The shortlist for The Structural Awards 2015 was announced in August. The winners will be announced during the Awards ceremony in London on 13 November. In the lead up the event, the teams behind our shortlisted entries are contributing articles about their projects.

“Housing for Low Income Communities in El Salvador” is an entry to our “Small Projects” category, which celebrates the most outstanding structural engineering projects completed for less than £2 million. Here the Arup team behind “Housing for Low Income Communities” discuss why their house design is needed and how it will make a difference to the people of El Salvador.

El Salvador is a beautiful country with exceptionally warm and welcoming people. One of the main challenges the country faces is a desperate need for housing – the current deficit is estimated at 950,000 homes, equivalent to 58% of the population. The quality of existing house designs also varies considerably. The best of the new homes use reinforced blockwork, but this is primarily constructed from materials which are generally unsustainable.  Fundación REDES, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) operating in El Salvador, asked Arup to work with them to develop a new form of housing for El Salvador to help address these problems.

We set out to design a house that would better withstand earthquakes, use more locally-sourced materials and help fight climate change by using sustainable materials. It would also remain cool in El Salvador’s hot climate, be durable, easy to build, and popular with local people.

There were some serious challenges involved. We had to keep the cost to an absolute minimum, as El Salvador is a developing nation and neither the government nor NGOs have significant funds to spare for housing. At the same time our design had to be suitable for an earthquake prone nation. Combining the two meant we had to start from a clean slate.

The climate is also a big challenge - the hot and wet tropical conditions encourage rot and termites, so natural materials such as cane and timber are significantly more vulnerable unless properly protected. The need to design a way of keeping the house naturally cool was also a central factor.

We had to think locally in all our design work: the house was designed to be built by local communities, so it has to be simple to understand and construct. Roads in rural areas sometimes are very poor or do not exist at all, so materials had to be easily transportable by hand. Crime can be a serious problem in parts of El Salvador, so the house had to be particularly secure against people trying to break in.

The many constraints in the design meant that this was an engineer-led project, with little specific architectural input - we handled the architectural role ourselves by travelling to El Salvador and working directly with local communities through workshops and focus groups to develop a solution that was best for them.

The resulting design is unique in two respects: it uses cane for parts of the structure, which is freely available locally but not a common construction material. Second, it is an improved adaptation of a local vernacular design called “wattle-and-daub”, which crucially is already familiar to communities in El Salvador.

REDES and Arup are currently in discussion with various organisations to explore the possibility for wide-scale construction of the house design. The first wide-scale project will involve a comprehensive training program for local workers, community members and engineers, enabling them to build houses themselves and crucially, to train others. The idea is that eventually construction will be self-sufficient, without any significant involvement from outside El Salvador.

Hopefully this project shows people that structural engineering really has the ability to make a difference to people’s lives, especially in developing countries, and that in many cases engineers should be leading the way.

Visit The Structural Awards 2015 website to find out about our other shortlisted entries, and to buy your tickets.

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