By: Aaron Arnold and Rebecca Saltman Issue: Rebuilding Our Infrastructure Section: Business
January 12, 2010, 4:53 p.m. just west of Port-au-Prince, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake ravaged Hispaniola’s poorer half. Nineteen months later, some 634,000 survivors—40 percent of those Haitians displaced by the original quake—are still virtually homeless. Residing in tents distributed by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) is proving punitive, as the tents swiftly become useless tatters.
Constructing durable and cost-efficient residential housing, simple commercial buildings, schools, and medical clinics which could be swiftly erected, remains a daunting challenge. Add to that massive undertaking the desperate need for infrastructure development in the beleaguered nation, and the challenges start to look Biblical. Addressing Haiti’s structural and infrastructural needs will require a matrix of public-private partnerships. That naturally suggests both collaboration and an organization not afraid to shift and transcend conceived boundaries between public and private enterprise. Collaborative efforts will have to be infused with innovation in order to accomplish large-scale development that directly meets the needs of the impoverished and displaced.
TSC Global is an organization that blends these facets together in an effort to solve the challenge of building for communities plagued by poverty and degradation. The for-profit social enterprise blends business acumen with the heart of a not-for-profit. By promoting its products in a B2B stream, the goal of genuine infrastructural development in the developing world becomes something more than onerous. According to Director Steve Riley, the decision to commit to enterprise was driven by the need for twofold sustainability. “[We] want to be on the side of the equation that is focused on capacity building and restoring the dignity that comes with self-reliance,” he says. He notes that systematic humanitarian aid can create an unsustainable dependence in the recipient community. Therefore, the organization itself is not interested in a symbiotic existence with donors, preferring self-sufficiency through revenue generation. “Fundamentally,” says Riley, “our motivations are philanthropic, but we have not forsaken entrepreneurship or free enterprise to fulfill our corporate mission.”
The organization’s innovation is actually relatively simple. Its products are based on cement-latex thin shell composite (TSC) hyperbolic paraboloid (HyPar) roofing technology. This TSC HyPar construction method is the brainchild of George Nez, who recognized the potential for the versatile HyPar shape—a double curved planar surface. Nez discovered that the shape could be combined into many configurations, such as a pyramid hat or lampshade, or an attractive cross-gable bungalow that can be constructed with minimal and often local building materials.
To achieve the shape in quadrant by quadrant panel form, a rigid frame is first constructed, generally using lumber or even bamboo. The frame is then carefully tightened across a sequencing of HyPar lines and spanned with a mesh of either fiberglas mesh strips or locally sourced porous fabric and chicken wire. The HyPar membrane forms the underlay for several applications of thin shell composite “parge”, an admixture of portland cement and latex additive. The mixture is “painted” on using brooms, interpenetrating the HyPar-shaped membrane. Usually, a total of six layers are applied over a week’s time, amounting to a flexible but strong surface that in the end is no thicker than a centimeter.
Overall, a TSC roof is lightweight, swiftly erected, very cost-efficient, adaptable, and durable, contributing to TSC Global’s tagline “Roofs for the World.” The strength-flexibility continuum translates to earthquake and wind resistance, and theoretically promises 100 years of longevity. The composite material diminishes interior noise from rain, while the HyPar shape is ideal for rainwater harvesting. Top-vents create a much cooler living space compared to the brutal heat suffered under corrugated metal roofs. The entire roof can be lifted onto an existing wall structure, or the structures can be built “roofs first” atop posts, allowing for a shelter that a family or school can move under and later add wall systems as desired or able. Moreover, the reduction of material usage plus the proof of suitability and widespread acceptance of bamboo instead of lumber provides a greener solution for affordable structures.
TSC Global founders Brad Wells, Steve Riley, George Nez along with key advisors Randy Parsley and Steve Brooks, have decades of pertinent experience among them. From Executive Director Brad Wells’ business ownership experience, connections and entrepreneurial spirit, to Steve Riley’s passion for growth in underdeveloped countries, to George Nez’s inspiration and seminal ideas regarding how to create these roofs starting with his 1974 “roofs first” epiphany while relocating 23,000 villagers in Ghana, to Randy Parsley’s 30 years of residential and commercial construction experience, to Steve Brooks recent experience village and urban planning in Kigali, Rwanda—these men have a rare personal grasp of and innovative approach to affordable and post-disaster problems and the solutions.
