A ruined village in Pakistan

Disaster relief: humanitarian architecture for post-disaster shelter

In the field of humanitarian architecture, post-disaster provision is more than just supplying shelter. It's about involving communities in places of uncertainty and rapid change, delivering the best rebuilds that incorporate future risk mitigation in the design.

Safe and dignified shelter is a basic human right, and in a post-disaster scenario provision is more than just putting a new roof over people's heads and providing emergency shelter; it is about fit-for-purpose rebuilds that address the local culture, environment and economy. It is a complex task of rebuilding a community, or even a city, that may have had little in the way of adequate planning or building regulations before the disaster struck. The best housing will improve on what went before and incorporate future risk mitigation in the design.

According to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, in the first 12 years of this century 2.9 billion people were directly affected by natural disasters such as tsunamis, flooding, fire, earthquakes, hurricanes and typhoons, many losing their homes. In 2011 alone, 42 million were forced to leave their houses, more than the total of those displaced by war and armed conflict.

The first half of 2011 was also the costliest six-month period in the over 300-year history of the international insurance market because of disasters in New Zealand, Australia, Japan and the US. Many of these events were exacerbated by the growing impact of climate change.

Engineers and architects have been working in the post-disaster arena for many years as technical and logistical experts. But in her book 'Humanitarian Architecture – 15 stories of architects working after disaster', Esther Charlesworth, founding director of Architects without Frontiers, argues that "a long term, collaborative and consultative approach to working with a damaged community, using locally available building materials, construction techniques, local contractors and the labour of the displaced themselves is relatively new and builds a necessary investment, both emotional and economic in the finished shelter, helping to provide not just shelter over people's heads but community resilience and also benefitting the local economy".

This approach is in sharp contrast to the so-called design parachute: the fly-in, fly-out model of some architects, donors and contractors that was especially criticised in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and in Haiti after the devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince. There has been a desire, particularly with temporary housing, for architects to attempt to design a 'one size fits all' prefabricated experimental solution. Charlesworth has witnessed some extraordinary design follies. "I've seen igloo-style shelters, or funky shipping container emergency housing in Sri Lanka, New Orleans and Port-au-Prince, where interior temperatures hit 42°C. Such universal or prototype solutions are also often prohibitively expensive." The concept is intellectually appealing, but almost never works, she says.

Fifty-dollar shelters

"We should be looking for the fifty dollar shelter not one costing twenty or fifty times that," says Graham Saunders of the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC). "We analysed the average spend available to us for shelter across all major emergencies, and it worked out at $50 per household." Even a medium-scale disaster will see the need for 20,000-30,000 shelters, larger disasters need 200,000-300,000 shelters while catastrophic events like the 2010 Haiti earthquake saw the urgent need for 1.6 million shelters.

Provision of immediate shelter is just one of the products of humanitarian intervention post-disaster. The whole community infrastructure may have been destroyed – roads, bridges, transport facilities, power systems, schools, clinics, shops, even police stations and jails are needed.

"The best people to involve in the reconstruction are the affected local people themselves. The employment and retraining aspects of this are just as important as the rehoming of a shattered community, another reason to avoid prefabricated solutions," says Australian Brett Moore, architect and shelter and infrastructure advisor at NGO World Vision International.

A pioneer in the field of humanitarian architecture since the 1990s, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban combines a world-class private practice with innovative yet practical design solutions for emergency relief housing in disaster areas through his Voluntary Architects Network (VAN). To construct his disaster relief shelters, Ban often employs recyclable cardboard paper tubes for columns, walls and beams, as they are locally available anywhere in the world. The tubing is inexpensive, is easy to transport, mount and dismantle, can be water- and fire-proofed, and recycled. Ban says that his Japanese upbringing helps to account for his wish to waste no materials. Working in his own country following the devastating earthquake in 2011, VAN worked with the community of Onagawa to construct temporary housing in an area where flat land is limited. VAN built three-storey apartments from stacked modified shipping containers that created surprisingly light and versatile accommodation with built-in cupboards and storage. VAN hopes that this design will become a government benchmark standard for evacuation facilities and temporary housing in Japan. Ban won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture prize in 2014, which recognises his work in both the private and humanitarian field.

