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close this book Daughters of Sysiphus
close this folder The building process
View the document Building a house
View the document Investing in improvements
View the document The stories behind the figures
View the document Vulnerability to natural hazards
View the document Recommendations

The building process

The vast majority of housing in Jamaica is built informally, i.e., outside the formal framework of building legislation and approval. Intercensal counts of housing indicate that nearly 70 per cent of all housing is built in this manner. Most is also built without assistance from formal financial institutions.

The majority of informally constructed shelter is built incrementally or, to use a local term, "little-little." A unit starts with one or two rooms and over time additions and improvements are made as the household shelter "evolves". Because of this process few households see their house as complete, even if they may have been living in it and working on it for many years.

The kinds of building technology used depend, to a large degree, not only on the level of financial resources available but also on the land tenure of the household. Renters and those living free are the least likely people to build, expand or improve their houses. People who are paying lease or ground rent are more likely to build and those who own or squat nearly always build.

One of the important features of the building process within the informal sector is the reliance on second-hand and recycled building materials and the vast range of building materials that are used. There is a thriving second-hand building-materials market.

This chapter looks at the building processes used by households interviewed in the low-income household survey and also those used by the women in the case studies.


Building a house

Female heads of household proved less likely to have had the experience of managing the construction of their own house or its improvements. 13 per cent of female heads of household had built their own house compared with 18 per cent of male and 18 per cent of joint heads of household.

These figures are largely a reflection of the fact that fewer female heads of household have the land tenure that allows for investment in the construction process. When you rent you tend not to spend any money on either expanding or improving the unit you are in. However, women who are only renting the land that their house is on, or who own their own land or who are squatting, have almost invariably participated actively in the process of building a dwelling and installing the support infrastructure that a dwelling requires.

Different types of household vary in the kind of labour that they use when they are building. When women manage the construction process they are less likely to use their own physical labour than men. Whereas 42 per cent of joint heads of household and 56 per cent of male heads used their own labour in the construction of the house, this was true of only 21 per cent of the female heads.

However, women are more likely than other heads of household to mobilize construction assistance from their relatives. 47 per cent of female heads used family labour as compared with 24 per cent of male and 20 per cent of joint heads.

Female heads also proved more likely to employ artisans to do the work (with all the commensurate expense). While only 11 per cent of joint heads employed an artisan, 26 per cent of female heads did so.

Male and joint heads were much more likely to call on a network of friends to assist them with 50 per cent of male heads and 38 per cent of joint heads reporting use of friends' labour. Only 15 per cent of female heads used friends to help them do the work.

To a large degree, women who build their own houses or make their own improvements assume the role of financiers and managers of the building process. However, women have also often played a part in the physical work involved in construction as some of the stories that emerged from the case studies will demonstrate. It is unfortunate that this participation by women in the actual construction work has received so little attention in national vocational training systems which, all too often, assume that women are not capable of, or interested in, earning a living within the construction trades.


Investing in improvements

Only 20 per cent of female heads of household had upgraded their dwellings as opposed to 24 per cent of male and 27 per cent of joint heads of household.

This is another reflection of the position of female heads of household in the rental rather than ownership or squatting tenure groups.

Respondents were asked whether their place had got better, stayed the same or got worse over the last five years. Whereas 33 per cent of female-headed households thought the place had got worse this was true of only 26 per cent of joint-headed households.


The stories behind the figures


Auntie built a single room out of gleaned building material along the Causeway. Construction material for the tatoos or shacks were obtained from a variety of sources. Some were bought from lumber yards as "seconds" while others were gleaned from a garbage dump not far from the area.

Auntie bought the boards for her room from a man who made a living for himself salvaging building material from the dump and then selling it. She had to chop bush to set up her house. She stores building materials in the yard.

The houses themselves are very rough and basic. The floors are made of forklift pallets from a nearby factory which are simply thrown down on the sand. Wood from the pallets and off-cuts known as slab are also used for the walls, and the roof is made of rusty zinc. Extra zinc is used for additional walling material. The uprights for the frame of the house are simply rammed into the sand. The first room took three weeks to put together with the others going up over the following two months. The last unit was bought complete from a man who left the area. They moved it down the road from his spot to theirs.