“I believe TSC has a great potential to address the shelter needs of people at the bottom of the pyramid,” says Steve Brooks, Principal at Denver’s Oz Architecture, referring to the technology’s possible impact in the developing world. Brooks serves as a board member at TSC Global and sees a demonstrable value in the way that the technology can be implemented with local materials and local labor, and in fact the structures are architecturally satisfying. “[The TSC] surface becomes an integral structural shell that resists vertical and horizontal loads without beams and joists,” he says. Furthermore, natural ventilation is built into the construction process. Brooks acknowledges that the organization will meet with obstacles, from the political to the mercenary. For example, there is real potential for opportunists to mimic the techniques outside of TSC Global’s purview: “The challenge is quality control in execution within the local context.”
Ensuring such controls is a matter of collaboration, especially since TSC Global aims to build on a large scale. Progress begins by establishing partnerships with local community and business leaders, then looking to build contracts with international aid organizations and governmental institutions. The organization trains local tradesmen, conveying the technology to home-grown entrepreneurs. The end goal, providing an appropriate and immediate structural solution while also ensuring income generation for needy populations, comes about almost organically.
TSC Global’s aspiration is to proliferate its high-tech product with low-tech methods, giving families and local businesses affordable real estate assets. The organization estimates a unit cost of $4,000 including materials and labor. Assuming an 8 percent interest rate, a family making the developing world median income of $2.50 per day can pay off its own mortgage over 30 years. Associated costs are little more than those of temporary relief shelters, while the life of the TSC structure is exponentially superior.
TSC Global has completed small-scale projects in Africa and is currently working to establish itself in Haiti in the more expansive role described above. Wells and Riley are striving to simultaneously attract private investors and grant funding from international organizations, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). In these early stages, however, local, in-country collaboration is paramount. TSC Global has worked closely with Haitian construction company Truxton, SA which has provided logistics and shipping support. Truxton’s president, Didier Gardere, has proven to be invaluable, making numerous marketing calls and opening doors with the Haitian government and NGOs. Collaborators like Gardere are refreshing, according to Riley, especially in a humanitarian environment in which large aid organizations tend to be bureaucratic, cynical, and innovation averse, all of which contribute to exacerbating poor structural conditions. Riley expands: “I know NGOs don’t want to build shacks that will fall apart and devolve into slums, but that is what will happen at the prices for houses that NGOs want their contractors to build with. Haitians don’t want this kind of housing either. It is offensive to them in my opinion. What they want is help buying a home that will be livable and long lasting so they have the benefits of home ownership and wealth building through real estate.”
Further challenges abound in Haiti. Riley explains that logistics and supply chain establishment are difficult in any developing world situation. TSC Global has overcome these issues in small projects by sourcing materials in local markets. However, scaling up in Haiti will require a different approach. “We simply do not have the time, nor can our clients afford for us to spend weeks tracking down materials suppliers in-country,” says Riley. The organization’s proposed solution, which it is shopping to investors and grant-makers, is to construct a materials yard to serve as a home-base for controlled inventory of goods both imported and locally sourced (including for wall systems), as well as distribution to building sites. In other words, TSC Global becomes its own supplier, and eventually can support entrepreneurs who take on the technology.
Part and parcel of the effort to make TSC Global grow is nurturing the ultimate public-private partnership: outreach intended to lodge the organization’s technology and operating model in the minds of potential investors and influential personalities, while also generating interest in the media and general public. Most recently, the organization displayed its products at the Clinton Foundation/Government of Haiti Building Back Better Communities Expo in Port-au-Prince, an event attended by both former U.S. President Bill Clinton and new Haiti President Michel Martelly. Stateside, residents and visitors of Denver can check out TSC Global at their facilities at 1205 Osage in Denver, and at the Design for the Other 90% exhibition at RedLine Gallery (2350 Arapahoe Street). The Design 90% display includes three small roofs artfully and prominently presented. The exhibits are the beginnings of a campaign to bring affordable product, to the bottom billions, and also to make reverberations locally and globally, rippling outward to deliver on the aspiration to “build back better” what has crumbled and to innovate not only the way that people think about infrastructure development, but also spark a revolution in humanitarianism—one driven by an entrepreneurial spirit and financial empowerment rather than unsustainable handouts.
For more information about TSC Global please see visit their website at http://tscglobal.org or on twitter @tscroofs.