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BUILDING A STABLE FUTURE: SARID’s Sultan develops quake-resistant housing

By TUSHA MITTAL (India New England), November 22, 2006

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Nazmeen Butt of Muzzarafabad is one of 3.5 million people displaced by a catastrophic earthquake that hit Pakistan in Oct. 2005. More than a year after she lost her home and her husband, Butt says widows like her are still to reap the benefits of reconstruction efforts.

Javed Sultan
  Sultan (above, with workers in Pakistan) plans to construct 100 houses before disclosing information on his technique.

Many non-governmental organizations spoke with Butt, but she says the results remained on paper.

“Lots of people came, but did only file work,” she says. “They take our picture, take our data, but no one comes back to give us anything.”

That changed when Butt met Javed Sultan, Director of South Asia Research Institute for Policy and Development (SARID), a nonprofit organization based in Cambridge, Mass.

SARID seeks to bridge the gap between “scholarship and policymaking,” by being an information resource and guide to development strategies in South Asia. Specifically SARID’s efforts focus on identifying emerging and indigenous technologies pertinent to South Asia and promoting greater use of local resources for development in the region. “He (Sultan) is the first person who called me back,” says Butt.

Javed Sultan

Javed Sultan, Massachusetts architect and founder of a nonprofit organization, claims to have developed earthquake-resistant housing, and has built two houses in Pakistan (above). His technology minimizes cement use, and employs sand.

Sultan, who also heads a commercial architectural firm, visited Pakistan in the summer of 2006, hoping to assist with earthquake reconstruction efforts. Sultan says he was struck by the lack of attention given to women widowed by the earthquake. As part of SARID’s efforts to empower local learning, Sultan decided to work with Butt and set up a vocational training center for widows. Butt now serves as a local coordinator of the SARID project and is working to arrange  for computers and sewing machines for the training center. In the long run, Sultan says he hopes to provide the widows with work through which they can sustain themselves. One area where he hopes to use their help is in building earthquake resistant houses with a new technology that he claims uses 70 percent unskilled labor and relies on local material for construction.

Before the earthquake in 2005, Sultan had been working on creating low cost affordable housing units in South Asia.

When the earthquake happened, I went back to my drawing table,” says Sultan, who studied architectural engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  “I suddenly realized that will little modification I can come up with an earthquake resistant design.”

When Sultan first thought of his idea —using locally and freely available soil to construct the houses — he laughed out loud.  It seemed too good to be true, he says.

But after serious consideration and labor, Sultan now claims he has an answer to the challenges of high material transportation cost, architectural fee, and lengthy construction process, faced by the Earthquake Re-construction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) in Pakistan.

According to Sultan, 300,000 homes still need to be constructed and an additional 300,000 repaired or upgraded to make them earthquake resistant. Sultan says that while the current government technology will cost $11,550 for each house, his technology can build houses of the same size for less than $5,000, less than 50 percent of the cost. He adds that this design can be constructed in approximately four weeks and that local inhabitants can be easily trained to construct their own homes.

He says that the current government model relies on skilled labor and conforms to the technology used world over – that of concrete masonry blocks.

“I am sticking my neck out by challenging the world,” says Sultan. “This is the first time anyone has thought of using soil.”

Without sharing the details of his patent pending technology, Sultan says the key to his model is the use of a granular material in its original state that has strong binding properties.

Traditionally, the land forces resulting from an earthquake move in a linear direction, but the damping effect of soil causes these forces to move sideways, says Sultan. His method prevents earthquake-related damage by dispersing the forces over a larger area. He says he has also found a way to substitute the use of cement with a combination of other materials and use non-cementations binders to keep the house structures in place. It is the low use of cement that he says significantly reduces cost of construction.

But when he tried to convey this ERRA, which Sultan says has been flooded with proposals from Germany to Japan, the authorities turned down his proposal. 

“My credibility is being questioned,” says Sultan. “The drop in price is so much that nobody believes me.” While ERRA wants Sultan to have his technology verified and ratified through its own consulting team, Sultan sees that as competition and says he is scared of plagiarism, reverse engineering and ‘letting his proprietary designs out.”

Currently only ERRA approved designs can be utilized for earthquake home construction and ERRA has only approved the conventional cement and steel designs, says Sultan.


However, when Asif Merchant, Chief Executive Officer of Aga Khan Building and Planning Services in Pakistan came across a local news article about Sultan’s demo-project, he saw merit, especially since he is an engineer himself.

“We saw his house and felt we could use this,” says Merchant. “As part of our overall housing program we were looking for some applicable designs which were not only seismic resistant but relatively cheap, easy to make, and did not require transporting too much material from outside because this is a very remote valley.”

In the summer of 2006, Sultan constructed a house in an earthquake-affected area in Garthama village for the Aga Khan Foundation, an international non-governmental organization.

“He started constructing in middle of June and was able to finish it within a months time,” says Merchant. “The technology we have come up with ourselves is cheaper than Sultan’s option but is of lower quality in terms of finishing, so in the long run our technology would have low life and require more maintenance.”

He adds that Sultan’s technology is at least 30 to 40 percent cheaper than anything else currently available in the market. Aga Khan Building and Planning Services has now decided to collaborate with Sultan on an upcoming reconstruction project. Early next year, Sultan will travel to Pakistan and hopes to build at least 50 homes in Pakistan Controlled Kashmir.

Meanwhile, Merchant is not surprised that others organizations like ERRA seek verification before they attempt to try Sultan’s technology. He adds that he was able to appreciate its value because he comes from an engineering background and has been working with the Aga-Khan Foundation’s similar projects.

“Whatever he has done is not conventional,” says Merchant. “If you take it to a non technical agency they want ratification from a credible technical agency – that’s understandable. Unless he was driven by issues [that]  he has to disclose his technology, he shouldn’t have trouble getting it ratified (from ERRA).”

But those are exactly the issues that Sultan says he is concerned about. He has applied for a patent and doesn’t want to share the mechanisms of his design with engineers in Pakistan before the patent is approved. The same applies for international organizations like UNICEF, who were interested in Sultan’s designs but required him to get it approved from third parties in the United States.

“I want this technology to come out of South Asia,” says Sultan. “I don’t want this to come in the west first. The west claims they are the initiator of any creative thought. It is important for us to contribute, take authorship.”

Merchant agrees that Sultan deserves credit for his work, but hopes that a balance can be achieved, especially since he believes this technology could be extremely useful in the long run.

“His technology is easy enough and quick enough that it could have a big impact,” says Merchant. “ For us, keeping something away from the people which is of general benefit for them is not the way to go about things. He (Sultan) needs to find a middle ground between being selfless and covering his financial needs.”

“Let me make 100 houses first,” is all Sultan will say in defense. He hopes that his summer collaboration with the Aga Khan foundation will lead to a substantial amount of construction that will prevent duplication of his ideas.  Once he has 100 houses standing, he is ready to disseminate the technical information for large-scale construction.

“Maybe I’m carrying my own baggage here,” says Sultan, “but this is my little quirk.”

© India New England 2006 

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