Beyond Shelter | Architecture and Human Dignity

A new title from Metropolis Books looks at the role of architects and designers in rebuilding communities devastated by natural disasters.

Two hundred million people (that’s two-thirds of the U.S. population) have been affected by natural disasters and hazards in the last decade. For every person who dies, some 3,000 are left facing terrible risks. Ninety-eight percent of these victims are in the developing world, where billions of dollars in aid are absorbed annually by climatic and geologic crises. Now we are learning that extreme temperatures, intense heat waves, and increased flooding and droughts due to climate change are expected to expose vast numbers of people to the status of ecorefugee, a condition that poses a real threat to human security as millions are forced to migrate. Experts are also finding that as these natural hazards increase in frequency and severity, the ability to protect communities once thought safe will diminish, leading to ever-greater loss of life.

In 2008 more than 100,000 people died in the Chinese province of Sichuan when buildings collapsed during an earthquake. Among them, some 19,000 children were buried in debris when unsafe schools failed structurally. Suddenly questions were raised about the role of architects. Looking to assign blame, officials turned on architects to account for what had happened and, in almost the same breath, turned to architects and engineers from around the world for solutions that would calm outraged families. In January 2010 a massive earthquake in Haiti shook poor-quality materials and construction into 20 million cubic yards of rubble, interring more than 220,000 people and leaving 1.5 million homeless. Though severe, the earthquake wasn’t the only cause of death: the other killer was shoddy buildings.

In fact, urgent questions about the role and responsibility of architects have been circulating since the Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 200,000 people in 2004. At that time the relief effort exposed troubling gaps between humanitarian aid that targets the short term and our ability to rebuild homes, infrastructure, and communities well. While aid agencies are willing, they typically don’t have architectural knowledge or insight; consequently, the buildings that replace destroyed ones are frequently unsafe.

Unfortunately, this is as true today as it was seven years ago. However corrupt or appalling the politics (and policies) behind the catastrophes in Sichuan and Haiti, professional architects—whether in the developing or developed world—are notably absent from efforts to protect people from disaster. Yet architects have recently been active in other areas of public interest, initiating a range of creative strategies to improve social, environmental, and economic equity. (Some have even produced books about how those efforts alter the way we think about design.)

But in extreme circumstances, in crises, architects offer no coherent response, play no sustained role in shaping policy, and have had little active presence in leading best practices in disaster prevention, mitigation, and recovery. There is still no career path that prepares students
to work as urgentistes: design professionals who intervene at a crucial moment in the recovery process to produce enduring solutions.

Fortunately, there are architects and designers who help to save lives. Innovative work is being done by small teams of professionals all over the world. Many of them have become critical partners, helping communities recover from disaster. The skilled architects and leaders in other fields are providing adaptable solutions that ensure the safety of new homes and bring coherence to land-use planning. These teams assess damage but also research innovative building technologies. They’re at the forefront of the use of low-cost, energy-saving, environmentally sound materials and new methods of prefabrication. Experts in how best to bridge the gap that separates short-term emergency needs from long-term sustainable recovery, they’ve discovered ways to bring affordable high-tech solutions to vulnerable communities. And they’re experienced in helping reduce future risk, promote awareness, and protect relief investment. Unfortunately, this level of expertise is rare, concentrated in the hands of far too few professionals.

When I started writing Beyond Shelter and searched for architects skilled at working with risk, almost everyone asked me the same question: why architects? As if to say, what is it to us? At the Major Risks 2008 conference, sponsored by the European Union, less than a handful of architects were present. The officials and ministers I spoke with reminded me that on average, architects contribute to a tiny percentage of the world’s built environment. Their indifference—or worse, irrelevance—to the most vulnerable communities make them seem hardly worth talking about.

So who’s in charge of rebuilding towns and villages leveled by earth-quakes and cyclones if not architects and planners? The sad truth is: no one. A patchwork of government agencies, private charities, and residents themselves typically cobble together solutions. In large-scale disasters, even when aid pours in, the expertise and planning infrastructure needed to make best use of the money are lacking.

