The following is a conversation between Dr. Elizabeth Hausler, Founder and CEO of Build Change, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.

Dr. Elizabeth Hausler, Founder and CEO of Build Change

Denver: The world has been walloped with more than its fair share of natural disasters in recent years, many made worse due to climate change. And when you watch on TV – the accounts of the devastation, the loss of life – one very important point is often neglected, and that is a substandard housing these people were living in– housing which frequently has collapsed upon them and their loved ones. This is an urgent issue, a global epidemic that merits far more attention. And we’re going to give it some tonight with one of the preeminent leaders in the field. She is Dr. Elizabeth Hausler, the Founder and CEO of Build Change.

Good evening, Elizabeth, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Elizabeth: Good evening, Denver. Nice to be here.

Build Change’s mission is to save lives in earthquakes and windstorms by working with people in emerging nations to build houses and schools that don’t collapse on them.

Denver: Before we launch into our conversation, tell us the mission of Build Change.

Elizabeth: Build Change’s mission is to save lives in earthquakes and windstorms by working with people in emerging nations to build houses and schools that don’t collapse on them.

Denver: A pivotal moment for you was the earthquake in Gujarat, India in 2001. Tell us what you had been doing when this occurred, and then how events unfolded, which led to the founding of Build Change.

Elizabeth: I was in grad school at UC Berkeley studying Civil Engineering at the time, and that earthquake killed about 20,000 people. Most people died because their unreinforced masonry house collapsed on them. So I thought this is a man-made problem, so there must be a woman-made, in this case, solution. 

I had grown up in a small town outside of Chicago. My dad, for 50 years, worked as a bricklayer. He owned a small business in the construction industry, so my sister and I worked as bricklayers for our summer jobs in high school and college. So I had construction skills, I had engineering skills, and I thought there must be something that I can do to help. 

I believe fundamentally that everyone has a right to a safe home, regardless of any other factor – income, gender, any other issue.

Denver: And when you saw that, it really became a social justice issue for you, didn’t it?

Elizabeth: Absolutely. Yes, social justice. I believe fundamentally that everyone has a right to a safe home regardless of any other factor – income, gender, any other issue.

Denver: Elizabeth, how much of the housing in the world would be considered substandard?

Elizabeth: The World Bank estimates that 3 billion people will be living in substandard housing by 2030. So, it’s a third of the population living in substandard housing.

Denver: Tell us a little bit more about the founding story. You went over to India, and then where did you go from there?

Elizabeth: I went to India, and India was a great place to learn how to approach post-disaster housing reconstruction and how not to. So, India had very successfully rolled out a homeowner-driven reconstruction program after the earthquake in Gujarat, where the homeowners were given the choice of rebuilding themselves with a cash grant in installments or working with a partner NGO. 

Those homeowners who decided to rebuild themselves were much more satisfied with the outcome because they could choose for themselves the building materials, the architecture, and as long as they follow the standards, they got the cash installments to help them with the process, as opposed to some homeowners that received a house given to them from an NGO. Oftentimes, the NGO made the wrong decision about where the toilet should be located, where the front door should be located, and those homeowners were a lot less satisfied. So it was very clear to me that the homeowners really need to drive the process. They need to make decisions about materials and architecture. 

Denver: It makes all the difference when you have ownership, and I bet that’s part of why they want their house to be that much safer because they’ve actually had a hand in building the house.

Elizabeth: The more the homeowners are bought into the process, and they agree with the architecture… or the architecture meets their family’s needs, the more interested they are in investing more in making it safe.

Denver: So here you are in graduate school; you see this earthquake; you go over there. You have an idea and some skill, lots of passion and determination.  But how in the world did little old you get this incredible organization started?

Elizabeth: Well, in the early days, it’s thanks so much to Echoing Green, an early-stage funder of social entrepreneurship organizations and social justice organizations, based here in New York.

Denver: Cheryl Dorsey has been on the show a couple of times. She is amazing.

Elizabeth: She’s amazing. She and her team took a chance on me, and just me at that point. 

Denver: That’s one good idea.

Elizabeth: It was really just an idea, so I’ll be eternally grateful to Cheryl for that because that was sort of the boost of confidence that I needed to start the organization. And then, the tsunami happened in the Indian Ocean. I’d started the organization a few months before. We were trying to figure out where should we start our first program. We were going to work in Iran and in India. But then, the tsunami happened, and it just made so much more sense to go work in Indonesia, given the high likelihood of more earthquakes there.

