Humanitarian architects work from the ground up

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Copyright: Espen Rasmussen / Panos

Speed read

  • It is vital to quickly provide lots of housing after disaster
  • But architects must work closely with local people on designs
  • And prefabricated homes cut out local labour and materials

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In the age of skylines, steel and star architects, it is easy to forget that the basic role of architecture is to provide shelter. Housing, when stripped of its ability to represent and impress, remains a basic need. This is particularly important for communities who have lost their homes following disaster, or who live in precarious conditions at the margins of society.

“There is a much wider role for architects and architecture than I had been led to believe both in my undergraduate education and training in more traditional architecture practice,” says Esther Charlesworth, professor of architecture at RMIT University in Australia and the founder of the Australian chapter of Architects Sans Frontiers (ASF), Architects without Frontiers, a not-for-profit working on post-disaster reconstruction around the world. “I saw that there was a valuable role for design to play in rebuilding people’s communities after war or after disaster.”

Charlesworth is part of the emerging field of humanitarian architecture, where architects focus on projects with a social purpose. This may include working with vulnerable or rural communities, or looking at how people can be best housed during a crisis and how long-term housing stock should be built to better withstand disasters.

“You have a lot of architects with a strong social commitment who want to get involved in low-cost housing,” says Ian Davis, who teaches a course on humanitarian architecture at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom. This is also slowly becoming true in low income countries, evidenced by the fact that ASF has members in Benin, the Congo and India, among others.

The most obvious area for such work is in post-disaster reconstruction, for example following earthquakes or tsunamis. When such disasters hit, housing needs can skyrocket. The Nepal earthquakes in April and May destroyed more than half a million homes.

In such situations, it is natural for aid agencies to provide shelter as quickly as possible. But a house is not just a shelter: it’s a space for people to live in, to call a home. To provide innovative housing that works in the long-term, many architects are starting to work closer with local aid agencies and with the communities they plan for.

Reversing roles

Architects wanting to work in humanitarian architecture have to do a lot of unlearning, says Davis. “Architects are used to being in a strong position, whereby they are hired for their expertise and tell people what they need,” he explains. “But in this disaster field, it’s quite crucial that they support what’s going on, that they are not in a dominant role.”

Whether working during an emergency or long-term, one way to ensure final housing products meet the needs of local communities is to involve them through participatory design.

Beatrice De Carli, an architect at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, works with ASF-UK, which collaborates with local NGOs and universities to develop workshops that facilitate participatory design for vulnerable people in cities.

“The primary aim is to develop the capacity of these communities to make demands and affirm their presence in the city,” she says. “We try to build tools that allow them to start discussing among themselves, but also to articulate to the local authorities and local NGOs what is it that they would like to achieve.”

In 2013, De Carli was involved in a participatory design workshop in Quito, Ecuador, which involved people who had been priced out of the city centre. [1] It aimed to develop a long-term plan for them to settle on an unused piece of public land outside of the city centre. This plan was then used by the community to start a conversation with the local government on how to get permission and funds to build their housing.

Local clashes

Working closer with vulnerable communities also helps with acceptance of new designs and architectural innovations. For example, people may be suspicious of new materials or designs that clash with traditional building technologies and customs.

Jenni Reuter, an architect at Hollmen, Reuter and Sandman Architects in Finland, experienced this problem first hand. In 2001, her team designed a women’s centre in Rufisque, Senegal, which was funded jointly through charitable donations by foundations, the Finnish government and the locals. 

“There are a lot of sceptical voices”, says Reuter, when trying to introduce new designs or materials. In the case of the women’s centre, the local architect found the team’s plan to use glass bricks made from recycled beer bottles insulting because using ‘old’ materials was seen as the mark of a poor community. And as Senegal is a Muslim country, he was also justifiably concerned about using materials associated with alcohol, she says.

But perceptions changed when Reuter’s team showed the architect examples of how the glass bricks could transform the space by letting more light in. This meant that cheap, local resources could be used to finish the centre.

Going through this process is harder during disaster situations, particularly in the early stages of an emergency. There is often no time to research local architectural traditions or spend time discussing building technologies with the affected communities. Here, the most important thing is to provide as much housing as possible, and fast.

This is where contemporary design and modern technology come to the fore. The recently deployed Better Shelter is one such example — a robust single-room home that can be built in a few hours from metal bars and polypropylene panels. This shelter has been used in countries such as Ethiopia and Nepal, and its creators continue to develop the product based on user feedback, creating a two-way response towards improved housing.

The growing importance of humanitarian architecture means more and more innovative shelters are hitting the market. The Design at Large exhibition in Switzerland featured architecture firm Bureau A's shelter made from folded aluminium held together with wooden joints. It also exhibited architect Shigeru Ban’s paper tea house, built with his signature paper tubes. And this year it was announced that an Italian engineering company has been developing a giant 3D printer, with which it hopes to produce structures such as houses by printing layers of natural materials like clay.

Little local benefit

High-tech design innovations might be appropriate for resource-rich countries in response to a disaster, but Davis believes that they divert money away from essential reconstruction in poor countries — especially since there isn’t always a need for flashy new designs to do reconstruction well.

He also points out that most innovations are developed and produced in rich countries, so they do not help revitalise the local economy or provide local people with work, scuppering long-term redevelopment.

Charlesworth agrees. “They are all interesting designs and innovations, but you’ve got to question shipping in a prefabricated product that doesn’t involve local labour or materials,” she says.

Another problem is that the more that architects design shelters for competitions and innovation prizes rather than working directly with aid agencies, the further removed they are from ideas around participatory design. This may go so far that architecture firms compete for the sake of a prize, not with the needs of people in mind.

It’s an easy way to get publicity, says Reuter. Some of the most recent emergency housing products on the market are so far removed from local housing traditions, they don’t feel like home, says Artur Feio, professor of architecture and civil engineering at the University of Lusíada in Portugal.

“Many of the people working in [humanitarian architecture] come up with designs that are too conceptual and not very practical,” he says.

Architects working at the heart of humanitarian shelter say consulting local people is important in any situation, even during disasters when time is of the essence. “[The affected communities] are often marginalised because people think they are dazed and they need help,” Davis says. “Well, they might need help, but they still need to be consulted.” Even after during or after disasters, people need to and can take an active role in the planning process, he says.

Having local people involved in shelter design and construction ensures that building skills are transferred to local people, says Davis. He notes the example of UN-Habitat teaching rural communities in Pakistan in 2005 how to build safe, earthquake-proof houses that are consistent with local traditions. [2]

This doesn’t just apply to disaster architecture. Reuter believes that knowledge exchange between architects and the communities they design for ensures the long-term survival of innovative houses in cities too, as the local contractors are more likely to be able — and willing — to maintain them.

Ongoing conflicts and a rise in natural disasters mean humanitarian architecture will become ever more important. This has been recognised by architects around the world, who are taking an interest in this direction — humanitarian architecture was even chosen as the theme of the prestigious architecture exhibition of the 2016 Venice Biennale.

The important thing is that those who choose to follow the path of humanitarian architecture think about the mark their innovations leave in these vulnerable or disaster-affected communities, says Reuter.

This article is part of our Spotlight on Shelter crisis: Rebuilding after the storm.