Conflict and Natural Disasters
Disaster relief: Housing
I am doing my thesis on disaster relief housing. I wish to focus on natural disasters, but I will be linking quite closely to manmade disasters such as war and general political instability as well. But I see the subjects as quite different and they both need their own focus. However, moving on to my question:

I have been looking at a vast number of projects both by students and practioners of architecture. I have tried to contact several organizations that exclusively deal with architecture as a form of aid, NGOs that give housing aid, teaching programs, DIY homes, and etc.

However, I seem to have failed in understanding this: There are so many options of what one can build as a response to a disaster, and the issue is that solutions need to be quick.

Should we not have an apocalyptic view almost, (especially now with Bush for another 4 years), and the recent tsunami, increase in earthquakes, floods, droughts, etc, etc. Shouldn't various regions begin to develop programs that focus on "what-if" scenarios that go slightly further than simply providing some measly tents that do nothing but insult people once they have gotten to grips with what has happened to them?

What I wish to know is, is there a notion of "transitional" architecture. Something which borderlines on the temporary and the permanent, something which could be both?

I have come across a few systems that use modular, and some even full construction systems fully open to changes in environment and cultural issues (in terms of spatial layout at least). However, many of this are tied down with hefty royalties, which is just absurd. Systems that were made to HELP people, do only HELP the once who DESIGNED them or OWN the patents to them.

Can someone, perhaps more experienced in the field help me out here? Or are architects into this subject area purely theoreticians and unable to actually give a working design solution? Also, are the architects working on these things ignorant to their own professional commitment of providing to the people?

Of course, everyone has to live and getting an architectural education is far from cheap, and not do they pay us accordingly either, but would the opportunity be to have a global forum with architects working towards solutions not globally, but locally?

That's all. I think I got a bit carried away, hope I get some responses. I feel like I am wandering in the dark on this subject.
Knut Nord
Disaster relief: Housing
Dear Knut,

This is a great subject and I'm interested in hearing more about the kinds of 'modular construction systems' that are out there, that you have identified in your research. The only one that I am really familiar with is Shigeru Ban's Paper House. (

My general impression, based on a few case studies, is that outside intervention by foreign architects/teams generally does more good for the intervener than doing anything for the victim. How to distinguish the 'do-gooder' than the sincere person who is really interested in learning/helping as opposed to promoting their own genius designs (and, as you've mentioned, make some money out of it)?
Ozgur Basak Alkan
Disaster relief: Housing
In Kerala (a state in India), hundreds of fishermen lost their houses because of the tsunami.

So the government has decided to construct houses for all of them. But the issue is that the houses are going to be concrete boxes on long concrete columns to escape from tsunami. But if we see the huts where they lived earlier, they are very down to earth, i.e. merging with their life style. So, it is obvious that they will not prefer to live in concrete boxes raised on columns.

So one famous architect came up with a solution. He designed houses keeping the same character of the fishermen's huts but he made the walls strongly rooted by giving three-fourth height of the wall wih granite.

But the government is not ready to accept his design. They just want to do their duty of constructing these many houses. The balance, they can put in their pocket. They are not worried about how the fishermen are going to live in these houses later. So, what I wanted to tell is that even if we come up with good solutions, the authority is not ready to accept these kind of innovations and we can't do anything about that.
Haritha Civic
Disaster relief: Housing

Thanks for your responses. As was mentioned by both, there seems to be this inherent problem that someone besides the people who need and ask for help are benefitting greatly from the reconstruction of destroyed areas, whether it be with bold design ideas, or mass produced concrete boxes on pillars.

But I suppose, corruption is quite rampant everywhere, and until that ends, the real beneficiaries will continue to be the people who "give help".

However, getting back to my topic. I do agree quite strongly that the local character should be kept, and not thrown away with building ugly monstrosities to just house people rapidly.

I do believe, though not without much evidence, that people would be happy to live in some form of temporary dwelling whilst someone came up with some decent design ideas, working with local architects or anyone else who is willing to take their time and get localized.

But in the scenario of this fishing village, these new pillars that they build on is a response to people's fears, but would this response create perhaps even more fear because now that their houses are raised, they will be reminded every day that there once was a tsunami that destroyed everything in its path and if it came again, would probably to the same.

There are countless examples of housing projects gone very wrong because the way the problem was tackled was fundamentally flawed. Recently, on a trip to Poland, I got to see some horrible housing projects erected straight after the war. There were about 80 000 people living in a very cramped area where no attention had been given to either how the residents would use the outside, or at all given any kind of semi-private areas around the huge blocks where they lived. It was awful, and now that people are starting to get some kind of freedom to choose where they can live, there is now a large exodus of residents.

