On the Ground with Build Change in the Wake of Indonesia’s Earthquake

On September 28, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck Indonesia, triggering a tsunami and landslides that caused much destruction to the country.

Footage and photos of the catastrophe are devastating – entire neighborhoods swept away, people fleeing on foot, terrifying liquefaction. The earthquake and its subsequent landslide, liquefaction and tsunami have caused 2,081 fatalities, with an estimated 1,309 still missing or buried. Approximately 68,000 houses were damaged and about 206,000 people are displaced from their homes. (All stats are according to Build Change’s Recon Report.)

Build Change is a nonprofit organization aiming to reduce deaths, injuries, and economic losses caused by housing and school collapses in developing countries. In response to collapse-causing earthquakes and typhoons, they send a post-disaster reconnaissance team onsite right away to evaluate homes and schools. The team conducts engineering studies to understand why buildings collapse and how to build them better. Sam Adiputra had only been working at Coughlin Porter Lundeen for a week when he got that call, requesting that he go to Indonesia as a part of the Build Change’s reconnaissance team.

Sam felt an immediate pull to go. On the technical side, he designs for earthquakes and was curious to see the impacts of an earthquake first-hand. But more central was the emotional pull. Sam grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city. He spent the first 18 years of his life there. He grew up with news about devastation after devastation caused by earthquakes in his country, most notably the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Aceh. While he had never experienced or directly been impacted by a large earthquake, he knew his family members, people close to him, and the majority of Indonesian population live in potentially unsafe housing and are vulnerable to the next disaster. For him, this trip was about much more than nonprofit work, it was deeply personal.

“Part of the reason I pursued structural engineering in the first place was because I see the need for better and safer homes in Indonesia, especially for the underserved population living close to or below the poverty line. They are usually the ones most affected by earthquakes, and yet they are also the ones who have the least resources.”

Coughlin Porter Lundeen managers worked with Sam to make the trip possible. After all, they knew he’d be doing important work and do their best to support employees’ philanthropic efforts, no matter where they take them.

His two-week reconnaissance trip brought him to the central city of Palu as well as villages within the Sigi and Donggala districts. His primary duty: collect data and learn from the earthquake. As their name implies, Build Change’s pillars are to support communities in building earthquake-resistant homes and schools and to change construction practices in emerging countries. The post-earthquake reconnaissance is the first step in reaching these goals. While in Indonesia, Sam joined two other Build Change Indonesia employees to observe and gather data including typical materials and structural systems, how these systems performed in the earthquake, material costs and quality, and typical construction quality. Each day, the team visited one or two villages, evaluated the homes and schools in that region, and talked to homeowners about their experience.

The team’s full assessment and collection of recommendations will be published by Build Change, who will also use it to inform next steps and future support efforts. One option: a series of training sessions in some of the villages affected by the Palu earthquake, helping local builders and homeowners understand the principles and characteristics of safer structures so they can rebuild in a safer way.

This pursuit of long-term change is one of Build Change’s differentiators. The organization understands how responding to disasters with structures built in haste or without fully considering culture, material availability, and final use can, and often do, fail. Build Change’s approach is one of research, local partnership, and eventually, change.

Sam sincerely believes in Build Change and has supported their mission as a volunteer since 2015. While pursuing his master’s degree at Stanford University, he wanted to find a way to contribute. A professor introduced him to Build Change, and the introduction synched with the new needs of their Indonesia program. As a native speaker, Sam was able to step into roles translating codes from Indonesian to English, then building a Revit model for a local school’s retrofit.

Last week, Sam presented a summary of his experience and learnings to the Coughlin Porter Lundeen team.