Architects call for radical rethink on rebuilding after disasters

Aid agencies should stop shipping in mass-produced, pre-fabricated shelters after disasters and help people rebuild their villages with local materials like mud and bamboo, a leading Pakistani architect says.

Yasmeen Lari was inspired to rethink post-disaster construction after massive flooding in 2010 left one-fifth of Pakistan under water and affected some 20 million people.

She has since helped survivors of floods and quakes build around 45,000 low-cost homes and shelters which she says can easily be copied and have a tiny carbon footprint.

Her designs feature in an exhibition opening in London on Wednesday called “Creation from Catastrophe”, which examines how architects have re-invented communities and cities after disasters - from the Great Fire of London in 1666 to last year’s devastating earthquake in Nepal.

“A disaster zone where everything is lost offers the perfect opportunity for us to take a fresh look, from the ground up, at what architecture really is,” says Toyo Ito, one of five architects who set up “public living rooms” after Japan’s 2011 quake and tsunami.

The exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) shows how architects working in disaster zones are increasingly focusing on helping people rebuild their own communities with local materials rather than imposing solutions on them.

Lari said housing provided by aid agencies after disasters was too expensive, with the result that many people were excluded.

“Whatever we do, we can never do enough because there are so many destitute people - it is horrifying,” Lari told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview from Karachi.

“The only way we can get to them is if we find very low-cost solutions, and if we train everybody how to do things themselves.”

Her buildings are made of lime-hardened mud walls which are “as strong as anything and totally water resistant”. The roofs are made of bamboo which lasts 25 years, covered with straw matting, a layer of tarpaulin, and pozzolana, a waterproofing material.

“You can teach this to everybody,” said Lari who has also provided shelters for people left homeless by October’s quake in northern Pakistan.

Half-built homes 

Also on show is the work of Japanese architect Shigeru Ban who has helped survivors of Nepal’s earthquake build new houses, using cardboard tubes filled with quake rubble.

In Chile, architect Alejandro Araveno, who helped redesign the coastal city of Constitucion after a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2010, has pioneered a radical scheme to provide half-built houses which meet immediate needs and can be completed by the inhabitants when they can raise the money.

The prediction that disasters will increase in frequency and severity is leading architects to look at ways to “disaster-proof” communities and explore ways to work with nature rather than against it.

In Constitucion, one flattened waterfront area is being replanted as a forest to act as a buffer against future floods and tsunamis.

Lari’s projects in Pakistan include two-storey community centres built on bamboo stilts which allow water to flow underneath during floods. The top floor converts into a shelter so that people don’t have to move away from their village.

In Nigeria, where flooding in 2012 uprooted over 2.1 million people, architects NLE designed a three-storey floating school in a Lagos slum which was built by local residents using off-cuts from a nearby sawmill and locally grown bamboo.

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