Denver: Absolutely. And then, you hooked up with the Mercy Corps.

Elizabeth: Yes, and Mercy Corps, again, eternally grateful for their assistance as well. They had started to work on debris clearing and other emergency issues after the tsunami. About three months after the event happened, people started to say, “Okay. We’re ready for housing. We need housing.” Mercy Corps reached out to partners like Build Change to implement a homeowner-driven housing program.

Dr. Elizabeth Hausler and Denver Frederick inside the studio

So, the three C’s: configuration, connections and construction quality. If you get those right, you’re in pretty good shape.

Denver: My brother builds houses, and I, on the other hand, am the least handy person in the entire world. So, this question is really directed for people like me. What are the most important practices to building a safe home that you don’t find in substandard housing?

Elizabeth: We have the Build Change three C’s, which we’re basically trying to make it simple. It is really simple how you build a disaster-resilient home. 

The first C is configuration. Build a simple square, a symmetric house with not huge openings, no heavy mass above your head. Follow very simple configuration rules, that’s the first C. 

The second C is connections. Everything has to be connected together. Especially for a hurricane, the roof has to be tied down to the walls. For an earthquake, all of the walls have to be connected together. So we have to emphasize connections – connections of all those structural elements. 

The third C is construction quality. So good quality building materials, good quality workmanship, good quality bricklaying, everything that goes into quality of construction. 

So, the three C’s: configuration, connections and construction quality. If you get those right, you’re in pretty good shape.

Denver: Well, there you go. I didn’t think I was going to be able to follow that answer, but I did.

How much more expensive is it to build an earthquake- or disaster-resistant house compared to one that is not?

Elizabeth: It depends on the starting point. These numbers range between 5%, 20%, 25% depending on where you’re starting.

Denver: In the countries where you operate, are there building codes? And if there are, are those codes ever enforced?

Elizabeth: Generally, where we operate, there are building codes. But what we find is – yes, you’re right. There’s a lack of building code enforcement, and there’s also a lack of simplification and access. We often find there is a very good, detailed, complex building code for, say, a multi-story commercial building or a hospital, but bringing that down to a house is a difficult thing. So we create very simple resources, intended to bridge between a complex building code and the reality of what it takes to build a safe house on the ground.

Denver: So, you fill the gap between zip and a 50-story building.

Elizabeth: We do. Exactly.

We’re about filling those gaps, but ultimately, it’s about relationship building. We hire local professionals, and they build relationships with local governments, and we work together to build better.

Denver: That’s interesting. How do you find it navigating the ecosystems in these places? Because I would imagine there are tons of ministries and regulations. How do you get in there and kind of finesse your way through to get the work done that you get done?

Elizabeth: It is about recognizing what those gaps are and working to fill them. We often find that there are – especially if we’re working in a rural area, there are no engineers… No government engineers working in that area. So, if we can supplement that team or that capacity by hiring some local professionals and deploying them to do construction supervision and quality control, that can help the situation. It could be that the government just doesn’t have the budget to get building inspectors out to the field, especially in remote rural areas. We’re also improving our use of technology so that we can remote check construction quality. 

We’re about filling those gaps, but ultimately, it’s about relationship building. We hire local professionals, and they build relationships with local governments, and we work together to build better.

We train local professionals if they need it…The most effective way of doing that is in a hands-on environment…You have to lay bricks. You have to build the building. You have to get your hands dirty.

Denver: Do you train these local professionals? And if you do, what’s the most effective way to train someone?

Elizabeth: Yes. We train local professionals if they need it – engineers, technical high school students, building materials producers, builders themselves. The most effective way of doing that is in a hands-on environment. So if we go in and sort of give a lecture on how to lay bricks, that is not very effective. You have to lay bricks. You have to build the building. You have to get your hands dirty. And so, our training programs are very hands-on. They’re also very competency-based. So if a builder comes in, and he or she already has a skill, they can just demonstrate it and get certified. They don’t have to waste their time going through a training course. And then we can focus on the skills that are still being developed.

Denver: So it’s really on-the-job training.

Elizabeth: Yes. On-the-job training is the ideal way of training. That’s how I learned how to lay bricks.

Denver: Yes, you did at about six.

Elizabeth: Not quite, but close. At age six, I was still picking up the broken bricks.

Denver: In the countries where you have operated, and you can tell us where you have operated, do you find it to be very distinct and unique to each one of those countries? Or are the problems you encounter pretty much similar, no matter where you go?

