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Auren Kaplan Headshot

A Palace of Trash and the World It's Changing

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The story of changing the world often starts this way. An ordinary man, with an extraordinary idea and the gumption to make it real, makes waves of change that ripple through the sea of humanity. It proves no different in the case of Harvey Lacey. Harvey is, first of all, a change maker. He is one of those rarest of individuals that not only believes in his ability to improve the lives of the less fortunate, he then takes massive action to bring his extraordinary vision to the world.

Harvey's idea is devastatingly simple. So simple that, if you weren't paying attention, it might pass you by. But in its simplicity lies its brilliance, for when brought to scale it can provide jobs, clean our oceans, and build sustainable housing for the poor that is truly built to last.

The idea is called Ubuntu-Blox -- named this way because the term Ubuntu refers to our innate interconnectedness, speaking to our common dignity and community. And yes, I mentioned Blox -- because what Harvey created is a process to make building blocks, not out of cement, but rather out of recycled styrofoam and plastic bags. With these plastic blocks, reinforced with metal wire, homes can be constructed -- and for every home constructed, one 40 foot shipping container worth of trash is removed from our oceans.

On its face, the idea sounds wonderful: get trash out of the oceans, and use it to make building blocks for homes that can then be built in the poorest of communities, whether in Port au Prince, Haiti or the slums of Mumbai. But first Harvey had to prove to the world his vision could be real.

So Harvey approached the Memnosyne Foundation, a Texas-based charity, walking into the office with a block in hand. He had dreams of building homes in Haiti with his Ubuntu Blox, homes that could withstand earthquakes or hurricane winds. But he didn't have the money to test it out.

Harvey Lacey and Sam Blocht

Memnosyne funded Harvey with an initial $10,000 to build the first house and then put it to the test of whether it could withstand the harshest forces of nature. After taking the 400 square foot house off the truck, it was placed on a shake table that simulated a 7.0 Richter scale earthquake. The house shook as the shake table rumbled, and then -- miraculously -- the earthquake simulation stopped, and the house remained completely intact. This Ubuntu Blox home survived the force of an earthquake the size of the ground-shaking terror that struck Haiti in 2010.

More tests were to come. Next engineers subjected this house built of recycled trash bricks to 90 mile per hour winds -- and again, with disbelief, people looked on as the house easily withstood Category I hurricane winds.

Harvey hugged the people around him, and they hugged him back. And then Harvey got ready for his biggest challenge yet -- to construct such a house in the earthquake ravaged countryside of Haiti.

In Haiti, Harvey partnered with Haiti Communitere, an organization dedicated to providing three separate but critical areas of disaster recovery -- response, relief and renewal. Communitere served as a crucial middle man between Harvey's great idea and its implementation, funding the first building of the blocks and importantly, training local women how to make these blocks themselves. Sam Bloch, the founder of Haiti Communitere, sees Ubuntu Blox as an enormous economic opportunity: work to build the blocks at an economically competitive level with regular mortar bricks, so that Ubuntu Blox can be unleashed on the marketplace and compete pound for pound with their more traditional, and far less stable, counterparts. Sam noted that this is "such a simple technology", and that any viable building technique can go viral very quickly. Communitere's role is additionally in technology transfer. I asked him what would happen if a larger organization wanted to take the reins of this project with massive potential. His response: "If Oxfam wants it, they'll get it." The offer is open.

Ubuntu Blox house in Haiti under construction

Harvey partnered with the right people on the ground, and immediately set out to train local women on how to build the blocks. With the promise of two full meals each day, the local women set out towards the Ubuntu Blox project and began to undergo training on how to build the blocks. The work was physically difficult. But the women, if anything, were prideful and determined. In Harvey's words, "they would not give up, they were all believers." One woman had a prosthesis for a leg and yet when it seemed that she would be unable to exert the necessary energy to build the bricks, she dug deeper and continued to build. The reason was simple: "so that they don't have to stand in water when it rains."

The Haiti Ubuntu Blox House

Harvey's message to both the women and to the folks at Communitere was simple: "you can't screw it up". Mr. Inventor, as they called him, continually empowered the women with the idea that they were capable of building something larger than themselves. His hope was for the community to build itself up, with each member improving his or her life. "The fire of my forge that melts steel, starts with a spark," Harvey said. That spark was indeed Harvey with his Ubuntu Blox.

The Haiti Ubuntu Blox House Under Construction

Harvey is now back in Texas, now come back to affluence, as he put it. He told me how the women made him cry, and that if anything impressed him the most from his time in Haiti, it was the strength and character of the women. In his words: "If you want to change the world, you empower women. If you look at good societies, you see empowered women. If you look at bad societies, you see oppressed women."

Haitian women picking trash for making Ubuntu Blox

There is a possibility of an Ubuntu Blox factory opening up in Haiti where women will be able to work full-time, earning a living wage, and building houses that take trash from our oceans and compact them into homes sturdier than cement. Harvey's model house was just featured for the second straight year at Southern Methodist University's Engineering & Humanity Week, where students evaluate engineering opportunities to fight extreme poverty. And Harvey is aiming for a trip back to Haiti in mid-May or June, to ensure the success of the first house and the project's continued efforts on the ground.

Ubuntu Blox at SMU Engineering & Humanity Week

This project has been inspirational to many, and after reading this article you may want to contribute to the cause. There are two chief ways to do this. One is to donate to Haiti Communitere, which is currently headlining the efforts on the ground. The second is to donate to the Memnosyne Foundation, and specify that you want the funds to go to the Ubuntu Blox project. Both ways will get the money into the hands of those who are bringing this project to bear. To follow this project's growth, I recommend joining the Ubuntu Blox Facebook group where you can see the project's extraordinary progress. And don't forget to follow Harvey on Twitter: http://twitter.com/oharveylacey.