The members of the household sleep on pallet covered in cardboard or pieces of cloth and there are no conventional beds. Some of the pallets have a foam mattress.

She has no interest in expanding or improving her present accommodation.


"I've started to build two room but I need some help. I mix the concrete, tek up a two block and help to fill the block pocket them."


"I get some men to come on and help me and they do the two sides of the house and a part of her but they left and didn't come back so I finished this boarding up myself by the help of borrowing a saw. Somebody come and eventually help me do it. At first the wood was close but after a while the space go far, especially after the rain. This is the door that I have put on myself, and I put on the lock and I dig out the lock hole by the help of a knife because I don't have a chisel. Even the site, me and my children dig it down.

"These round woods. This is what I was going to use first to build the house. I chop it in the woods by the help of a cousin of mine. He chop them down and I trim it, like strip it off, strip the bark off it. These bananas I plant it and built the road to come up here (steep track built into the hillside).

'And I also made my own toilet and bathroom

"You want the story of the house? Well. First of all when I come in I take a piece of land round the front there, but I hear a comment that it was too near to the centre (a government training centre) and I get reluctant and I left it there. I started to dug it out but I left it for about six months and when I come back passing I see houses on it.

"I decided now, and I tek a piece more up in the gully there, but I didn't have any wire to wire it round. I chopped it out and left When I go up back there I saw it wired out by a next person and I have to start over again up here. I started to dig the site. Well shortly after, just to keep the land, I put Up the round stick house. I never really intended to have a round stick house but I just decided I will put it up for the time being until I can get all the lumbers that I really need.

'1 put up the round stick, get some men to help me, and dig out foundation and put up the round stick until I could be able to accumulate up a portion of money and buy the lumbers. Clinkers I did want but I couldn't so I got groove and tongue and pulled down some of the round stick and put in the two by fours and put up one room first.

"Someone bought the lumber for me at Carib Hardware. And then I decided to put on another room so I just put on this one. Well it tek me a good little while to complete the house - about, to be honest, about a year to complete everything. I well wanted to finish quickly but at the same time the little pitchy patchy board them, I don't like them. So I prefer to wait until I can get a source of money to buy a strong form of material.

"I worked mainly at weekends. I got men to assist me. I just put on a pot.

"Well I also made the latrine since I came. I get somebody to dig the hole and this gentleman help me to build it up. I buy the cement and boards and things and slab it.

"The cost of the house? Well I never really sit down and check up everything but pretty near over fifteen thousand dollars. But this is last set of boards if is wolmanised lumber. Because sometimes when you go to the hardware to buy one something and they don't have it, instead of going home back with the money to buy a big dinner you just buy the lumbers that you see because once you go home back with that money now that money mash, so I don't want it to mash up so I end Up buying this type of board."

If she had a windfall of $5000 she would add another room. If she had $10,000 she would put on a room, a kitchen and a little verandah.


Icie is currently in the process of buying the land she is on through a lease purchase agreement with the Government.

"Mek me tell you something. Is buy we buy the house from a man. The man die and his wife sell the house. He put wire in there. He put brick. It carries wattle and daub and then he put on mortar but the whole entire house want repair." (This is a rough description of a mixed wattle and daub and nog house).

"We have four rooms, one bath and a little living room but then the ceiling dropping down and the door want to fix. I never make any improvement because I don't have any money to improve it. The tap want to fix because it leaking all the time."


Lena's experiences of building have been described in the main case study.


Letty's house is built of block and steel and is in good condition. The roof is made of zinc but there are ceilings in all the rooms and the windows are made of glass louvres.

The original construction of the house was managed by Letty herself with the help of her son and his friends. One of her other sons in England sent money every month to help and she also saved quite a bit of money through various partners.

She would like to make additions to the house she lives in at the moment but has insufficient money. She would like to add on another two rooms to the unit where her nephew is living. He is saving towards this goal and they might accomplish it over the next year.


