Five Questions for Isaac Boyd, CRS Shelter Expert

Isaac Boyd is Catholic Relief Services’ expert on shelter and infrastructure. After years spent as an architect in the United States, Isaac started working for nonprofit organizations abroad. His travels have taken him to Nepal, Azerbaijan, Sudan and the Solomon Islands.

Isaac was recently in the West African country of Ghana, taking part in a shelter assessment. CRS is planning to help families rebuild the homes they lost during the recent flooding. Lane Hartill, CRS’ West Africa regional information officer, sat down with Isaac and asked him about his work.

Isaac Boyd, CRS’ shelter expert. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS.

Do you think nongovernmental organizations are aware of the fragility of the environments in which they work?

They probably are now. Maybe in the past, not so much. Sometimes if you’re in the face of a situation where it’s obvious that people are suffering tremendously, you will prioritize the alleviation of human suffering over a long-term problem. In Darfur, one of the biggest issues was the attacks on women when they were going outside the camps to go look for fuel wood. So that’s one of the main reasons why there were efforts to try to find means of cooking that used less fuel, so women wouldn’t have to go collect wood. Some agencies were seriously toying with the idea of trucking up charcoal from Congo, which in terms of protection for women in that situation does the trick. But bringing up charcoal from Congo just transfers the issue of environmental degradation to Congo. I think people are aware of it, but it doesn’t become the top priority when people are in a horrible humanitarian situation.

What do you think about the mud houses and local construction here in Ghana?

I find the local construction really beautiful. I like how tactile it is. How related to the human form and human size. It’s straight out of a hippie commune. It’s really cool inside. It’s the kind of thing that was developed over a long period of time –- really just using materials from here, reacting to the environment, fitting into the culture, fitting into the society. It’s a beautiful fusion of all of those things. The sad thing is, sitting here talking to [Ghanaians], all they say is, ‘We want cement blocks.’ You’ve seen those cement block buildings. A, they are ugly. B, they don’t perform so well thermally. C, they are just hard and square and linear. They don’t give the feeling they are an expression of culture and society that these other buildings were before. [The Ghanaians] can’t be blamed. It’s an image of modernity and an image of progress, and the attainment of something that’s difficult to attain in this environment.

It’s the same thing in places like Nepal: beautiful vernacular architecture. It performs incredibly well thermally. It’s cheap and available in the natural context. But you walk through Katmandu and what’s everyone building? They’re building these concrete buildings, using poor-quality cement, skimping on it, using poor-quality rebar [steel rods used to reinforce concrete], building three or four stories, very ugly. And not very creative in their design. And when the [next] earthquake hits, the point load of death in Katmandu will be phenomenal.

Why do you think architecture students in the United States should be exposed to shelter interventions by nonprofits?

Kind of on moral grounds. Not just architecture students, but Americans in general. If you’ve been exposed to the disparities within the developed world and you have an interest to do something, get involved. Don’t wait for someone.

I think there’s a lot of fascinating design problems [in emergency shelter]. Not sexy, not made out of aluminum and steel tubing and made out of all glass structures, like you’d find in Berlin. But it’s more of a situation where you’ve got limited materials, you’ve got severe weather conditions, you have groups of people who are going to have certain needs. That all coalesces into a structure that is going to fit their social and cultural needs. That’s fascinating. That’s the kind of stuff architecture students would be pretty interested in.

CRS shelter expert Isaac Boyd. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS.

CRS shelter expert Isaac Boyd. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS.

What are some of the most innovative design and building solutions you’ve seen?

If you’re nailing plastic sheets to lumber, use a bottle cap, that works just great. Tearing the radials out of the tires [to fasten temporary structures together]. It’s a cast-off piece of modernity –- a tire –- but it’s just as available as other natural resources. If you look at the way people have used natural resources in their building processes, it’s pretty innovative. Same thing with whatever they can get out of products like tires. It’s basically a piece of trash, but someone was smart enough and figured out how to use it.

Whenever you use locally available resources, it’s an excellent thing to do. But make sure that you understand how the process is going to work, where’s it going to come from, what sort of processing it will need. But it’s a great way to involve people in the process and it’s possibly a bit of an income-generating opportunity.

People use mud for homes here. Thoughts?

The use of earth in architecture is a great idea. It has very good thermal and insulating properties. It’s right there. Manipulation of it is really easy. And generally, using enough earth for the walls of a home, you aren’t going to do much to degrade the environment. In the States, there are a number of people using rammed earth as a building material. But it’s a new technology for Americans and it takes a bit of a learning curve. It’s not the type of thing a lot of general contractors know how to do.

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2 Responses to “Five Questions for Isaac Boyd, CRS Shelter Expert”

  1. Shaun Parker Says:

    Great work, Isaac! Hope that you and E are doing well!!

  2. Emerson Clauss Says:

    Isaac,
    Great work. I have developed a housing strategy for ultra low income or nearly no income living. It is adaptable for Haiti. Local workers can be trained to build and secure these structures, add to local job creation as the housing challenge is addressed. An architect friend has helped and has experience with this method for relief efforts in early 70’s.

    I’m trying to get this idea going and delivered to Haiti.

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