Now, this is the result of 2 things. Mass housing projects to rehouse people after 70% of a city or so was destroyed, and this resulted in lightly thought out buildings and spaces.

Would anyone say that more pressure should be put on governments to realize the importance of architecture as a social tool and not just one of power and money?
Knut Nord
Disaster relief: Housing
Knut, you have raised a very valuable questions, and the answer is still far from sight. Anyway about "transitional" architecture, there does exist that term but not used (as not much is done).

I did my final project on "transitional" house. It was to house the slum dwellers when they are relocated or when a new dwelling is being provided for them.A modular unit which is lightweight so that it can moved and installed again in a different location. This can be used even as disater housing, so it's "transitional" for people occupying it, the unit itself. Finally it does need a strong backing to make it a reality.

All the best!
Surekha Shanthkumar
Disaster relief: Housing
Dear Knut:

I too am doing a thesis on Disaster Relief Housing. Unfortunately, I am also a "do-gooder" and theoretician who believes that wealthier societies have the resources and obligation to help poor corrupt governments aid disaster victims.

Without going into a lengthy treatise on geopolitics, diplomacy and culture clash, I have narrowed Disaster Relief Housing down to three phases:

Phase I

  • Erection of hospital facility or facilities depending on the terrain (use U.S. Mobile Army Surgical Hospital-M.A.S.H.- units as an example).
  • Establish potable water supply and sewer system.
  • Erect dormitory facilities for disaster refugees.

Note: Phase I should be underway within 24 hours using pre-planned procedures.

Phase II

  • Delivery of equipment and tools.
  • Mobilization and organization of indigenous labor. (I think village elders and religious leaders are the way to go.)
  • Gathering materials.

Phase III

  • Commence permanent institutional and residential construction.
  • Types of building could be floating structures, earth homes, bamboo or other forest items, salvaged building materials and earth products (clay, rammed earth, etc.)

Phase III is probably the only area where architects have a chance to exercise their abilities. I can't imagine how poor victims can get professional design services beyond pro bono work of a kind that is done by people like Daniel Liebeskind.

Since your appeal last year I am sure you have received a mountain of responses. My approach to this problem is to provide what is missing in these instances. Sincere people from wealthier countries that want to help should not approach poor disaster victims as lords from a more advanced society, but as respectful neighbors who want to help.


Norman O. Lewis

Norman Lewis
Disaster relief: Housing

Architecture is not a social tool. The belief that it is a "social tool" led to the Post-War nonsense of "socially-engineered" architecture and led previously to the nonsense known as the Internationale Style.

Architecture is a cultural tool, because architecture and design are concieved within any one culture.

The statement "There is no such thing as society" enrages socialists, etc; because it is a true statement. Society and therefore the word "social" are 'approximations of reality'. There is no such thing as society because it does not exist in real life. No one culture on this planet can claim to have the best "social order" and yet there are hundreds of texts which claim this, based upon statistical approximations of reality.

Rethink your use of the word social, etc.
Frank John Snelling
Disaster relief: Housing
Hi Knut,

We always presume that after a disaster, the temporary or permanent houses should be built by help and consult with people themselves. Of course it's the best way to respond both to economical and cultural issues. But we should consider how much it takes for people who have lost half of their family who needs so much rest and relief, to put in a consulting manner. I think we should consult for help with people before disasters! Since we always design for development of our cities, we should generate disaster-plans too. We should have our regional-cultural housing types before disasters. For example, we should have "Building types for a midsummer earthquake in California" or "Pre-fab houses types for probable flood in southwest of Iran".

But I think we can manage the problem far before the disaster, in our universities. In academic study we often design for an ideal situation which only occurs when an understanding, wealthy client is available. We seldom have such conditions in our design program : "... must be built in less than a week", "the only available materials are ..." or "it shouldn't cost more than ...". I think such a design courses would be very useful.

Another useful comment is to make people aware of their artifact environment as much as doctors make them aware of their health. It's not a good thing that most people don't have a proper role in generating their "second skin". Years ago, most people made their own house (though, not totally responding), they knew circulation, function, ventilation, ... . Even if they didn't build it themselves, they were present during the construction.

At last I think for such buildings we should create a three dimensional matrix:

1- first dimension is for regional people' behaviour, rituals and their historical reasons.
2- second for the varying climatic factors (like seasons) in varying climate zones.
3- the most time-money-craftsman saving techniques and materials available in each region

The intersection of these fields will be filled with one or more building type.
Peiman Amini
Disaster relief: Housing
Dear All,

We are doing a tsunami reconstruction project in the east coast of India in two villages called Tarangambadi and Chinnankudi. We are trying a participatory approach. The full details including some articles and reports can be found in the project website:

Benny Kuriakose

Benny Kuriakose
Disaster relief: Housing

Thank you. :))) The thing you need to remember is that the ideology of the "universal uniformity of thought" comes from the French.

