Humanitarian Architecture In the Aftermath of Disaster

March 22, 2005
Other Voices
America, for the most part, is a place where architecture can be celebrated and enjoyed for all that it can be: space, light, interesting forms and relationships, proportions, beautiful materials, and myriad other attributes. Other areas of the world are far less fortunate.In the wake of the Dec. 26 earthquake and subsequent tsunamis that devastated Southeast Asia, those attributes of architecture have appropriately taken a back seat to sheer survival in that part of the world. The world has come together to help provide food and emergency shelter for homeless victims.With more than a quarter of a million people reported dead or missing, and thousands more displaced, the tsunami is among the greatest human disasters ever recorded. An unprecedented relief effort has been mobilized to relieve the hardest-hit areas, including international and local organizations and volunteers with relief-related skills such as paramedics, engineers, and other personnel. Relief efforts have included shipments of food, medicines, clothing, and water to the worst affected areas. As humanitarian needs for food and shelter are met, long-term reconstruction efforts will begin. The heartbreaking reality is that there have always been – and will ever continue to be – natural and man-made disasters. In recent years, Bosnia, Kosovo, Turkey, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and numerous other countries have been devastated by war or natural catastrophe. What happens to the thousands, sometimes millions, of victims left homeless, injured, and hungry?Fortunately, there are a number of remarkable organizations worldwide, namely Architecture for Humanity, Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, United Nations, Doctors Without Borders, and Rotary International. These organizations save and improve lives by providing emergency medical care, food, and shelter for disaster victims in order for victims to rebuild and move forward with their lives.A Growing Movement The worldwide architectural design community is embracing a movement that addresses both temporary and long-term housing. The goal is to foster the development of housing methods that help to alleviate suffering for victims, while expediting the transition of their communities back to a normal way of life.Architects actively involved in this movement are looking to design housing that is:Inexpensive, as sparse funding often must be spread to build many units at onceLong-lasting enough to allow rebuilding of permanent homes, which might be delayed by availability of materials, architects, or manpower for several yearsDry, warm, and sanitary Designed to be built quickly, as victims often are ill, injured, and/or living in harsh climatesBuildable in many diverse locations Designed, where appropriate, to use building materials indigenous to the region (e.g., masonry-based shelter in Kosovo with its rocky terrain)Designed to take advantage of non-traditional building materials (i.e., metal shipping containers, prefabricated housing, recycled plastics, earthen materials)These criteria serve only as a broad basis from which the worldwide design community can draw when embarking on emergency shelter projects. It takes a committed and collaborative effort, tremendous organization, strategic pooling of resources, and specialized design skills to deliver shelter that meets immediate emergency demands.Building from ExperienceWhat often is most critical, though, is that adequate housing requires funding. Firsthand experience with the earthquake that rocked Turkey in August 1999 inspired the idea of forming an international nonprofit organization of architects, contractors, engineers, and other members of the building industry that would fund housing for victims of war and natural catastrophes. After numerous meetings with local organizations regarding relief and building efforts, it became apparent that the extreme distance from the U.S. made it impossible to raise adequate funding for the construction of new homes without assistance. Subsequently, Architects For Life (AFL) was formed to evaluate the existing non-profit organizations in Istanbul and help raise the needed money.Many duties were required, such as helping to review current housing pro-jects, while screening the non-governmental and non-profit organizations to be sure they were legitimate. In addition, AFL was able to raise $16,000 in donations by four sponsors to aid relief and new construction efforts.AFL is still a fund for emergency housing and for helping to finance organizations involved directly in the rebuilding effort. Over time, we hope to raise enough money to hire an executive director to further develop it into a full-blown nonprofit that helps to evaluate how and where money from funding will be allocated. The FutureThe biggest limitation of temporary housing is, obviously, that it is temporary: What happens to victims one, two, or five years after a disaster? The need to address immediate needs of disaster victims inevitably must lead to addressing long-term needs. To provide disaster victims with permanent housing, the world’s design community must collaborate with numerous relief organizations, focusing our efforts on helping victims rebuild their lives, literally one brick at a time, to create a better future for those who cannot do it alone.For architects, completing a project that exemplifies aesthetic excellence and creativity is extremely gratifying. Yet, when those talents are used to help put a roof over someone’s head in an emergency and its aftermath, being an architect can make a world of difference.Robert L. Noble is CEO and design principal of Tucker Sadler. He and his work have been the recipients of a number of design and environmental technology awards, including “Environmental Innovator of the Year” from Entrepreneur Magazine, the Edison Award for Environmental Achievement, and the E-Chievement Award from National Public Radio.

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