message: Earthquakes don't kill people, bad buildings do.

Hausler, 40, an earthquake engineer from Illinois, is working to make sure that when people rebuild their houses, they make them stronger and safer than the structures that collapsed in the powerful earthquake that tore through southwest China a year ago.

Hausler is the founder and CEO of a small nonprofit group called Build Change. Translated into Chinese, the two-word name becomes more of a mouthful: Build Earthquake Resistant Homes, Change Construction Practice Permanently. And that's exactly what Hausler wants to accomplish.

Hausler has a Ph.D. in civil engineering. She's the daughter of a mason, and is a skilled mason herself. She spent summers laying brick in the town where she grew up, outside Chicago, and says she can see in an instant whether the new construction under way in China is solid or shoddy.

Driving through the villages outside the city of Mianzhu, Hausler gives an appraisal of some of the new houses.

"That looks pretty good," she says about one house going up, "except those lintels over the doors are too short."

Finding The Deadly Culprit

Around her neck, Hausler always wears a silver pendant with "dream big" stamped on it. Her big dream for Sichuan is to promote safe construction practices that will be used for years to come, and far beyond just the seven villages where Build Change is currently working.

Hausler has worked on creating safer homes in earthquake-hit areas around the world, including India, Iran and Indonesia. When she heard the news last May that an earthquake had struck southwestern China, Hausler knew she wanted to come. She first visited Sichuan a month after the earthquake to do a forensic study of the buildings that collapsed.

It didn't take long to figure out one main culprit: precast concrete slabs, 8 or 9 feet long, used for roofs and floors. That's a deadly practice, Hausler says.

"These planks are really heavy, and they weren't really confined together," she says. "So there wasn't anything wrapping around holding them together. They were basically just set on top of the wall. So just a little bit of shaking or deformation made them slide. If you had a weak wall in the first place and the wall cracked, then there would be some movement that would allow those planks to just come down."

And that had catastrophic results.

Hausler says those precast slabs should never be used. She has seen a few new houses going up with those same deadly concrete planks, but says most people have learned the lesson.

Build Change makes sure villagers are reinforcing the brick masonry of their new houses with concrete and steel.

"When we use reinforced concrete columns and beams around the masonry walls, they act like a rubber band. They tie the walls together," Hausler says. "So if the wall cracks a little bit, it won't collapse."

Watching — And Pushing — Progress

At a busy construction site in the village of Xinle, outside of Mianzhu, 11 homes are being rebuilt at a frantic pace. Cement mixers churn out mortar. Workers hustle by with wheelbarrows, shovels and planks. Dump trucks offload huge piles of orange brick.

Hausler moves around the work site in jeans and work boots, her long blond hair in a ponytail under a yellow "Build Change" hard hat.

She keeps a watchful eye on the proportions being used as workers mix mortar. She measures the steel bars being used to reinforce concrete. And she has some advice for one of the homeowners who's about to have workers start on his masonry wall.

"I want to really encourage you to make sure that the workers are soaking the bricks in water before they build the wall," she tells him. "It will make the wall a lot stronger."

The Build Change construction team leader, a 24-year-old spitfire named Huang Yan, delivers a scolding to the villagers. She urges them to take more responsibility.

"There are only a few of us," Yan says. "We need your cooperation. If we all work together, I can guarantee that your houses will be safe."

She's interrupted by one of the construction workers tossing bricks.

"Can you move over?" he shouts, implying that she is blocking progress.

One of the villagers, Li Yuanfu, approaches with a big smile. He says he's a farmer "100 percent," and he proudly shows off his new home. Several brick walls are already going up.

For the past year, Li and his family have been living in a temporary shack with no walls. He cobbled it together out of the debris from his old home, which completely collapsed in the earthquake. Li nailed together some pieces of wood, put sacks that used to hold Sichuan peppercorns over that, and covered them with thatch.

"It was cold in the winter," Li says. "But what could we do?"

Li hopes his family can move into the new home by July.

His face crinkles with delight as he thanks Hausler for keeping tabs on the quality.

"It's our pleasure," she replies. "We're very happy to be here. We'll have staff out here almost every day, so you'll always have someone from Build Change that you can ask a question."

An Emphasis On Quality

But there are economic constraints to consider, too. Hausler says poor farmers such as Li often tell her that they wish they could afford better steel or better masonry.

"They automatically expect that I'm going to want them to build to a higher standard that they can't achieve," Hausler says. "But we've managed to condense our suggestions down to what makes the biggest impact, the most important things that need to be done to make the house safe."

The village party secretary, Yang Tingming, comes by the work site. He's got a heavy key chain on his belt loop and a concerned look on his face.

Yang says, "What I care about most is quality. What I worry about most is also quality."

But when asked if he's worried about what would happen if another earthquake hits this area, Yang says, "No."

"If we had houses built like this before the earthquake, we wouldn't have had problems," Yang says.

A woman from the village chimes in.

"We felt aftershocks yesterday and the day before," she says. "We all felt them."

There have been thousands of aftershocks since the earthquake.

But the village secretary seems unconcerned.

"Look," Yang says, "We went through an 8.0 earthquake. This was nothing; it was just what we call a 'Little kiss.' Not a big deal."

Hausler says she considers her work here "the best job in the world." She says her goal is for Build Change to give these villagers not just stronger homes, but also peace of mind.

"Part of what we're doing is reassuring homeowners, so that they can sleep at night knowing their house is safe," she says.

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