Building Pioneers – The long and difficult road of innovation

Linking knowledge and action – that is the aim of the Munich Re Foundation. And this was the reason we supported an innovative project that hopes to revolutionise house building in Bangladesh. It turned out to be a complicated matter with a large number of obstacles.

The production of fired clay bricks (FCBs) in Bangladesh has many negative consequences for both people and the environment. Apart from the degradation of farming areas, these include deforestation, air pollution, high carbon emissions, and working conditions that are injurious to health. Building Pioneers, a young social enterprise in Germany, wanted to do something to seriously improve this poor overall balance. It developed compressed stabilized earth blocks (CSEBs) with the aim of building environmentally friendly, stable and affordable houses in Bangladesh. The blocks are reasonably priced, as well as being resistant to earthquakes and flash flooding. The CSEBs can be produced on site using a small press. This also creates unskilled job opportunities in villages and communities. With the help of the Munich Re Foundation, which provided financial support for the project in the start-up phase, the objective was to equip rural communities to resist natural disasters better.  

Traditional brick yards near Dhaka, Bangladesh. © Albaab Habib

The start phase – making plans and testing
Building Pioneers, which was founded in January 2015, planned to establish small production sites in rural districts. These were meant to increase the resilience of local people to natural disasters, and improve their livelihood options. A manual production unit for CSEBs was built in a pilot project, and the local people were instructed on how to use it themselves. At the Bangladesh University for Engineering and Technology (BUET), 40 different material structures for the bricks were tested in the laboratory, initially with promising results. At the same time, key partners in the project were secured, for example the LafargeHolcim Affordable Housing Programme.  

First adjustments – from manual to semi-automated brick production
The results of the pilot project showed that, in large quantities, the CSEBs could not compete with the fired clay bricks. Production of the cement blocks of compressed earth was too labour-intensive and time-consuming under the given conditions, and therefore too costly. So the young pioneers had to look for an alternative model for environmentally friendly production. They had an idea: why not transform existing, outdated brickyards into semi-automated CSEB plants? After all, the old facilities are under pressure to modernise. Switching them over to semi-automated CSEB production would save jobs and help the old plants survive (top-down approach). At the same time, Building Pioneers didn’t want to abandon their bottom-up approach. Manual production units would continue to be used at local level for the purposes of sensitisation and training.

A worker stacks the blocks produced using CSEB technology.

From earth cement blocks to sand cement blocks – a new approach
In August 2016, the plans had to be changed again. Long-term weather tests with the CSEBs showed that they are not suitable over the long-term for the wet monsoon climate in Bangladesh. The constant high humidity would render CSEB structures unstable, and expose the people in them to an additional risk. Sand cement blocks (SCBs) offered a viable alternative. These are more water resistant, and more cost efficient than the original CSEBs. In addition, their production involves 50% less carbon emissions than fired clay bricks (FCBs).  

The downside: the sand cement blocks cannot be produced manually; heavy equipment is required. The new approach had moved a long way from the original idea of a decentralised operation involving local structures. A new company called Building Pioneers Bangladesh Ltd had to be founded, and a lot of things had to be re-negotiated: On the technical side, some partners with muscle were needed – companies like Chryso India and the Saint Léonard France Group. And on the financial side, significantly larger subsidies were needed. In view of the new scale of the project, the previous funders (Munich Re Foundation, Google Impact Challenge, and others) were unable to provide additional support. To bridge that gap, negotiations were held with a further donor (SwitchAsia Project). But in the end, the Building Pioneers team were unable to secure the funding, so following a pilot phase, the project was finally mothballed.

With her passion Ava Mulla stimulated the debate in Bangladesch.

Project completion – with mixed feelings
Even though the work of the Building Pioneers in Bangladesh ended in July 2017 after the pilot phase, their dedication and commitment brought a number of results. The project highlighted the urgent need for an alternative to fired clay bricks in Bangladesh. The discussions with politicians, universities and industrial representatives increased visibility and offered insights into potential new solutions. Local players recognized that changes can be achieved through personal initiatives. Even when it fails, innovation often produces key findings. A journey begins with the first step. And with the research work carried out on the sand cement blocks, the first steps have been taken in a new direction. 

23 February 2018

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