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Leonardo da Vinci, the original ‘Renaissance man’, tends to be better known for his drawings of human anatomy and the animal kingdom than buildings. But his architectural designs were no less pioneering in their fusing of imagination and practical ingenuity. Now, almost 500 years after Leonardo’s death, a ‘reciprocal’ floor design — a self-supporting arrangement involving three or more poles overlapping in turn — could transform shelters for people affected by disasters.
In this audio interview, we speak to Shaun Halbert, director of charity ReciproBoo about the use of Leonardo’s reciprocal frames in humanitarian response. “Essentially what we’re doing is taking what Leonardo da Vinci did … and asking the question: ‘Well, if it’s strong enough for a floor, why not use it for a roof?’” Halbert says. The result is a strong roof that can support the tarpaulins that people displaced by emergencies are given in the days immediately following disasters — replacing the weak structures people have tended to fashion in the past from whatever materials are to hand.

The bamboo shelter kit, for regions where the wood grows naturally, includes bamboo poles and rope (made from natural fibres) for lashing them together. The bamboo is treated over a period of six to eight weeks, to make it more resistant to rot from insects and fungal attacks


The reciprocal roof structure. The frame uses 33 per cent less materials than other designs, and holds up to 100 kilograms


The technical design.


The tensile strength of the bamboo and frame create a shelter that is able to support up to 100 kilograms of insulation. The well-insulated shelter is ideal for keeping people warm in harsh winter temperatures, and cool in warmer climates. It also means the shelter is ideal for use as a clinic


A Sudanese man putting up a shelter in a camp for internally displaced people. With record numbers of people displaced across the world, the call for shelters that are more dignified and healthier, as well as cheaper and resource-efficient, has never been more urgent


Leonardo da Vincis drawing

Leonardo da Vinci

The frames are made from either steel or, where possible, locally sourced bamboo, a sustainable wood that grows in the tropical belt where many natural disasters strike. When lashed together, the tensile strength of the bamboo and the engineering ingenuity of the design create a structure that is far more durable and weather resilient than those erected by refugees themselves. And, as well as shelters, the structures can be easily extended to create schools and clinics — resources in high demand but short supply during emergencies.

The ReciproBoo shelter won an award at the 2015 Aid Innovation Challenge