A Swiss-supported construction project in Cuba, aimed at finding ecological and low-cost building material alternatives, has won a prestigious United Nations award.
The Habitat Scroll of Honour is being presented to the scheme in the Dutch city of The Hague on Monday as part of events held to mark the UN's World Habitat Day.
"The aim of the... award is to recognise individuals and institutions instrumental in improving the living conditions in urban centres around the world," said Anna Tibaijuka, executive director of UN Habitat, the organisation's human settlements agency.
This year the Ecomaterials in Social Housing Project in Cuba, which is co-financed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), has been selected for the honour.
The project has developed of a range of innovative and environmentally sustainable building materials which can be manufactured locally in small workshops and used to repair or build houses in economically depressed areas.
"We are very happy and proud that our partner in this project has received a prize which is so highly recognised worldwide," the SDC's Béatrice Ferrari told swissinfo.
The SDC has provided SFr300,000 ($257,000) in funding for the scheme. Other Swiss involvement comes from the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and Swiss non-governmental organisation Sofonias.
Industrial construction materials are in short supply in Cuba. Soviet-subsidised oil supplies stopped in the late 1980s, meaning Havana was no longer able to maintain its centralised house-building system based on industrial prefabrication.
The CIDEM Research Institute at the Cuban Las Villas University has therefore been looking for alternatives to carry out construction and repairs of cheap housing, also in remote and isolated areas.
It has found a solution which involves producing "ecomaterials" locally with minimum energy and transport costs. This includes using local volcanic ash or scrap materials reconditioned for recycling.
In the production of bricks, a special type of micro concrete has been developed which replaces some of the sand with bamboo fibre. This reduces the weight of the material but increases the shock resistance.
The project targets homeowners in five rural municipalities in areas prone to natural disasters, such as flooding. A total of 2,300 houses have been renovated in the past five years.
"The bottom line is that the project not only fosters environment-friendly and low-cost home building, but also paves the way for the creation of small businesses and new jobs," said the SDC.
Around 200 direct jobs have been created, with many others arising indirectly. By 2010, 17 municipalities are expected to have benefited from the system.
The model has now also been recognised by the Cuban government.
Roderick Lawrence from the Centre of Human Ecology and Environmental Sciences at Geneva University said this kind of project could serve as a beacon for change.
"If it did and this kind of project did become mainstream in the building construction sector, then there would be significant reductions in the use of non-renewable resources, on the heavy reliance on petroleum products and also on the volume of greenhouse gas emissions that are emitted by this construction sector," Lawrence told swissinfo.
He added that the scheme was noteworthy in how it involved the local community.
"The fact that this project created jobs and developed mechanisms by which members of the local community could be involved... is a way of creating social cohesion and improving the quality of life for all the citizens in that locality," he said.
World Habitat Day
UN Habitat has designated the first Monday of October as World Habitat Day, to reflect on the state of human settlement and the basic right to adequate shelter for all.
To mark the event this year, a two-day conference entitled "A safe city is a just city" is being held in The Hague. The aim is to raise awareness of urban crime and violence, forced eviction and insecurity of tenure.
Habitat Scroll of Honour prizes are awarded each year on the day. These were established by the UN General Assembly to raise awareness about the state of human settlements.
Main points of UN habitat report
UN Habitat has released a report to coincide with World Habitat Day. It found that 60% of urban dwellers in developing nations had been crime victims in the past five years, but that general fear of criminal and terrorist attack was out of proportion to actual levels of violence.
The report found that poverty, insecurity of land tenure, social exclusion, poor planning and corruption were among the main causes of the global problem.
It urged governments worldwide to tackle these areas urgently or risk a social explosion. An estimated two-thirds of the world's population will live in urban areas by 2050.