Simple, Solid, Sustainable Homes

Senp Kay means “simple house” in Haitian Creole, and the homes can be built using only 10 items. Rows of discarded plastic drink bottles are sandwiched between layers of galvanized mesh in a frame of two-by-fours to form tilt-up walls that are finished with straw and clay. Two years after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, Builders Without Borders (BWB) is hoping the structures can make a dent in the country’s still-vast homeless population.

BWB is a philanthropic group founded in 1999 to help rebuild disaster zones. The national collective of architects and natural building experts works with people around the world to design and build healthy houses from locally available materials. “That,” says co-director and founder Catherine Wanek, “is a key tenant of the organization.”

Building homes of expensive imported materials—as other organizations do—gets the initial job done. Teaching residents to build from affordable local materials has greater and longer-lasting impact, Wanek says. “The objective is to transfer knowledge.”

BWB’s Haitian simple houses are earthquake- and hurricane-resistant, flexible in design, fast to construct, made of affordable and locally available materials, and can be built by residents. “Time will be the test for these structures,” Wanek says, “but they are more sensible than the concrete structures that fell in Port-au-Prince in 2010.”

Many of those buildings had concrete ceilings held in place by little more than gravity, while BWB’s homes have lighter-weight roofs that are better attached. The completed structures sit on rubble trench foundations, or “floating footings,” of compacted aggregate that allow seismic waves to flow through rather than up into the structure.

BWB has provided housing and education for local populations in New Mexico, Mexico and as far away as Siberia. “We don’t just go in and build,” Wanek says. “We work with locals to create appropriate designs. That means locally available, affordable, climatically and seismically stable, and aesthetically pleasing to the locals.”

In northern Pakistan, another earthquake-rattled region, BWB teamed up with Pakistan Straw Bale and Appropriate Building (PAKSBAB) to teach the benefits of straw bale building, BWB’s primary construction method. “Earth and straw are very available and inexpensive,” says Wanek, author of three books including The New Strawbale Home. Straw is a waste product of grain agriculture such as wheat, rice, oats, barley and rye. “And plasters of clay-based soils are dirt cheap,” Wanek adds. Together, the organizations have funded and constructed 30 buildings in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

BWB homes are less likely to fall down, cause less damage when they do, and can be rebuilt by locals using waste materials and dirt. “The goal is to build capacity within the country,” Wanek explains.

—Bill Giebler 


Learn to Build

Builders Without Borders founder Catherine Wanek’s Black Range Lodge in southern New Mexico, dates to the 1880s. It has a straw bale guest house, and is also a natural building demonstration site. Check out for hands-on building workshops in August.


Builders Without Borders is building houses in Haiti by recycling plentiful local resources–plastic drink bottles and straw. 

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