Descartes (the first existentialist?) said "I think, therefore I am" which, as a statement of logic when applied to humans, is hugely flawed. The flawed implication of this statement is that every human thinks the exact same way.

What Descartes should have said was "I think (in French, therefore I am (of the French culture)." Because every human language has its own logic which is integral with that language. This cuts straight through human psychology (which also works on the "Descartes Principle" that everyone thinks alike).

Similarly, the Internationale Style is another French product based upon the same idea that everyone thinks alike.

Likewise, sociology started in France in the 1830s as a "scientific religion" which was intended to replace all the other religions, because it was based upon the Descartes principle that all humans think the exact same way.

Obviously there is a lot more to say, but this "one size fits all" "logic blind spot" in the French culture-language needs to be recognised and understood as a trap for the unwary.

On the primary issue of this thread. I believe direct government grants in support of local NGOs would help to reduce the counter-productive rigidity and interference of state bureacracy and the sticky-fingered middle-men.
Frank John Snelling
Disaster relief: Housing
Hi All,
I am currently working on a research paper about the design and production of temporary housing/emergency shelter in the postwar era in America (both for domestic use and for shipment overseas). This project came out of my fascination with the recent surge in humanitarian and prefab design and I wanted to historicize this trend. I would greatly appreciate any leads you all might have about names, projects, manifestos and exhibits that from the 1940s and 50s. I am slowly unearthing people and places but the topic (at least the way I am approaching it as a historian) has a scant amount of literature.
Emily Brownell
Disaster relief: Housing

you might like to look at the work of the "seabees" (the engineers of the US Marine Corps). I assume you know of the military prefab "Nissan Hut" (a semi-circular shape).

I believe the main incentive for building prefabs just after WWII was that it allowed factories making war equipmen, etc., to change to making things for civilian use. This allowed the economy to convert from a war-economy to a peacetime economy.

Just after WWII there was prefab construction in Britain but this was to rebuild the many thousands of homes destroyed by German bombers. Given that mainland civilian America was not bombed during WWII, then the use of prefab construction was for economic reasons and not for rebuilding.
Frank John Snelling
Disaster relief: Housing
Dear Mr. Kuriakose:

I went to your website at and I recommend it to all who haven't seen it. I would like to add , that depicts the use of sandbags as a building material. The form is an igloo-like dome than can be made beautiful.

Also, Dr. John Gaber's draft on Emergency Relief Housing is a wonderful guideline:

The amusing thing about the Hurricane Katrina disaster in the U.S., is that it became a bureaucratic and political disaster. For example, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska refused to defer funding for his $240 million bridge to service an island populated with 60 people, in favor of repairing a destroyed bridge in New Orleans and to start financing levee reconstruction.

It is obvious to me that the people who suffer the most in a disaster are poor, and that post-disaster construction efforts should not be profit-driven.

At the same time, we who study architecture crave the satisfaction you must have experienced with SIFF. You have done more with less and I salute you for it.

Norman Lewis
Disaster relief: Housing
This is probably very late, but I only googled this now and thought Id share my views on transitional housing. Ive been trying to work on 'reusable transitional' housing for disaster victims since my undergrad in architecture (my thesis was on reusable transit shelters for various regions in India). Its not a very widely explored area in relief and rehab, but in my view, its probably one of the most crucial phases of relief and rehab. If there is anyone out there who is keen on taking this forward, do get in touch with me. I sincerely want to involve myself in this type of community design, and hopefully develop it into something viable. I am currently doing my masters in architecture at UMass, Amherst, MA. My email is
Shehla Hussain
Disaster relief: Housing
Shelha, In this website, there are quite a few topics with lengthy posts on rebuilding in disaster areas.

There is no quick solution to creating housing after any disaster, because political problems hamper and disrupt the coordination of relief efforts.

Take for example the cruel, unusual and unnecessary torture of the manmade disaster in Zimbabwe. The economy has been ruined, the infrastructure has either been destroyed or taken away, three million people have "voted with their feet" and left the country, and of those that remain most have no work and many are slowly starving to death and the world does nothing because Zimbabwe has no strategic importance.
Frank John Snelling
Disaster relief: Housing
Hi Knut
How did you go with this, I note its in 2005. I am looking at doing my thesis on something similar so would love to have a read of your work?
Alyssa Ros
Disaster relief: Housing
hey knut...hope your project came to a successful end...i am doin a similar project ...basically in Orissa, India, which is devastated by floods every year, and I dont want this to be merely a Thesis ... I want to make this real and working....So if ya can give me some ideas ...ill be reallly gratefull...
Bhuvnesh Pandey


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