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BRAZIL: Eco-Friendly (and Bullet-Proof) Homes

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 5 2009 (IPS) - Plans to build low-cost housing in shantytowns in this Brazilian city using thermally and acoustically-insulating material, as part of a national plan to bridge the housing deficit, raised unexpected controversy when it came out that the houses would also be bullet-proof.

The German technology which the British-based Ultra Green Group is trying to sell to the Brazilian government uses building blocks, manufactured according to an undisclosed formula, from expanded polystyrene and graphite, with a cavity allowing for reinforcement with galvanised iron bars.

This material and the thickness of the blocks, 15 centimetres or more in depth, makes for highly resistant walls, in contrast to the present flimsy dwellings in the “favelas” (shantytowns), so much so that they can withstand bullets, even large calibre ones.

The system seems to be simple, the head of the public works department of the Rio de Janeiro state government, Icaro Moreno, told IPS.

All that is required is to stack up the blocks as if they were Lego bricks, fill the inner cavities with cement, and then add the usual plaster finish and floor tiles.

The method is advertised to have a number of economic and environmental advantages, and the government is seeking to confirm them at its first experimental building site in the Manguinhos favela, one of the most violent districts in Rio.

A simple family dwelling could be built in just 14 hours, with community participation after only three hours’ training, including women and older people because the blocks are light and easy to fit together.

The technology is said to allow savings of up to 30 percent on the cost of a traditional home. If this is true, the Rio de Janeiro government would not hesitate to use it because “for the same price (as 1000 housing units) we could build 300 more,” Moreno said.

The housing plan in Rio de Janeiro is part of a national programme called “Minha casa, minha vida” (My Home, My Life), promoted by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to build one million low-cost housing units by 2010.

Lula’s partner in this task in the city of Rio de Janeiro is the administration of state Governor Sérgio Cabral, of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), an ally in the national government of the leftwing Workers’ Party (PT).

According to official figures, which are the most conservative estimates, there is a deficit of eight million housing units in Brazil.

The head of Ultra Green Brazil, Pedro Moreira Leite, said that the technology is above all “ecologically correct,” and that it can be used to build anything “from a dog kennel to a palace,” like one that has already been built in Dubai. The British parent company has plans to instal three factories to produce its building materials in the country.

The houses are eco-friendly because, according to Leite, “recycled” cement – mixed with demolition rubble – is used.

Furthermore, there is very little waste material. In Brazil, 15 to 20 percent of building material is wasted on average, while Leite said that his firm’s special expanded polystyrene only generates two percent waste. He also said that the technology dispenses with heavy machinery, like cranes.

But the main environmental advantage, he said, is the acoustic and thermal insulation capacity of the walls.

In hot climates like Brazil’s, this could save up to 30 percent off electricity bills, because the insulating material maintains air-conditioned temperatures for four or five hours.

But the flood of information about the environmental benefits of the system made the press lose sight of another issue that caused concern when it came to light: the fact that these houses would also be bullet-proof, capable of resisting even rifle fire.

People living in the favelas are often caught in the crossfire of battles between drug trafficking gangs and the police.

Official figures, regarded as underestimates by human rights organisations, indicate that 75 civilians were killed between January and April alone as a result of conflicts between drug traffickers and police operations against the mafias.

The information about “bullet-proof” low-cost housing therefore arrives at a bad time for the Lula administration.

Programmes like “My Home, My Life” are not only supposed to revive the economy and create jobs by investing in public works, but also to promote “security and pacification” with community involvement, as the National Programme for Public Security with Citizenship (PRONASCI) aims to do.

The goal of this policy is to prevent and combat violence, not with bullets but with social interventions.

“We did not even contemplate this sort of analysis, because we don’t need bullet-proof houses in Brazil,” rebutted Moreno, who said the factors that would prevail in the choice of this technology would be the speed of building, cost and quality.

Moreno said this information was probably leaked as “a marketing tactic” by the manufacturing company. He acknowledged that a 15 centimetre thick wall, of the materials used in this method, would definitely be “resistant.”

After sociologists expressed criticism of bullet-proof houses as an incorrect approach to solving public safety problems in marginalised areas, Leite attributed these claims for the Ultra Green material to a police expert in Rio de Janeiro.

He added that “any house made of reinforced concrete nowadays, with a similar thickness, is automatically bullet-proof, not just those built specifically with our technology.”

The British company, which is seeking to expand its investments in other Latin American countries as well, is aiming at another non-traditional construction market, that of prison building, “because of the thermal insulation capacity of the material.”

“In Brazilian prisons, there is a serious problem with over-heating because of the inhumane conditions and the number of prisoners per cell. Our technology would create a more humane environment, because of its thermal insulation characteristics,” Leite said.

The strength of the material would have an additional advantage in these cases, according to Leite: that of “preventing escapes.”

But that is food for another controversy.

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