Visionary Role Model: Elizabeth A. Hausler, Ph.D. and Build Change

Earthquakes themselves kill very few people, despite popular movie images of the earth suddenly opening up huge crevices that swallow lots of people.  Poorly constructed buildings, however, routinely kill many people.  99% of those deaths are in poor countries, like Haiti or India, which lack earthquake resistance know-how, strict building codes (like those that have been in place in California and Japan for decades) and/or a non-corrupt government to enforce those codes.

And, oh, yes, money.  That’s particularly important in developing countries where very few people have the funds to make their new homes earthquake or storm resistant, once the international recovery funds dry up.

Some good news, reports earthquake engineer and founder of Build Change,  Elisabeth Hausler, Ph.D., is that “in a place like Haiti, building a house to withstand an earthquake can also help it to withstand a hurricane, particularly by tying the roof down to prevent it from flying off in strong winds. For earthquake-resistant design, the roof is often tied to the walls to provide some kind of bracing effect for the walls.

When India was devastated by a January 26, 2001 quake that killed well over 20,000 people,  Hausler was halfway through a civil engineering Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley. At the same time, she was undergoing an existential crisis:  how could she do something truly meaningful with her training?  How she turned that question into Build Change, which helps create safer housing in developing countries, is a textbook example of how the mind of a visionary works.

Visionary Habit 1: Letting Problems Affect You

Most of us feel overwhelmed by the news; many ignore it altogether. Elizabeth Hausler watched reports of the 2001 quake and knew she wanted to do something.  At the same time, she was also increasingly clear that she did not want to work for the kind of developers who would be eager to snatch up civil engineers of her professional caliber.

As she watched news reports, Hausler reflected on what she already knew as an earthquake engineer, including the limited loss of life in earthquakes in California, where structures built to recent earthquake codes generally ride out tremors with minimal damage.  As she saw the need for skilled brickmasons to help rebuild India, she thought, “I can do this!” having been well trained by her father, a master mason.

By 2002, she was a Fulbright scholar in India, where she could roll up her sleeves and help.

Visionary Habit 2: Honor and Expand What You Already Know

As an earthquake engineer, Hausler was skilled in technology to resist earthquakes. Thus, she knew how to prevent buildings from collapsing by using such practices as tying together concrete columns and bond beams, steel reinforcement, and “toothing” the masonry to allow the structure to move better.

Working in India and later in Iran after a huge quake there, she realized she had a lot to learn about how cultural norms and challenges impact building.  For instance, people in many developing countries don’t want to build their homes from wood (the most quake-resistant material), but from brick or adobe (the most likely to fail in a quake if not handled properly). Nor do they usually like round structures, which tend to ride out earthquakes.

Everywhere she saw the need not just to rebuild quake-damaged structures, but also to prevent future problems from quakes. This, she envisioned, would require a focus on training people how to build safely, as well as a lot of education for consumers and government workers about why safe construction was both necessary and achievable.

Visionary Habit 3:  Work with Others Who are Compassionate and Skilled

Hausler learned from numerous people how to become a change agent.  One of the most important was Martin Fisher, a Ph.D. engineer who co-founded Kick Start to help people in Africa break the poverty cycle and to “create a new, successful, scalable, replicable, and sustainable solution to poverty.”

Hausler also worked with people who focused on funding the kind of work she was called to do. By 2004, she had a working board and a 501(c)(3) status for Build Change. That year, she was named one of the world’s best emerging social entrepreneurs by Echoing Green for her plan to “promote and implement affordable, disaster-resistant construction in less developed countries.”

Visionary Habit 4:  Adapt Your Vision as Necessary

Of course, Hausler and other members of Build Change are moved by the rescue work that’s happening now in Haiti and the re-building work that will happen later.  Tempting and necessary as this work is, Hausler found that Build Change serves best when it is true to its specific mission, which as stated on the brochure as:

Build Change is an international non-profit social enterprise that designs earthquake-resistant houses and trains builders and home-owners in developing countries to build them.

What Can Your Learn from the Story of Elisabeth Hausler and Build Change?

What challenges and opportunities in the world now call you?

What visions might emerge if you reflected on this question:  “how can my skills, interests, and passions best be used to serve others?”

As always, your comments are welcome.  Many blessings,

Pat McHenry Sullivan