Build Change: Easier, Never Simple

When I think about my time working with Build Change so far, the phrase that comes to mind is “Easier, never simple.”

When I started my fellowship, several limitations for seismically retrofitting homes in Colombia quickly became apparent. These included delays in approvals by the local municipality, as well as an innovative Evaluation and Retrofit Manual that was not always well understood by local officials. Staff who conducted field surveys had a long list of items to verify, many of which were not easy to identify, resulting in reduced efficiency. It was common for staff to go back and re-survey in order to complete a full analysis.

Build Change knew that a new strategy was needed to simplify the identification of homes for reinforcement, because for every delay in approval, countless informal houses were built. The core challenge that Build Change faced was how to simplify the evaluation and retrofitting process without losing sight of the technical rigor that assessment requires.

How could my fellowship help Build Change make progress toward this goal? 

Before I could begin identifying solutions to these complex issues, the first step was immersive training. When I first got started, despite my years of experience as a structural engineer, I realized that I had to learn more about Build Change’s work locally, as well as about Simpson Strong-Tie.

With Jhalak Vasavada during a visit to Simpson Strong-Tie headquarters in Pleasanton, CA.

In addition to local training in Colombia, I visited the Simpson Strong Tie headquarters in Pleasanton, CA. While there, I had the opportunity to interact with great engineers and human beings who shared with me the passion they feel for the work they do and for the great legacy of their founder.

During these first four months of my fellowship I also had the opportunity to make an introductory trip to Manila (Philippines), another country where Build Change works on disaster preparedness. The Philippines suffers from many of the same issues as Colombia, including the complexity of the retrofitting process.  As a part of my trip, I inventoried the types of informal construction present in Manila and created an action plan for my next trip, which is scheduled for mid-May.

Getting to know the Build Change team in the Philippines.

With my initial training complete, I had the necessary background to begin tackling the challenges that have been slowing down the retrofitting process — not just in Colombia but in other countries, as well. I started by reviewing the work of the previous Simpson Strong-Tie Fellow, James Mwangi, who identified core elements of the Evaluation and Retrofit Manual that could be improved. Based on my familiarity with construction and engineering processes in Colombia, I’ve worked to make the manual more flexible so that more homes with complex issues can be evaluated without increasing difficulty in the process. With the help of Build Change’s New Frontier Technologies (NFT) team, along with the engineering team in Colombia, we have worked together to fully re-envision the evaluation and retrofitting process using a digital platform. This has encompassed a total rework of how technical specifications, CAD drawings and budgets factor into the overall design of homes to be retrofitted.

Local engineers in Medellin train to use the new app.

Creating this app has been an arduous job and is the result of literally hundreds of hours of engineering. However, the end result is more than worth it as the app is helping Build Change save potentially thousands of lives by reaching more families. It not only resolves many of the challenges with implementing the Evaluation and Retrofit Manual, but it also helps field surveyors complete their jobs more accurately and quickly. My experience as a Fellow so far can be summarized by saying that in both life and engineering, sometimes the simple solution is not always simple to achieve.The best way to implement all of these improvements in a way that is easy for surveyors to use has been by creating an app. NFT staff integrated the latest surveying app, Magic Plan , and Autodesk’s Revit software, with Build Change’s simplified evaluation and retrofit methodology to create a tool that provides an approximate retrofitting solution within minutes. This innovation greatly shortens the evaluation time required, so that homeowners can know sooner whether or not their home is a candidate for reinforcement. This app has been one of Build Change’s most important projects at a global level, as it automates a process that used to take considerable time and keeps homeowners motivated to build safely.

Creating this app has been an arduous job and is the result of literally hundreds of hours of engineering. However, the end result is more than worth it as the app is helping Build Change save potentially thousands of lives by reaching more families. It not only resolves many of the challenges with implementing the Evaluation and Retrofit Manual, but it also helps field surveyors complete their jobs more accurately and quickly. My experience as a Fellow so far can be summarized by saying that in both life and engineering, sometimes the simple solution is not always simple to achieve.

With the New Frontier Technologies team in Bogotá.

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