By Lisa Strychar

The literature and international case studies on community housing programs and post disaster housing recovery/reconstruction commonly speak to building back better (BBB) in light of other models used for designing and delivering housing. The most commonly referenced models are called Donor Driven Reconstruction (DDR), Owner Driven Reconstruction (ODR), and Aided Self-help (using BBB technologies). The methodology of each model, in its broadest definition, identifies and defines who designs and delivers housing, including the funding and procurement of materials and labour and allocation of housing and resources. While much literature (theoretical and empirical) on comparative housing delivery models and case studies is derived from the developing world, recent months have demonstrated that large scale destruction from extreme weather events and hazards are not reserved for developing nations. North America is vulnerable and may experience more frequent and stronger “natural disasters”, calling for an increase in resiliency planning and building back better.

The following case examples are resultant of fieldwork in the South Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu post-2015 Tropical Cyclone Pam. The findings and lessons learnt speak to the larger international community insofar as demonstrating the importance of community involvement in both disaster planning and recovery. Planning and recovery is most successful and offers greatest future resiliency when done with communities, not for them. When communities are actively involved in planning processes, not only are they better equipped to respond in time of crisis but they benefit the plan by offering valuable local knowledge which can mitigate disaster, improve recovery and even bring cost effectiveness. Building back better, then, is both an end goal as well as a process.

In the DDR model, housing is designed and delivered by an implementing organization (the donor), bypassing expensive and time-consuming consultation with intended recipient communities1,2. The DDR model is lauded as fast, cost effective, designed by technical professionals and as meeting agency mandates2,3,4. One community interviewed post-cyclone was the beneficiary of flat packed housing, including materials and an instruction sheet. While the housing was to cyclone standards, recipients were not taught new and more resilient building techniques which would have put them in a better position to make future repairs and modifications. Rather, they learnt how to assemble one specific design. Respondents called this housing inflexible, difficult to repair due to imported materials and imported design and, for people living in informal settlements with insecure land rights, the concrete foundation houses were impossible to relocate or sell when families are forced to move. The design came from donor headquarters in Europe and did not consider precarious tenure and lack of a housing market. Community consultation may have flagged this.

The second community interviewed worked with a different organization who also employed DDR with imported materials and pre-determined designs. Rather than flat-packing, however, the organization imported materials and taught the whole community new construction methods. Effectively the community became the construction team and thus the community reported being empowered and upskilled through the process (even though the predetermined housing design does not meet their needs today, they approved of the process and thus the agency holds legitimacy in the eyes of the community who experienced strong social cohesion through their housing). While not every household received a house, all benefitted from the process, as opposed to the previous community where some benefitted from a house but none benefitted from the process.

The third community interviewed were taught very simple adaptations to their current and traditional building structures. The BBB techniques also allowed greater flexibility in housing typology and size. Utilising local materials enabled inexpensive, easy to repair, and more culturally/traditionally appropriate construction. The implementing organization enjoys community and governmental legitimacy due to employing locals, consulting elders, and offering more resilient, cyclone proof housing that is widely accessible with regards to material procurement and the simplicity of BBB techniques. The difference is aiding resiliency versus giving aid.

All communities said ODR and cash transfers were a bad idea. Largely because they are individualistic and inequitable as most people do not own their homes but rather own the building materials. Further, in crisis situations, money is little help.

This research illuminates the importance of community consultation, participation and inclusion for disaster mitigation and future resiliency in post-disaster recovery. The study shows that when stakeholders communicate, collaborate and communities are invited to co-design and reimagine possibilities, new models develop and new techniques and designs are created, resulting in higher community satisfaction in the re/construction project, and greater legitimacy of the implementing organization. Additionally, it is said that when communities participate in the recovery process it further benefits their social and emotional recovery1,5,6,7.

Summer 2017 brought forest fires and extreme flooding to several thousand people in communities across North America. These communities have extensive recovery ahead. What does building back better mean for our communities and all our future resiliency?


1. Andrew, Simon A., Sudha Arlikatti, Laurie C. Long and James M. Kendra (2013) ‘The effect of housing assistance arrangements on household recovery: an empirical test of donor-assisted and owner-driven approaches’, Journal of Housing and the Built Environment 28: 17–34.

2. Karunasena, Gayani and Raufdeen Rameezdeen (2010) ‘Post-Disaster Housing Reconstruction: A Comparative Study of Donor vs. Owner Driven Approaches’, International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment 1(2): 173–91.

3. Schilderman, T. (2010) ‘Putting people at the centre of reconstruction’. In M. Lyons, T. Schilderman with C. Boano (eds), Building Back Better: Delivering people-centred housing reconstruction at scale. Warwickshire: Practical Action Publishing Ltd.

4. Steinberg, Florian (2007) ‘Housing reconstruction and rehabilitation in Aceh and Nias, Indonesia: Rebuilding lives’, Habitat International 31: 150–66.

5. Donovan, J. (2013) ‘Designing to Heal: Planning and Urban Design Response to Disaster and Conflict’. Melbourne: CSIRO Publishing. University of Melbourne e-book.

6. Lankatilleke. L. (2010) ‘The people’s process: The viability of an international approach’. In M. Lyons, T. Schilderman with C. Boano (eds), Building Back Better: Delivering people-centred housing reconstruction at scale. Warwickshire: Practical Action Publishing Ltd.

7. Lawther, Peter (2009) ‘Community Involvement in Post Disaster Re-construction – Case study of the British Red Cross Maldives recovery program’, International Journal of Strategic Property Management, 13(2): 153–69.


Lisa Strychar worked as a Statutory Urban Planner and in policy analysis in Melbourne, Australia, before completing her Master of Urban Planning from the University of Melbourne in 2016. Lisa’s academic and professional interests are in resiliency and post-disaster reconstruction through a socio-spatial lens with a specific interest in land use and housing.