By Namini Wijedasa.
The proposed steel houses for the war-affected have inadequate foundations, insufficient roof support, are at risk of corrosion, are poorly ventilated and have no hearth and chimney, Moratuwa Universtiy experts have found after a detailed technical study.
The controversial dwellings — erected by the Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal — also have poor or non-existent capacity for extension or repair, a much shorter life span than block wall houses, are unlikely to create a sense of ownership, unlikely to foster the local economy and generate employment and are at least double the cost of a block wall house, the experts have warned.
These conclusions were published in the preliminary report of Prof. Priyan Dias and Dr Rangika Halwatura (both engineers) and Architect Varuna de Silva. They spent two days in the Jaffna Peninsula comparing the model steel houses erected by ArcelorMittal with block wall houses of which more than 50,000 houses have been constructed over the past five years.
The Ministry of Resettlement proposes to hand over the US$1 billion contract to build 65,000 steel houses throughout the North and East to ArcelorMittal despite widespread protest from local civil society organisations and others. The Sunday Times has a copy of the expert group’s preliminary report. The inspection focused mainly on technical aspects. The report states that the steel houses are founded on a 150mm thick reinforced concrete slab which is placed on the ground, in one case raised above existing ground level by around 450mm.
“This will be unsuitable for flood conditions or even heavy rains that could erode the soil under the foundations,” the experts warn. “In comparison, the block wall houses are founded on random rubble masonry around 450mm deep with a 300mm plinth; this foundation depth and plinth height will be much more stable, especially under flood conditions.”
The corrugated steel sheets are prone to corrosion, especially in environments close to the sea, if the coating is compromised by cutting, drilling, punching, riveting or even scratching, the experts warn. Such corrosion could take place in less than 10 years, their report states. In contrast, the block wall houses have few materials that are subject to corrosion.
“The fixing of the door frames to the panels in the steel houses appear to be quite flimsy,” the report says. “Parts of it have been fixed to wall panels with double sided tape. In one case the jointing to the panels had not been carried out properly. Electrical fittings (plug sockets and external conduits) were found to have been dislodged already in one of the houses. The door hinges are also very small and appear quite fragile.”
By comparison, the block wall houses do not suffer from such defects because the walls and fixtures are quite sturdy. In the steel houses, there are no openings such as grills between the tops off doors and windows and the roof. “This is poor design for hot climates because it does not allow hot air to rise and escape; such a design is better for cold climates or for air conditioned spaces in hot climates,” the experts explain.
Grills are routinely provided in the block wall houses. “In addition, there is always a gap between wall plate and roof covering, allowing hot air to escape and making these houses much more comfortable thermally.”
The experts say the windows in the steel houses are small in size and “may not satisfy standard ventilation requirements”.
“Also, only half the window can be opened because of the sliding action,” they state. “They have also not been provided bars, thus posing security issues (especially for vulnerable recipients), since windows would need to be opened for better ventilation. Such bars are provided in many of the block houses, where in any case the need to have windows opened is not as great because of the better ventilation at roof level.”
The steel houses have not been provided with a hearth and chimney, required because most recipients would be using firewood for cooking (and unable to afford cooking by gas). “The steel house concept does not appear able to accommodate such an arrangement, because in one of the houses, a separate kitchen was being envisaged outside the house,” the experts say.
Block wall houses have long been constructed with hearths and chimneys that appear to be working well. The use of the prefabricated panels appears to make future extensions in plan area infeasible for the steel houses, because of the specialist jointing techniques required, the experts say. On the other hand, there were a number of examples where block wall houses (including the roof) had been extended in plan.
“The unfamiliar technology of the steel houses would also make repairs difficult if not infeasible,” the experts warn. “Where block wall houses are concerned, materials and operatives are readily available for repairs.”
The stated guarantee period of a steel house is 30 years, whereas a block wall house would probably have a life of 50-60 years. The block wall houses are capable of being handed down for at least one generation.
The experts admit that the erection time of a steel house would be much less than for a block wall house, “although the proposed four years for constructing 65,000 steel houses is not very different to the 50,000 block wall ones constructed also over four years.”
The experts also admit that the steel houses would require much less sand and hardly any timber for construction, thus helping to reduce the demand for natural resources. But they observe that such requirements “appear to have been met without much difficulty in the construction of the 50,000 houses over the past four years”.
“Despite furniture and other features being incorporated in the steel houses, they are still around at least double the cost of a block wall house of the same area,” the experts say. The steel houses are supposed to have a financing arrangement; however, that has not been matched by any proponent of block wall houses.
The experts conclude that the way forward is to construct block wall houses while finding ways to overcome any disadvantages they may have such as finding new sources of natural resources and alternative technologies to reduce natural resource usage.