Elizabeth: We currently operate in Indonesia, the Philippines, Nepal, Colombia, Guatemala, a little work in Mexico, Haiti, Dominica, St. Maarten. We’ve done a little bit of work in five Pacific Islands: Tonga, Vanuatu, Samoa, Solomon Islands, and Cook Islands. So, we are dominantly in Asia and Latin America, in the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands.

We find a lot of similarities across every place that we work. Those design and construction rules, the three C’s that I mentioned before – configuration, connections, and construction quality – they can explain every building success and every building failure around the world. We also find the challenges homeowners face and what motivates a homeowner to build safely are pretty much the same no matter where we work. Homeowners want their families to be safe. They want a functional kitchen, a good toilet. They want the ability to grow and expand. And so, we see these motivations regardless of the culture and the location where we’re working.

There’s a huge housing gap across the world, and we’re not going to fill it by building new buildings alone.

Denver: You don’t simply focus on building new houses after a disaster, but you’re also preparing those existing structures in the case of one. Tell us about retrofitting.

Elizabeth: Retrofitting is a very useful tool for strengthening and upgrading existing housing. There’s a huge housing gap across the world, and we’re not going to fill it by building new buildings alone. So, there’s an opportunity to upgrade and strengthen existing buildings in a way that’s affordable and safe, and oftentimes enables a homeowner to expand, maybe add a second story.

Denver: Give me an example of what you would do to strengthen an existing structure.

Elizabeth: So we are often dealing with unreinforced masonry. It’s common throughout the developing world, and so we have to work with people because to build with this technology because that is what they prefer and that’s what’s locally available. 

Unreinforced masonry can perform very poorly in an earthquake, but what we can do is tie all the walls together by putting a ring beam on top of the walls. It’s just a reinforced concrete beam around the top of the walls that ties the walls together. This simple step can make a big difference in the safety of these buildings. We can also do things like plaster the walls on both sides, which also improves the strength. So, these simple things – a ring beam and plaster — can go a long way in improving safety.

Denver: Have you been able to measure the impact of the work that you’ve done?

Elizabeth: Well, we’ve had a few of our neighborhoods tested by subsequent earthquakes and hurricanes, so yes, and our buildings performed well.

Denver: That’s great. That is the ultimate test.  

You touched on this a moment ago, and that is the role of technology. Speak a little bit more about that and how your work has changed since you first started, and how you use technology now to help it along.

Elizabeth: That’s a great question. We want to reach scale, so reach as many homeowners – thousands and thousands and thousands of homeowners – with solutions for safe housing. And so, in order to do that, we need to reduce the time it takes to assess a house, design a house, do quality control in the house. We’ve been using technology since day one to facilitate this process. But in the early days, it was AutoCAD 2d, which is a drafting software, a handheld GPS unit, a digital camera, a spreadsheet, and a lot of paperwork and work in the office. 

And so more recently, the technology that is available to us now – using AI, using Revit, using Dynamo scripts, using some tools and software that are available now – we can reduce the time it takes us to assess a building, to design a building, and to do quality control in the building by applying these technologies.

Denver: That’s fantastic. So you have the people; you’ve got the trained workers, and you have the technology, and as you mentioned a moment ago, the third leg to the stool is financing. Are there new financial products that have come online that are making it easier for homeowners to get the money to either strengthen their home or to build a new one?

Elizabeth: The financing is a key component. If people don’t have access to financing or their own wealth, then they are most likely not going to build a safe home. So, this is a key of the three-legged stool as you said – money, technology, and people. 

There are two main avenues for funding: there are subsidies, and there are loans. In many of our locations, there are subsidies available for folks to rebuild a retrofit. This often happens after a disaster. In some cases, in Colombia and Guatemala and other locations, subsidies are available for home improvement before the disaster. 

But there are some environments where subsidies are not available. So in the Philippines, for example, we have been experimenting with providing a loan, housing finance to homeowners to improve their houses. This has proven to be successful at a small scale. And I was skeptical. I doubted whether or not people would actually go into debt to do a structural improvement. But it turns out, if we bundle structural strengthening with expansion, it’s actually a very attractive product to a homeowner in Manila who recognizes that they live in an environment that’s prone to earthquakes and typhoons.

Denver: Do they get a break on their insurance, if they have it?

Elizabeth: The insurance. If only we could get to the point where these houses are insurable. We have been advocating with the insurance industry to help us to close this protection gap and to work together to improve the homes so that they are insurable, so that the homeowners can have that additional protection. But generally, most of the homeowners that we work with are outside the insurance market. 

