The poor housing conditions in some Brazilian regions have been a subject in our social context since the end of the 19th century, when the first favelas appeared. Historical data shows that after the end of the Canudos War, soldiers that returned from military missions started to live in land ceded by the Navy, in precarious living conditions. But it was only between the 1940s and 1980s that the process of “favelization” intensified and, mainly due to the intensification of the Brazilian economy, a population explosion resulting from falls in the mortality rate and urbanization of the population, the number of people with precarious housing grew exponentially.

 The Brazilian Association of Real Estate Developments (ABRAINC) together with the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) published in 2018 the report “Analysis of Housing Needs and their Trends for the Next Ten Years”, where it estimated the country’s housing deficit in 2017 at 7.77 million units, 12.4% of which were due to inadequate housing. The residences are classified as substandard because they are improvised or rustic buildings.

Table 1 – Housing Deficit and its Components – 2017
Source: ABRAINC, 2018

Having access to good housing conditions is not dispensable, it is an essential factor in preventing and combating certain pathologies. Fiocruz said in a report by the Polytechnic School of Health Joaquim Venâncio that cities lacking healthy housing are the most impacted by diseases that feed on social inequality. Buildings with improper closure may not guarantee adequate thermal insulation and thus favor the contagion of respiratory diseases such as colds and flu. The professor-researcher of the Polytechnic School of Health Joaquim Venâncio (EPSJV/Fiocruz), a specialist in sanitation and environmental control, Alexandre Pessoa, also highlights other health problems related to housing conditions, such as chagas disease, zika virus, chikungunya and yellow fever.

Image 1 – Families Attended by Curitiba’s Municipal Housing Program
Source: Curitiba City Hall, 2014

The importance of the right to decent housing is recognized by the international community. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers housing to be the environmental factor with the greatest impact in terms of disease and increased mortality and morbidity rates. For this reason, the United Nations (UN) established in 1978 a Program for Human Settlements, the UN-Habitat. The agency seeks to cooperate with governments, universities, and third sector institutions on issues related to city life. At the governmental level, federal, state, and municipal governments establish housing policies, such as the My Home, My Life, and COHABs Program, in order to facilitate access to adequate housing and reduce the housing deficit. Despite these efforts, a significant portion of the population does not benefit from these initiatives and remains in precarious housing conditions. This is why the third sector needs to act and implement mitigation measures in order to fill these gaps and allow everyone to have access to minimum housing conditions.

Operation and Benefits

Wooden buildings, for their simplicity of construction and low cost of materials (often collected or reused instead acquired), are commonly found among families in socially vulnerable conditions. From a structural point of view, they serve the purpose of shelter to the residents. However, they often have low thermal performance and favor the occurrence of insects. A simple, effective, and sustainable way to mitigate these problems is to cover the buildings with thermal blankets of paperboard (material from long-life milk packages – Tetra Pak). The measure has as main objectives:

  1. Reduce the incidence of diseases caused by cold or insects (e.g. respiratory diseases, flu, colds, and hypothermia).
  2. Recycle paperboard that would potentially be destined for landfills and dumps or improperly disposed of.

Cardboard packages are ideal for thermal insulating linings, as they consist of about 5% aluminum, 20% plastic, and 75% paperboard, arranged in interleaved layers. The cardboard, the predominant material in the set, is very resistant and guarantees the structural stability of the blanket. The plastic, low-density polyethylene, prevents the contact of air or water humidity and other liquids with the paper, besides guaranteeing the adhesion between the layers of cardboard and aluminum. Finally and most importantly, aluminum is intended to prevent the entry of light and ensure thermal insulation.

Image 2 – Layers of Cartoned Paper (Tetra Pak)
Source: Ecolife Tetra Pak

Purchased cartons must be wrapped before they become the lining and sealing of the houses. The first step is to cut the box vertically in order to open it and remove non-uniform parts, such as lid and bottom. The result of this step is a rectangular sheet of cardboard. The material should then be sanitized with soap and water to remove organic waste. Once this is done, simply place the panels clean to dry and the material is ready to be applied. The sheets should then be joined together by means of staples or sewn together so that they can cover walls and ceilings of wooden buildings.

Image 3 – Application of the Plates on the Walls
Source: ESF Núcleo Santa Maria, 2018

The interesting thing about this methodology is that packaging can be used for thermal comfort both in high temperature places (being used to refresh the house) and in cold places (with the purpose of heating the house). This is because when the plate made with the Tetra Pak package is placed on the external wall of the house it is able to reflect the hot heat waves and sun rays, keeping the internal climate of the house milder because it prevents a good part of the heat from entering. In cold places, the packages are used inside the house, so the heat from inside the house is not lost to the outside and is retained in the house, bringing more comfort to the residents, mainly in winter.

Besides the comfort provided to the beneficiaries, the recycling of Tetra Pak packages is an inclusive and sustainable initiative. In 2018, the global recycling rate informed by the company was 26% of all the material produced. The consumption growth and high complexity in the recycling of the package, due to the combination of different materials, imposes an additional challenge in terms of sustainability. Reusing packaging as insulation for housing helps to increase the rate of reuse and prevents the material from being disposed of inappropriately in nature or contributing to the depletion of landfills

Engineers Without Borders’ Work

Knowing about the two sides and versatility of the use of Tetra Pak’s packages for the coating of houses, the chain Engineers Without Borders already has several projects to improve the houses from north to south in the country. Until today it has already been replicated by the Santa Maria (RS), a pioneer in the use of packages within the ESF network, Porto Alegre (RS), Rio Grande (RS), and Porto Velho (RO).

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Known as the “Living Well” project, the use of Tetra Pak’s blankets enables more dignity to its inhabitants because the effect of this type of project goes beyond the engineering purposes itself, also bringing the resumption of the self-esteem of the beneficiaries. This is because the care with the house and the environment you live in is a very important factor for a person to feel good with themselves and realize that that place can be called home.

The sealing of the gaps, covering the wall with the packaging blankets are in fact simple and efficient engineering for low-income people, what ESF does is to show people that such engineering is within their reach and, when they are inserted during the execution of the project, it is then possible to pass on the knowledge and show that their actions are also part of the improvement in the house, bringing great satisfaction to both residents and volunteers.

Image 4 – Tetra Pak blanket being placed in a house in Rio Grande do Sul (RS)
Source: ESF – Rio Grande

This change in “climate” was noticed and reported by the volunteers who, upon returning to the site to finalize the project, noticed a better receptivity of the residents, greater sympathy and even joy in being able to receive people at home and have them in less precarious conditions to live.

By promoting projects such as Living Well, ESF-Brazil seeks to be aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, in this case, more specifically with goal number 11, which is to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. This way we realize that no major works or investments are needed to make small improvements that make all the difference for the residents of a place that before was unable to sleep due to cold (or heat) and now can rest in a more adequate way, besides being able to spend the day under better temperature conditions inside the home. With simple actions and conventional materials, it is possible to contribute to combating two major challenges of the reality of the country: the housing deficit and waste generation. Be part of the movement and support the network of Engineers Without Borders!

Image 5 – Application of Tetra Pak boards in a house in Porto Alegre
Source: ESF – Porto Alegre Chapter, 2018

Principal: Vitor Vinicius Cotta Rodrigues
Mariana Martins Gomes
Anna Beatriz de Aguiar Bergo Coelho