In the last ten years the major international nongovernmental organizations (Oxfam, UN-Habitat, CARE, Red Cross societies, Caritas, and others) have taken on the responsibility of properly housing people after disasters. And their efforts have led to success stories. The International Federation of the Red Cross now offers oversight and assistance to less-experienced agencies, although only on a voluntary basis. There is still no coordinated response. No one is ultimately held responsible.

As a result, thousands of smaller groups play critical roles in protecting the homeless, and these organizations vary widely in scope, competence, approach, and effectiveness. Few among them specialize in building homes or infrastructure before disaster strikes, and rarely are they screened for expertise. Worse, many of them don’t have the ability to judge the quality of experts they employ. Ironically, the plethora of published guides and internationally accepted standards for good practice, intended to help professionalize the sector, can just as easily empower individuals who lack the operational competence to work on the ground in reconstruction. Competing mandates and donor priorities, weak coordination, fragmented knowledge, and a complete disregard for environmental standards often characterize the failed practices that prevail after a disaster. These lead to new dangers as well as appalling and unconscionable waste.

It’s time for architects and other built-environment professionals to bring their training, competence, and ingenuity to disaster-risk prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery. Here are three of the many ways in which design know-how is critical in postcrisis situations. The first involves capacity. Well-trained architects who are actively building have wide-ranging experience. In addition to their ability to build secure structures, they are expert contract managers capable of calculating needs, resources, and budgets through the arc of a project. This saves money and improves results.

Advocacy is the second area. Architects working in collaboration with communities can help them act on their own behalf. Playing the roles of designer, historian, negotiator, and diplomat, architects can develop site alternatives that secure land tenure; reorganize overcrowded slums; provide better access to water, sanitation, air, and light; introduce public spaces; and improve the relationship with the local ecology. They can then represent community consensus on viable projects to intransigent or indifferent governments; this, in turn, promotes local independence. It’s terribly difficult for communities to successfully represent their own best interests in the face of intractable politics.

The third function is vision. Recovery extends well beyond the need for emergency shelter. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, it is hard for desperate individuals to imagine a better future. Architects can promote public health, encourage investment in new skills and environmental awareness, and advocate for mitigating risk, which together ensure a sustainable and safe way of life.

But for these qualities to take hold after crises, architects and planners must engage in a broader conversation with experts in humanitarian aid as well as anthropologists, conservation ecologists, bankers and economists, structural engineers, public-health officials, and surveyors, and there must be input from policy makers and local communities. These groups need to know whom to turn to and where to put their confidence. Designers, on the other hand, must guard against the tendency to fall into rote responses and convenient solutions. Across the industry, good ideas and know-how succumb to habit and the need for efficiency, which can stifle invention. Yet architects are not only skilled technicians; they are also creative artists, and both of those talents are needed in such circumstances. Fresh approaches that lessen the vulnerability of fragile populations and strengthen their resilience and potential will only come from the combined resources and experience of diverse groups working collaboratively. Simply put, we must start talking to each other.

Open and sustained debate is also needed to hold everyone involved accountable—to produce credible solutions and coherent strategies that address the myriad problems: spatial and environmental planning, the need for vernacular and appropriate housing, the overwhelming scale of today’s disasters, preservation of cultural integrity, funding streams, and rudimentary strategic considerations. There has been a tendency in the
aid community to accept massive waste as corollary of speed; they play down the abandoned projects, systematic demolition of undamaged homes, poor land choices, and environmental degradation that routinely accompany the recovery process. Homes have failed before anyone had a chance to live in them, and some postdisaster settlements have led to serious physical and mental-health problems for their new residents. This lack of expertise can leave communities more vulnerable than before. Good intentions are never good enough, especially if they’re not scrutinized in light of their outcomes.

Beyond Shelter is intended to help a diverse group of decision makers understand, value, and engage architects—as partners—in shaping principles that reflect the growing threat of natural disasters in urban and rural settings around the world. We cannot wait. To help re-create a decent quality of life at scale, under great duress, is an enormous challenge. To meet it we must reinvest design with the capacity to be a powerful force of discovery, change, and renewal.

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