Michael and Lizzie Collins are a husband and wife team that lend a helping hand in rebuilding disaster zones all over the world. More formally, the dynamic duo are technical advisors for Build Change — a non-profit social enterprise with the mission of reducing deaths, injuries and economic losses caused by building collapse in earthquakes and hurricanes in emerging nations. Michael and Lizzie specialize in educational and engineering advising, respectively.
While disaster risk reduction measures are commonly implemented in well-regulated seismically active countries such as the United Stated and Japan, they’re rarely implemented in countries with less developed and regulated construction industry
Michael and Lizzie help train homeowners, builders, engineers, and government officials to build safe buildings.
Build Change, headquartered out of Denver, Colorado, employs about 120 individuals with programs in cities all around the world, including Kathmandu, Manila, Medellin, Padang and Port Au Prince.
“We are a very hands-on and boots on the ground kind of company,” Lizzie said.
Over the past few years, Michael and Lizzie have used Haiti and Miami as their central command centers, due to the ease of access to the physical construction areas they help organize remotely. However, they needed somewhere to be their home base — somewhere they could call home.
Why Asbury Park?
Michael grew up in Spain, became involved in the humanitarian sector and moved to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Lizzie grew up in Long Branch and was drawn to Haiti — where she provided engineering oversight for disaster relief projects.
Over time, Michael and Lizzie adopted more global roles within the organization and it became too challenging to live in Haiti while traveling frequently to other countries.
After living in Haiti and then Miami for a short time, the husband and wife team decided to move back to the Jersey Shore, where they could be closer to Lizzie’s family.
“Working from home became difficult,” Lizzie said. Distractions added up and working across time zones with 12-hour time differences created a hazy existence between work and home.
“We’re traveling 25-30% of the time,” Michael said. “Even when we weren’t traveling, calls at 10pm encouraged a never-ending cycle of work. We needed a distinction between workspace and home.”
A flexible office schedule allows Michael and Lizzie to draw that line between work and home, travel when they need, and live where they want.
Michael and Lizzie just got back from Manila, where they are helping other members of the Build Change team develop a neighborhood safe construction and retrofit program.
“We’re piloting a new program and test homeowners financing the build outs”, Lizzie reported. “The premise of the initiative is that it’s not just about your home but the neighborhood. Our slogan for the project is ‘Building a better penbo.’”
Locally, ‘penbo’ means neighborhood. Build Change’s hands on approach leaves little room for cultural confusion and makes sure that the communities in need get what they need.
Change The Foundations, Not The Facade
“Imagine after Superstorm Sandy, instead of letting homeowners rebuild their house, the government came in and built a Sante Fe style house,” Michael laughed. “Similar things have happened in the past.”
The forward-thinking model that Build Change is implementing gives the homeowner money for the rebuilding process and lets them decide how to rebuild as long as it adheres to safety standards. During the refitting process in Nepal (whose recent 2015 earthquake devastated mountain communities across the country), a majority of the affected people opted for homeowner driven model.
“The whole idea is to change as little as possible to make those buildings safe,” Michael said. “If they build with wood, we do, if stone, we do the same.”
The Build Change organization has specific teams abroad in high impact zones, these teams work with and contract locally. Employing local community members to rebuild their own community is vital to the process and avoids miscommunication. However, it is increasingly difficult to find local talent that have engineering and architectural technical skills. To supplement the lack of technical education in these foreign countries, Build Change offers vigorous training programs to locals.
Seeing the impact of their work is what keeps Michael and Lizzie so devoted to such a difficult cause. “We measure impacts by the number of people living in safer buildings and how many people have been trained,” Lizzie said. “One of the best things was to see the men and women we trained start their own engineering company, building confidence, and actually taking on side projects of their own,” Michael said.
Adoption of seismic retrofitting can sometimes be slow, especially in emerging nations like the Philippines.
Even though 1 dollar in mitigation saves 7 dollars in disaster relief, it can be challenging to convince homeowners and government institutions to invest in prevention programs, despite the fact that nearly 20 major hurricanes make landfall in the Philippines each year.
10 Million People in 10 Years
Building disaster-resistant houses and schools in emerging nations helps focus the organization’s efforts on who needs disaster relief most. But resources are limited, Build Change programs are not present in every country.
Their main objective is 10 and 10 — impact 10 million people in the next 10 years. The statement was made in 2014 — Build Change has recorded 250,000 affected folks so far. Build Change defines an impacted individual as living or learning in safer buildings.
“We want to get smarter and impact other organizations as well.” Lizzie pointed out. “We want to impact what organizations like Red Cross and others at an institutional level.”
Build Change provides a volunteer program for qualified structural engineers but is keen to engage other volunteers in translation, CAD modeling, and research work.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you can help in any of these areas.”