Maggie Stephenson is an architect and planner who has been working in the development and crisis recovery fields for over 20 years and is now based in University College London. She says: "There is often a window of opportunity immediately post-crisis. A crisis may precipitate or facilitate political decisions that might otherwise take years to make." The decisions to be made post-disaster are not only design decisions but also about how people invest in their home, including issues of credit, assets and insurance. "We have to understand what they want for the family – what are the afflicted community's aspirations? Do they want multi-family occupancy households or to break out on their own? In Haiti, for example, given limited land suitable for housing, people very much want the capacity to be able to extend upwards in future to allow for family growth. These considerations need to be incorporated into the provided structural design and need to be anticipated from the outset especially in earthquake zones."

The Haiti earthquake of 2010 was not the most powerful in recent years, measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale. But the combination of prior weak building practices and increasing urban density – people were building three or four storeys out of substandard concrete or steel materials – meant that the impact of this earthquake was hugely devastating.

Giving people responsibility

Concrete blocks are the basic building material of choice in Haiti, and they presented problems. During the early phases of reconstruction, the guidance prepared was based on assumed block strength of 10 MPa, but in reality the majority of blocks available in the market were half that strength. The regulatory and developmental challenge is to increase quality assurance, which is likely to take time. Meanwhile the engineering challenge is to anticipate the implications of below-code, low-strength materials in design and construction.

Stephenson is a firm believer in a people-centred approach, citing Ian Davis's seminal text, the 1978 book 'Shelter after Disaster – Don't do anything for people that they can do for themselves'. This means allowing people to make their own decisions, by providing them with the information and choice to make those decisions. It's vital that displaced people have real choice and real responsibility for their own future. The colour of houses is a classic example – everybody has an opinion, and enjoys making the choice about the appearance of their house – why take that away from people? But the most important tenet of all is 'build back better'.

For this article, the architects interviewed all commented on apparent cultural and training differences between engineers and architects. To sum this up (at least from the architect's point of view), an engineer sees the building and how it is made while architects are more likely to also see the people involved and how the building is likely to be used by them.

Elements of this may be true, but a leading expert in the post-disaster field, Professor David Sanderson, is rather more succinct: "Architects need to move beyond their traditional role of designers of buildings in places of relative certainty, to become facilitators of building processes that involve people in places of uncertainty and rapid change," he says.

Perhaps the last word should go to Lizzie Babister, an architect and humanitarian adviser at the Department for International Development, who has many years' field experience of reconstruction after disasters. In Esther Charlesworth's book, Babister makes the point that engineering institutes invariably have a phrase in their mission statements that refers to using engineering skills for the good of humanity. The Royal Institute for British Architects has no similar focus. She commented: "There are definitely some strong skills that architects have, but if I was advising a young professional today I would say: make sure that you have some really good strong structural engineering skills. That will make you much more attractive to humanitarian organisations who are looking for comprehensive 'shelter professionals' rather than architects or engineers specifically."

However, it is clear that both communities make important contributions when disaster strikes and operate more effectively together.

How to get involved

The International Medical Corps is calling for engineers and sanitation experts to help build hospitals and containment centres in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Experienced engineers can undertake training and selection to join the register of RedR, which provides personnel to humanitarian programmes worldwide. RedR engineers have formed part of the operational response teams working in places like Darfur, Pakistan and Aceh. Their goal is to build the skills of aid workers in local organisations, ensuring that skills remain in-country and enhancing disaster preparedness for the future.

Engineers without Borders can advise early-career engineers on opportunities in the humanitarian area, and give information about training and field placements.

Further information

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