Kind design: shelter from the storms

Architecture is not all about constructing iconic landmarks: it also has a vital role to play in post-disaster reconstruction

Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis: the roll call of natural disasters is long and global. From the tsunami in Southeast Asia to Hurricane Katrina, Haiti’s terrible rupturing of the earth and Japan’s apocalyptic combination of earthquake and tsunami, the past decade has had its share of devastation and horror.

And we’ve seen on TV the despair and trauma that natural disasters create – the bereavement, poverty and homelessness.

We train and educate people in building safety, emphasising international standards and the need for sustainable materials and construction techniques. It is not about just building homes, but jobs, too

Karl Johnson, Former Haiti Design Fellow, Architecture for Humanity

But when the cameras stop rolling, once the first act of the drama is complete and the tent cities have been erected, for the people on the ground the story is far from over. And for Architecture for Humanity (AfH), that is when the work begins.

Vital work

Founded 13 years ago in 1999, AfH is a not-for-profit organisation. It harnesses an international network of more than 50,000 architects and design services professionals – structural engineers among others – to bring architectural, construction and development services where they are most needed.

The scale of AfH’s philanthropic work is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in its response to the Haiti earthquake. On 12 January 2010 a 7.0 magnitude quake struck near the capital, Port-au-Prince, killing some 220,000 people. More than 188,000 houses were badly damaged and 105,000 completely destroyed by the quake (a total of 293,383) and 1.5 million people were left homeless.

The most urgent initial requirement of disaster reconstruction lies in meeting immediate housing needs. A number of organisations – including Habitat for Humanity and former US President Jimmy Carter’s Work Project – focused on supplying vital temporary shelters in Haiti. Following this initial relief, AfH steps in to help with the establishment of longer-term solutions.

“Our mission is to focus on long-term reconstruction,” explains AfH’s former Haiti design fellow Karl Johnson. “Long-term structural and infrastructural development is vital; there are key needs that won’t be met otherwise. But because this type of reconstruction takes a long time – anything from five to 20 years – it’s difficult to organise.”

Immediately after the quake, AfH launched a ‘rebuilding centre’ in Port-au-Prince. The centre had just four staff members when it first opened but now employs 37 architects, engineers and support workers, including seven long-term professional volunteers and 22 Haitian staffers.

Rebuilding communities

AfH’s work has already seen four schools and three health clinics completed in 2011, with six more schools currently in various phases of design and construction. The organisation has also recently completed several urban and rural schemes, such as the Santo Community Development Plan, where more than 150 members of a new mixed-use rural neighbourhood worked with AfH to direct its composition. The result will serve as a blueprint for a series of rural communities that are planned for across the country.

But the organisation’s focus goes far beyond the purely physical. “We also focus much of our efforts on getting the economic ball rolling. That’s just as important as providing temporary housing,” highlights Johnson.

The rebuilding centre acts as a one-stop shop for professional design and construction services, offering workforce training, consumer education, professional referrals and reconstruction bid and tender opportunities to the local community.

“We train and educate people in building safety, emphasising international standards and the need for sustainable materials and construction techniques. It is not about just building homes, but jobs, too,” says Johnson.

Sustainability is a key aspect of the reconstruction work, not just in ensuring that buildings are as eco-friendly as possible but also in guaranteeing that economic and social sustainability – finance, employment and the provision of vital community services – are all planned for.

In Haiti, AfH is also working with local banks to set up a financing infrastructure that will enable local builders to access loans. “There’s no history of local banks supporting the building industry in Haiti in this way,” says Johnson. “Historically Haiti has been very reliant on foreign aid for development and we want to move away from that model towards greater self-sustainability.”

Raising international awareness

Building international support is key to the success of the organisation's post-disaster missions and it has ambassadors located throughout the world. Sareh Ameri, the Middle East ambassador based in the UAE, is tasked with building awareness of AfH’s work. “Mainly I liaise with universities and humanitarian or architectural organisations here in the region to involve them in partnering with AfH.”

A partnership with the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gulf Chapter is planned and at a broader level Ameri is engaging with architects in the region to highlight the issue of sustainability. “I spoke on water efficiencies in architectural design at RIBA Gulf Chapter’s monthly meeting and I discussed the 2,500 buildings that AfH has built – over 90 per cent have incorporated off-grid and renewable energy technologies. I also highlighted the sanitation systems AfH is redesigning for thousands of homes in Haiti.”

A number of UAE charitable foundations were also involved in both the immediate aftermath of the quake and longer-term reconstruction.The Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Charitable Foundation was among the first of international aid providers to deliver much-needed assistance to hospitals, enabling medical staff to better treat people injured in the Haiti earthquake.

Meanwhile, Dubai Cares, a Dubai-based philanthropic organisation, provided educational assistance to 200,000 primary school children affected by the earthquake. Through its partners on the ground in Haiti, Dubai Cares was able to supply basic shelter for the children, clean water and sanitation, school supplies and converted shelters into temporary classrooms.

Navaraj Guwlani, Regional Director of Care Middle East and Europe, says, “We worked to deliver a strategic and effective long-term programme that addressed the needs of the children of Haiti and helped rebuild their lives.”

Lasting legacy

AfH usually works with young architects who volunteer their time for six months to a year, but established practices also have an important role to play in post-disaster reconstruction. British architectural firm John McAslan + Partners (JMP) has worked on social and environmental schemes in the UK, Africa and India as well as projects in Haiti. It recently completed restoration of the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince and it’s a fitting example of how an architectural practice can work within neglected communities to deliver lasting change. The Iron Market – Marché en Fer – in Port-au-Prince has been an iconic symbol of Haitian community for more than 120 years. A covered market, it was substantially damaged in the 2010 earthquake.

JMP’s scheme is sustainable in the broadest sense of the word. At an economic level, the building’s renewal has involved hundreds of local artisans in tasks such as conservation of the ironwork, decorative metalwork, stone dressing and bricklaying. Other workers learned a useful new range of conservation techniques, including the salvaging of original brickwork and stone flooring. Physically, the scheme conserved or repaired all key historic details, using original salvaged materials wherever possible.

The Iron Market is now fully back in use and forms the cornerstone of the city’s new cultural quarter, providing not only a much-needed commercial centre but also a communal hub.

It’s clear then that architecture has a huge role to play in post-disaster reconstruction. And though the media often focuses on the glamorous aspects of the profession – in particular the delivery of the landmark buildings of the world – it seems the sector’s philanthropic efforts more than merit our attention.