The house is a board house with a small zinc lean-to extension which is used as the kitchen. It was built by Houseman who had initially built the house for himself but sold it to Megan for $200 when she first moved to the area. She still owes him $50 on it. Houseman provided the house because he was paid $300 by one of the area leaders who asked him to help Megan. Houseman saves scrap and second-hand building materials and also gleans material off the garbage dumps to build people houses.

The house was carried from his yard to Megan's. Initially built on stilts the house was reconstructed on a concrete base to raise it up as Megan's piece of land frequently floods when there are heavy rains.


Over the last five years she has gradually upgraded her house by building block and steel extensions. Every month she puts a little money aside to expand or improve her house. At the moment she is putting on an extra room and a bathroom for her mother. She hopes that she'll be able to put a ceiling in this year as well. Her son would help with the work.

Pansy gets building materials relatively cheaply on the second hand and "seconds" market. The seconds market centres on the sale of damaged materials by formal sector producers and wholesalers. The second-hand market is essentially informal and has a particularly strong presence near to the city dumps. Her main building expenses are materials because her sons do most of the construction work and friends in the community also help once she has enough materials saved up. "I just ask them to give me a days work and put on a pot and everyone work and eat."

The basic house was built by the Ministry of Construction and was composed of three rooms on a concrete foundation. The roof was made of zinc and the floor of wood. Soon after moving there Pansy added on two more rooms and then later a kitchen, a bathroom and an additional bedroom. The third addition was started four years after the first and will, she hopes, soon by finished. Her extensions are all in block and steel. Pansy believes that lumber is more expensive than concrete. Her daughter has helped her to get a home improvement loan from the National Housing Trust because Pansy herself was told she was too old to apply for the benefit and that is what she is using to pay for the current extension.


The walls of the house as well as the floors are made of board. The roof is of zinc. The bedroom windows are made of board but there is a set of louvre windows in the living room.

Verona built the house herself over a period of time. She first bought a one-room frame and then gradually bought secondhand zinc and board from people in the area. In the second phase she added a second and third bedroom. The living room, verandah and shop space came next. All of this was organized by her son Leroy and his friend. Leroy worked for a building contractor at one time and therefore has some building skills and his friend is a cabinet maker. Both of them provided their labour free and each phase of the house was added once sufficient materials had been saved up.

Verona borrowed nothing at all to build the house. She plans to make further extensions but these will be limited because of the small space of the yard. The only building material she used that was not second-hand was cement which she used for the foundations and which she bought from a nearby hardware store.

If she had $ l 000 she would spend it on improving the shop. If she had $5000 she would also make some improvements to the house. She would fix the zinc so that it didn't leak and put in some new boards to replace the ones that have been eaten out by termites. By choice she would prefer a concrete house but as long as she is a squatter she believes that is out of the question.



Vulnerability to natural hazards

Jamaica is situated in a region that is prone to both earthquakes and hurricanes. It has recently been severely damaged by the strongest hurricane recorded this century in the region. It is therefore alarming to discover how little attention low-income households have given to securing their houses against potential damage from these forces. To a large degree this lack of investment is a reflection of tenure relationships. Renters expect the landlord to do the fixing up. However, it also has to do with the short time frames that people use for planning when their lives consist of a constant struggle to maintain a precarious survival. This day-to-day survival struggle militates against long-term investment and hazard mitigation unless people can be shown ways of making their houses safer without the expenditure of a great deal of cash and time.

Another factor that has resulted in minimal investment in hazard mitigation is the fact that it had been such a long time since a hurricane had really damaged Jamaica. More than half the island's population was not born when the previous serious hit by Hurricane Charlie occurred in 1951.

The low-income household survey revealed that only 7.5 per cent of female-headed household had taken any steps to safeguard their houses against hurricanes compared with 12 per cent and 13.3 per cent of male- and joint-headed households. respectively.

Insecure land tenure militates against major investment in the construction of safe housing and much of the informally-constructed housing built within low-income settlements is vulnerable to the effects of natural hazards as a result.

