New bricks to fight climate change

Interview with Ava Mulla, Building Pioneers, May 2017

Ava Mulla is a student of the Resilience Academy, where she has been able to build up contacts in and with Bangladesh. When she presented her project concept in 2015, it was met with great enthusiasm from the other Academy students. Munich Re Foundation sponsors Building Pioneers. Environment- and resource-friendly brick production in Bangladesh – and elsewhere – is an important step towards sustainable development.

Since when have you been living in Bangladesh and what has happened since you arrived?
I've been in Bangladesh since 2015, and I came with the goal of modernising the local clay brick industry. Bricks are still being made here in the old-fashioned way. The working conditions are often harsh, and production is extremely harmful for the environment – high C2 emissions, strong air pollution, deforestation and the loss of fertile farmland, which threatens food safety.

Traditional brick yards near Dhaka, Bangladesh. © Albaab Habib

You want to improve the situation. How?
To solve these problems, I founded Building Pioneers, a social enterprise. We want to establish an alternative to bricks that is more environmentally friendly and less expensive. CSEBs (compressed stabilised earth blocks) seemed to meet all these criteria. They are not baked in furnaces. Instead, clay is stabilised with cement and compacted in a press. This saves 75% of the CO2 emissions caused by traditional bricks, and also solves the problems of deforestation and air pollution. CSEBs facilitate the construction of earthquake-resistant buildings and are accepted by the local people.

You sound sceptical, why?
Although our CSEB pilot project in 2015/16 achieved good results, some of the assumptions we based our business model on have proven wrong. They include the production costs, the availability of suitable soil and the strength values of the CSEBs in a wet state. The sobering balance of one and a half years of work is that CSEBs are a great product but, unfortunately, not suitable for the conditions in Bangladesh.

Has your idea failed?

Fortunately not. The CSEB option is off the table, but not the mission as such. As Benjamin Franklin said: "I didn't fail the test. I just found 100 ways to do it wrong." I'm confident that we won't need 100 attempts to achieve the goal. It's important that we critically analyse why it didn't work, and apply these findings in the next step.

What main insights have you gained?

The main insight is that we must find a solution that doesn't need soil. Drying the soil is labour intensive and drives the production costs up. The different soils vary too strongly in composition, which complicates quality control. The clay content in a CSEB reduces the strength of the brick when it's wet, and the degradation of the underside leads to subsidence. This increases the probability of flooding. Everything at the moment points in the direction of hollow sand-based blocks. Sand is available in abundance in Bangladesh.

Hollow blocks made of sand offer an alternative to CSEBs. © Ava Mulla

What's the next step?
The next step is a new pilot project that will test a number of critical assumptions. This includes technical properties, production and construction costs, the interest of brick factory owners, acceptance by customers, bricklayers, architects, etc. For this purpose, we will set up a small pilot factory, test block production and build a model house. The plant consists of a mixer and a press. It can produce blocks for one or two houses per day.

Are the Building Pioneers starting from scratch all over again, or does something similar exist already?
We're buying the machines from India, where the technology is already widespread, and are then bringing them overland across the border. We were originally toying with the idea of China, but importing by ship container would be complicated and expensive. As well as this, the proximity to India also makes more sense for future imports. We're also looking for a suitable production facility, and are working at founding the Building Pioneers Bangladesh Company. A branch office of the German company is no longer sufficient for our project. As soon as the machines are here, things will really get going.

And what outcome is planned for the end of the project?
The end of the project is intended to see the transition from brick yards to block production facilities, hopefully on a large scale. After all, there are roughly 8,000 brickyard chimneys in Bangladesh, smoke-spitting monsters. What we're doing here is pioneer work. We want to convince others to follow our example with a successful pilot project. Our new role will then be to support the transformation, for example by importing machines and providing production training, quality control and retraining for bricklayers.

What are the biggest challenges at the moment?
Financing is always a challenge for a start-up. After the setback with the first pilot project, it took us several months to pick up the pieces and start over again. Fortunately, in 2016, we won a major competition for social entrepreneurs and received support from Munich Re Foundation.

Financing is one factor, what other obstacles do you still encounter?
Apart from financing, we are facing a truly diverse set of challenges. Bangladesh ranks 176 out of 190 on the World Bank's "Ease of doing business" list. Processes are often tedious and not transparent. Add to this the corruption, which unfortunately makes many things more difficult. It's not easy for me, because I strictly refuse to pay "Speed Money", so some processes are delayed considerably as a result. This really puts my principles to the test. So far I've always found a lawful solution. And that will remain so.

A blockhouse of hollow sand blocks. © Ava Mulla

And what happens next?
I'm still convinced, after two years of ups and downs, that our project is right and important. Our efforts will soon pay off. Hopefully many beautiful building blocks will tumble from the press on my 31st birthday in 2017. Perhaps we will already have built a small house by then in which we can celebrate. I'm optimistic and crossing my fingers.

RK, 26 May 2017

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