Denver: They’re outside of the insurance market?  Wow!

You also strive to educate the public on safe construction. You have information campaigns and things of that nature. What are they like?

Elizabeth: Radio, billboards, apps. In the old days, when SMS became common, we used to text our builders, reminding them to soak their bricks in water that morning and that sort of thing. So, we’re using every avenue we can to get the information out to the population about safe construction. Mostly, we rely on apps now to get that information out. 

Denver: And when you talk about soaking the bricks in water to strengthen them, that also becomes a finance issue, too, because that builder can’t turn that around as quickly as they otherwise might. So you have to sort of have that bridge to allow that individual to do that before it goes to market.

Elizabeth: Exactly. Yes. And with the right training and the right incentives and information, it can be done.

Denver:  You’re a 501(c)(3), so what are your sources of revenue?

Elizabeth: Good question. Oftentimes, after a disaster, our sources of revenue are other larger NGOs. So American Red Cross, Mercy Corps, Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, organizations that are working in the post-disaster relief space who also are interested in supporting people with housing reconstruction or retrofitting. We have a few corporate partnerships. We, of course, have individual funders, and funders from the social entrepreneurship space.

But what makes a great partnership? I think one of the things that has stood out is when we’re philosophically aligned, when everyone wins, and when there are champions within both organizations that can make things happen.

Denver: I always was amazed at how well you have built partnerships. You’ve got a lot of partnerships. And it is funny with Mercy Corps and things of that sort, when an organization starts, and they forge a partnership, it kind of becomes a part of their ethos, and you have been able to find all different kinds of partnerships, as you say in the finance space and elsewhere. What makes a great partnership?

Elizabeth: We have to have partnerships. Housing is a very complex issue, and there’s not one organization that can solve the problem, so we need partnerships with NGOs, with finance institutions, with government, with private sector, all of them. 

But what makes a great partnership? I think one of the things that have stood out is when we’re philosophically aligned, when everyone wins, and when there are champions within both organizations that can make things happen.

Denver: Talk about the corporate culture at Build Change. What do you believe is the most unique aspect of it? Why is it such a special place to work?

Elizabeth: It is a special place to work. We just had our 15th year anniversary, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have stayed for 15 years if it wasn’t a special place. I think we’re all driven by impact. We’re all driven by the need for safer housing around the world. We see in homeowners’ faces on a day-to-day basis, how important this is to them, how scared or traumatized they might be after a disaster, and how important it is to work with them to build a safe house so that they can return to a normal life.

Denver: Does the media ever come to you after one of these disasters? And I say that in the context of 90,000 people died in natural disasters last year, and I sort of said in the opening, “I see this on TV, but we just know their body is underneath the rubble.” No one ever talks about substandard housing, and I just wonder why that isn’t more discussed on the networks. Have you found that to be the case?

Elizabeth: Yes. I was going to ask you that question. 

Denver: It’s my show.

Elizabeth: I wonder about that because the media tends to focus on the immediate aftermath of the disaster, which is terrible, and it’s a humanitarian disaster, and they should focus on that. The unfortunate thing for us is that there’s less attention in the media even 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, 12 months after a disaster when housing is the critical issue being addressed. And unfortunately, a lot of media attention is negative. It focuses on people not delivering housing when there are success stories out there of successful delivery of housing programs and positive results. 

Denver: I think somebody on the show once called it “the CNN moment.” When CNN leaves, then all of a sudden everything is forgotten, but that’s when the real work begins. And our attention span is so short, it’s incredible.

Let me close with this, Elizabeth, and that is this major new initiative you have just announced with the World Bank. What is it, and what do you hope it’s going to achieve?

Elizabeth: It’s the Global Program for Resilient Housing. It is intended to improve existing housing around the world, especially in emerging markets. We hope it drives capital toward the problem, as well as technical inputs, technology, and incentives for people to build safely.

Denver: That’s fantastic. Well, Dr. Elizabeth Hausler, the Founder and CEO of Build Change, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us where people can learn more about this work and also about your 10 in 10 initiative.

Elizabeth: You can visit our website at; follow us on twitter @buildchange, and our 10 in 10 initiative is to enable 10 million people to live in safer housing in the next 10 years.

Denver: That’s great. And people can support that, can’t they?

Elizabeth: Absolutely.

Denver: Okay. Well, thanks, Elizabeth. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.

Elizabeth: My pleasure as well. Thank you so much.

Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.

Dr. Elizabeth Hausler and Denver Frederick


The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at


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