LIBANO, Colombia — Survivors of Colombia's Nevado del Ruiz volcano tragedy could not believe their eyes. Some cried with joy. They had new houses that took only 10 days to build and came in a box.
What seemed like a near miracle was made possible through an astute blend of Indian tradition and Western technology.
Inspired in part by practices used for centuries by Mayan Indians in Central America, a French Canadian firm has produced a flexible housing construction system, using a wood frame and lateritic clay as a basic building material.
The result was an innovative housing concept for disaster areas. It has already worked wonders for a few families living under the volcano, whose eruption last year left 23,000 dead, most buried under an avalanche of mud.
"We seek to create a universal housing concept: cheap, easy to build and specially adapted to Third World countries," said Jacques Valade, a Quebec architect who is behind the idea that is being--or soon will be--put into action in Colombia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Tunisia and North Yemen.
"All that people really need is a hammer and nails," Valade said. "Mud and clay they usually find on the spot. We take care of the rest."
He explained that he initially had the idea of adapting what is known as the Bajareque construction method while visiting Guatemala after a devastating 1976 earthquake that killed 24,000 people.
"I was amazed to learn that 80% of the victims (who) died suffocated by dirt after their houses crashed onto them," Valade said.
Although houses built in a traditional Spanish style had crumbled in the quake, most of the Mayan huts in the countryside had weathered the seismic shocks almost without a crack, he discovered.
"They can be compared to a wicker basket," he said. "Throw one from a window, you'll see it bounces off the ground but won't disintegrate.
"I kept the design and adapted it using treated wood, waterproof wall covering and galvanized nails."
Consortium Set Up
Valade set up a consortium, Polypus, last year to sell his "crated homes" idea, first to non-governmental organizations.
All of the basic material and tools are shipped in crates, which can easily be transported to the most remote parts of mountainous countries like Guatemala or Colombia.
A crate measuring about 4 by 4 by 11 feet and weighing about 700 pounds will produce a 400-square-foot house.
"The house is very nice and very fresh too," said Carlos Eli Ramirez, 48, a small coffee grower of El Sirpe. "And the whole family helped to build it."
Plantations Washed Away
In the remote area of Tolima, 16 miles from Libano and just above the ruins of Armero, which was wiped out by the volcano, coffee plantations were washed away by the avalanche of mud that followed the November, 1985, eruption.
The local committee of the National Coffee Growers' Federation decided to help finance the reconstruction.
Elsewhere in the disaster area, only about 500 houses, most of poor quality, have been built by various organizations and relief groups. More than 9,000 families still need shelter.
Valade estimated that a Polypus home, at less than $100 per square yard, costs a third of what a similar house of cement or brick would.
Tears of Joy
"Peasants had tears in their eyes when they saw their house finished," said Nury Kala, who coordinated the project for the coffee growers' association. "They could not believe it could be so simple."
Polypus' first project, sponsored by the Swiss humanitarian organization Terre des Hommes, built 50 units at Jari in the famine-stricken Wollo province of northern Ethiopia.