Lego-Inspired Homes Could Be the Future of Disaster Relief

Debris from natural disasters is being turned into concrete blocks that easily stack and snap into place to build new homes.

(Photo: The Mobile Factory)

Jul 30, 2015· 3 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

Many of us can thank Lego for hours of imaginative play, but now the popular kids’ toy has inspired a real-world idea that could dramatically reduce waste and save lives when natural disasters strike.

The Mobile Factory, founded by 73-year-old Dutch business consultant and sustainability specialist Gerard Steijn, is what the organization describes as a “transforming technology” housed inside two shipping containers. It crushes construction debris within its walls, churning out Lego-shaped building blocks that can be easily stacked and snapped into place to build temporary housing in less than a day. Steijn’s goal: to dispatch these small factories around the world so locals can rebuild their communities using debris and waste that’s been left behind in the wake of man-made or natural disasters.

Steijn created the Mobile Factory in 2007 after researching waste production in the construction industry for a major Dutch engineering firm. His work brought him to sites around the world, where he witnessed neighborhoods and communities destroyed by earthquakes, war, development, and urban growth.

“Throughout my life I’ve been to many places, including many slums,” Steijn says. “Those people have to make do with a lot less than us. So when I see how much hardship these people have been through because of natural disasters and war, it affects me.”

What started out as research into reducing construction waste—which he says has become the world’s largest polluter—evolved into an idea to create more stable housing for impoverished communities.

“My research taught me that 85 percent of the victims of disasters live under the poverty line,” says Steijn. “And I felt that the responsibility for that rested on the construction industry.”

In places like Haiti and Nepal, where earthquakes have killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions, the leading cause of death was poor construction of homes, which are often little more than tents or shacks. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti killed 230,000 people and displaced 1.5 million, creating 25 million tons of debris. After five years, that debris still litters the region and remains unused, says Steijn.

“The small picture is to develop a duplicatable formula that will be copied worldwide,” he says. “The bigger picture is that debris pollution on the planet will be cleaned up by the poor and used by them to create humane, safe housing.”

It all sounds fairly simple, right?

(Photo: The Mobile Factory)

“That’s always the first question I get,” says Steijn. “If it’s so simple and easy to use, why doesn’t it already exist?”

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Commercial construction companies simply aren’t interested, because there are no profits to be made in such a small-scale, localized operation, Steijn says. That’s why he has turned to crowdfunding on Indiegogo, where he hopes to raise $400,000 for a pilot program that will build 30 new homes in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, by next year. Steijn hopes that if it can prove its success in that region, the project will draw support and involvement from large relief organizations such as the Red Cross and the United Nations.

“Our strategy is to transfer our know-how and technology to these organizations so that the unemployed poor can learn how to recycle debris into safe homes,” he says. “Under our supervision, people will be trained to use our system, and by cleaning up the environment they will earn a salary to finance their own self-built homes.”

Gerard Steijn. (Photo: The Mobile Factory/Facebook)

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Training people to build homes with the Mobile Factory technology would be simple, he says. His patented Q-Brixx blocks start out as debris that’s torn into three- to four-centimeter pieces inside the Mobile Factory. Special additives and cement then transform it into a new, high-quality concrete that is poured into Lego-like molds. The resulting eight-by-four-by-four blocks are simply stacked on top of each other to form walls, windows, and a door.

Bamboo poles, along with a cement mixture, are inserted in the walls to add stability, and a bamboo roof structure is then snapped into place, on top of which metal or plastic sheathing is attached. Not only can the Lego-style blocks be used to build temporary structures, but they can also be dismantled and used to build larger, more permanent houses. Stress tests planned for a site in Peru are expected to show that the homes can withstand a magnitude-6.0 earthquake.

For now, the only homes built with the Mobile Factory are prototypes currently standing in an industrial park in Amsterdam, where its founder hopes they’ll inspire investment.

Steijn says he finds it “absurd” that in this day and age, so many people are killed by the homes they live in when disaster strikes—and the construction industry has a moral and ethical responsibility to take action, given the wide variety of resources and technology they have access to.

“I hope our example will be followed by others and that our technology can be used anywhere in the world where it is needed,” he says. “Then we’ll have left behind something wonderful.”