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Jacky Vel travelled the world for business, and she came back dispirited by global poverty.

Now she hopes she has a solution for it. Vel is president and CEO of the Icology Group, which aims to provide housing for the poor and disaster survivors and make it so affordable that people on the economic brink can still buy it themselves.

Because the business is still in its infancy, it is still funded by charities that buy and donate the homes to people in need. Ten of its homes are planned for Haiti. Four have already been built so far in Mexico.

But it’s not a nonprofit. Her vision is that Icology will sell homes straight to people who need them. A 400-square-foot home now runs around $4,500. Smaller ones run $1,500.

Three and a half years ago, I tagged along with La Jolla teens headed to Tijuana to build homes for needy families, and wrote about it. Since then I’ve come back to Mexico with the teens again and again, not to write, but to help them build.

One of those houses was an Icology home, which are designed with interlocking pieces that screw together so that people without any construction savvy can build them, even klutzy volunteers like me. I joined Vel on this side of the border to talk about why she chose this unconventional path to doing good and doing business.

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Basic shelter seems like such a straightforward need. Why do you think the market to this point hasn’t addressed it — that there haven’t been more groups like yours?

It’s about getting down to the real details of who needs homes and what resources they have.

In some of the regions that we travel to, in Mexico and Haiti and elsewhere, they are just not able to afford a construction engineer, a civil engineer, a roofing specialist, somebody who is able to hire out heavy equipment. What we’ve been able to do with the self-assembly model is chisel away at some of those costs. And when you build our house, there is no waste at the end. We do supply some extra studs and a few extra boards that can be turned into a latrine if it’s not turned into anything else.

What’s different about what Icology does?

We’re a social enterprise. That means we’re a business, but all the profits go back into the business. We try to get into that space of where nonprofits would ordinarily operate, to provide services and products to those that ordinarily wouldn’t be able to afford them, but do it in such a way that it’s fiscally sustainable. You have to operate with a business mind.

So Icology Group, to the outside world, looks like a housing business. We manufacture components from lumber and they come in a box as a kit. It’s a bit like IKEA meets LEGOs. We see housing as a big leverage point for community development, allowing people not to just survive but thrive on their own.

What are some of the challenges in designing these homes?

One of them is transportation. If you’re going to put a home together for people who can’t normally afford a home, we need to anticipate some really rugged and difficult conditions, whether it’s a disaster zone or a destination with no formal roads. So we constrain the dimensions of our components so they can be hand carried, small enough so that they can be loaded onto a small truck or wagon or even a donkey.

The fundamental thinking of our technology is that it can be assembled by unskilled workers. You do not need to be in construction to put a house together. The components screw together relatively easily. It allows a family to get engaged in the process of building their own home, which is just huge in terms of the dynamics of ownership.

Tell me about how you got involved in this work.

I worked for a Carlsbad-based company in the laser industry and did a lot of international travel. Almost every city that you go to, across the world, you see the disparity between those that have and those that have not. I spent a good 40 years of my life seeing it, but not really seeing it. I came to realize that there is a whole swath of the planet that simply doesn’t have the resources or support.

And it’s not that these people are less able or less intelligent or less inspired. Circumstances have conspired against them. That really gets to my core, and I wanted to do something about it.

I had an opportunity to leave that company and chose to start following my nonprofit activities. I wanted to really leverage my business skills.

I was extremely inspired by a book by the late C.K. Prahalad called “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” which says there are 4 billion people living on less than a dollar a day, and when you add that up it’s actually a lot of demand. If one could address it in an affordable way, there’s an opportunity to develop a business.

Our aspirations are that the products themselves will be at the right price so the local community can purchase them, to manufacture them, to build their own employment opportunities in the housing business. It is really intended to be a sustainable business that finances itself.

But we are still a very young company, formed in December 2008. In the early stages, it’s more like seed funding to get the technology into a particular country. (Groups have provided funding to purchase and donate homes.) We have been funded by family foundations, by friends of Icology Group, and by organizations like the Rotary Club. Our Haitian project is funded by the Methodists.

Do you ever face political obstacles to get the houses built abroad?

The only place we have difficulty is here in the U.S. and other Western, developed nations because the building codes are the building codes. The building codes apply to a regular section of two-by-four lumber. Our lumber has interlocking features and that takes it outside the current code.

We do want people to live in a high-quality building. However, the process of establishing a building code for a new technology is exceedingly long. The best estimates we’ve had are three years and a million dollars. And we don’t believe we’ve got three years to sit around and we certainly don’t have a million dollars.

Has there been demand for them here in the U.S.?

We’ve had a lot of interest from people who have found themselves crunched for affordability. Some organizations have inquired that could build one or two of these units. But we don’t make these one by one. We need volume.

What’s been the biggest surprise for you?

I’ve had a lot of them! Haiti is a great example. The community clearly was devastated. The governmental bodies were devastated. But still it is infinitely difficult to get the right signatures on the right paperwork to get the product into the country, or even to get manufacturing equipment into Haiti.

The money is not the issue. Funding for Haiti is there. It needs to have sufficient oversight to demonstrate to the donors that it’s spent adequately — but the bureaucracy seems to get in the way. It comes back to the resistance to change, even in circumstances that are screaming for change.

Interview conducted and edited by Emily Alpert. You can contact her directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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