Disrupting how people think about Haiti

by Bruce Kasanoff on July 3, 2011

Ron Ben-Zeev seems like a smart, well-meaning guy. He’s lived all around the world, and not so long ago met up with a team of three others who had an elegant solution in search of a compelling problem.

The team worked with Structural Insulated Composite Panels (SICPs). Think of a sandwich with fiberglass on the outside and polystyrene foam in the middle, and you get the basic idea. Ron says SICPs are strong, light, and resistant to insects, mold and other nasty stuff.

Long story short, they formed a company called World Housing Solution and have set out to build replacement housing for areas struck by disaster, or war, or both.

They are particularly focused on Haiti, where they are in discussions to supply housing.

Ron explained that for about $5,000 each (plus shipping), they can supply a roughly 180 square foot house that can be set up in mere days and will last for decades, if necessary. Each house is in the shape of a hexagon, which makes it highly resistant to hurricanes. Each is strong enough to withstand a major earthquake.

It turns out the toughest part isn’t making affordable housing. It’s convincing people to accept an unorthodox solution. Houses typically aren’t hexagons, and they aren’t made out of SICPs.

But all the “accepted” solutions won’t work in places like Haiti, where hundreds of thousands of people remain without adequate housing. They either take too long, or cost too much money.

World Housing Solution would like to eventually set up four factories in Haiti to make these houses. Ron estimates they will then be able to produce 15 to 20,000 houses per year.

I’m not qualified to judge whether this is a practical solution, or the best one. But I do sympathize with the challenge of entrepreneurs who believe they can do far, far better than the status quo. It often seems like the world doesn’t want better, they just want the same – even when the same isn’t nearly good enough.

Perhaps someone could explain to me why this is.

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