The siting of many low-income settlements has made them particularly vulnerable to the effects of natural hazards and this has become a growing problem, particularly in the urban areas as informal settlement of land becomes the only available option for an increasing number of the island's population who are unable to afford the safety standards assumed within the formal sector. Most of the land that is "captured" is marginal land that is considered, by the planners, unsuitable for residential development. It is marginal because it is often prone to flooding or to land slippage.

Sometimes these locations are attractive to low-income residents because they provide a good basis for income generation. The city dumps, for instance, provide an excellent base for income generation based on recycling of waste materials, even if they are the first areas to suffer from the flood effects of heavy rains. In other cases people can simply find nowhere else to go.

A number of the women who were interviewed in depth experience the effects of natural hazards on a regular basis or have had exposure to them.


"I saw a hurricane when I was much smaller but I never take it so serious you know. When I heard about this one now. When somebody came and said 'you not battening up Miss C?' I said 'Bwoy you batten from man you don't batten from God. You can nail from man but you can't nail from God because anywhere you nail he is still there so all we have to do is just stand and look and see what will happen'.

"When me see the hurricane and when me see the housetop really lift, now me say, 'Wait Lord but you really serious', but me never move out."


"But the yard flood all the while when it rain. When it rain the yard fill up with water. Water comes down the lane and eventually drains into the gully. Sometimes the house full of pure mud."


"My parents used to live in a thatched house and I could remember in the 1951 storm we was in that thatch house.

The roof never come off because those time the room was thatch and you have to tie it with the cord."

Many of the houses that survived Hurricane Gilbert with their roofing intact were "old fashioned" houses built by traditional craftsmen who are rapidly dying out as the informal apprenticeship system is replaced by formal vocational training. Many of the old-time designs and techniques are disappearing as these craftsmen retire and die. The fact that the traditional techniques and designs were originally developed on the basis of experience of earthquakes and hurricanes, whereas the formal vocational training system has come in since the last major disaster, accounts in large measure for the absence of hurricane-mitigation techniques in recent buildings.


Megan lives in an area that floods whenever there are heavy rains. The house she bought from Houseman had to be adapted when it was moved to her spot for this reason. It had originally been designed to rest on a concrete slab floor but Megan decided, on Houseman's advice, to put the whole thing on stacked concrete blocks so that it would be raised up off the ground. A wooden floor therefore had to be installed.


The entire roof, zinc. battens. rafters and all came off one room of Deula's house during the recent hurricane. She had omitted to use any hurricane straps to tie the roof down to the wall plate. The roof has since been repaired and Deula is now using hurricane straps made of strips of recycled zinc sheeting.

One of the problems in the community where she lives was that during the hurricane looters came in from outside and stole much of the zinc. Those people who were able to grab the roofing material flying around before it was removed by thieves, often found that they had picked up somebody elses zinc rather than their own. Roofs in the area therefore look rather more patchlike than they did before but most people have rebuilt using the materials available. Their main problems now are leaking roofs and land slippage and erosion.



1. Information concerning hazard-mitigation techniques that people. and women in particular. can use on their own houses should be made widely available in forms that are comprehensible and attractive to the people whose housing is most vulnerable. An example of such material is the booklet on Hurricanes and Housing put out by the Construction Resource and Development Centre and the video film Strapless Today, Topless Tomorrow which was produced by the same agency.

2. A handbook on basic building techniques used in the informal sector with hints on how houses can be built more safely using recycled materials and so on should be produced using examples and illustrations of women participating in the building process as they do in reality. All too often women are absent from manuals, posters and handbooks focusing on building processes.

3. Training programmes that support the entry of women into the construction trades should be strongly supported. Training should not necessarily be targeted at heads of households. Their daughters might well prove more able to take advantage of the training. Programmes providing construction skills training for men should be made open to women on an equitable basis.

4. Low-income shelter development projects that incorporate a large labour component should be designed in such a way that female labour can be absorbed as well as that of men. If possible, such projects should contain a training component.

5. When credit is extended for self-built housing projects. provision should be made for credit that covers the cost of labour that women without construction skills will require. Monitoring of this labour is also suggested in order to prevent exploitation by unscrupulous contractors.