12 May 2009

No cement so we build houses with what earth we have

Denied Cement, Palestinians Re-Build with Mud

No steel rods or cement are being allowed into Gaza after the shoah. So its mud bricks and Palestinian spirit

Jihad el Shaar is content with his mud-brick house in the Moraj district between Rafah and Khan Younis. The 80 square metre home is a basic one-story, two bedroom design, with a small kitchen, bathroom and sitting room, all made in the same inexpensive mud and straw technique which enabled el Shaar to move his family into a home of their own.

“My wife and our four daughters and I were living with family, but it was overcrowded, impossible. We knew we had to build a home of our own,” el Shaar explained, adding that the decision to build with clay and sand came late.

“We waited over two years for cement but because of the siege there is none available,” he said. “What can we do, wait forever?” he asked.

While building earthen structures like bread ovens and small animal pens is a technique many Palestinians are familiar with, extending the method to homes isn’t a notion that has taken hold in Gaza.

Jihad el Shaar got the idea from previous travels in Asia and the Middle East. “I traveled in Bangladesh, India, Yemen, Turkey…They all use some similar technique of building homes from earth. All you need is clay, sand and some straw,” he summarized, explaining that these key ingredients, mixed with appropriate amounts of water, were mixed and poured into brick molds and left to sun dry for 3 days.

While some Gaza residents have expressed embarrassment and shame at the ways in which life has ‘gone backwards’ with the siege—using cooking oil in cars, old kerosene stoves and wood fires for cooking, horse and donkey carts for transportation—el Shaar is not only proud of his clay home, he already sees the many merits.

“In the winter it is warm, and in the summer it will be cool. There’s no problem with leaking, and this type of house will last for a lifetime,” he said. “And it was cheap to build. A house this size made of cement would cost around $16,000, at least. This one, because it was made with simple, local materials cost just $3,000.”

Prior to Israel’s crippling siege on Gaza cement would have cost 20 shekels a bag, or 16-18 for a large number of bags. Now with cement among the many banned items, the cement that does make it into Gaza has come through the tunnels and sells at the inflated price of 200 shekels per bag.

The $3,000 cost of the house is due to the pieces of support metal used throughout the house, and the flakes of straw used in the mud brick mixture as a strengthening agent. While straw abounds, due to the siege it more often used as animal fodder, rendering it more precious and driving the price up. Clay and sand, found all over Gaza, must still be transported to the building site. But it’s the metal bits, formerly just over 1000 shekels/ton but now quadrupled in price, which contribute to making an otherwise cheap building process still somewhat pricey.

Compared to the cost of a cement home, the mud homes el Shaar has designed and taught others to build are nonetheless the most practical and immediate solution.

Nidal Eid (35) has seven children and has been renting a home in the Rafah region since his house was bulldozed by the Israeli army 4 years ago. Larger than el Shaar’s and still in its nascent form, Eid’s home will take another 2 weeks to complete, he estimates, and will cost roughly $4,000.

“It’s going to be fantastic,” Eid said, adding mud mortar and new bricks to the waist-high wall he’d already completed. “We make about 1000 bricks every 3 days,” he said, saying the work was shared between 6 people. “I couldn’t wait any longer for the siege to end. I have a family and we need a house, so I’m building this. Everything is difficult in Gaza, but we have to find ways to get by.”

A tour through Jihad el Shaar’s home reveals creative touches add to the appeal of the practical and cheap structure. In-laid shelves are custom-sized to hold gas lanterns, dishes, ornamental vases, books…An earth-brick bed eliminates the need for an additional bed frame. The 35 cm thick walls keep the house surprisingly cool, and the wooden windows propped open by poles allow the breeze to pass through.

The Hamas government is also, out of necessity, experimenting with novel ways of building. According to a statement from Yousef Al-Mansi, Minister of Public Works and Housing, the ministry will build a school, a mosque, and a clinic out of recycled and ground rubble from bombed buildings.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Gaza Crossings on-line database records only 2 trucks of construction materials having passed into Gaza since January 19th 2009. While $4.5 billion in aid money for reconstruction has been pledged by international donors, to date Israel has not permitted the entry of any of these materials into Gaza.

During its three weeks of war on Gaza, Israel destroyed some 5,000 homes and 20,000 buildings.

“Because of the siege, we’ve found other ways of living,” el Shaar said. “Since I’ve made my house, I’ve gotten many calls from people, especially in Rafah, who want to re-build their houses using this technique. There are entire families living in tents. Why not build a home like this?”