Humanitarian architecture and green design

When a strong earthquake and tsunami hit the Solomon Islands in 2007, 36,000 people were displaced, 5500 homes were damaged, 500 swept away and 165 schools flattened or severely damaged. Skilled volunteers from the not-for-profit organisation Emergency Architects Australia (EAA) immediately joined the reconstruction effort.

With a stated aim to leave behind skills, not just buildings, EAA designed prototype school buildings and houses that were affordable and easy for Solomon Islands residents to build and maintain themselves. EAA volunteers created simple construction drawings complete with cutting lists so homeowners could prepare timber. The organisation trained local women in basic construction and taught them how to read drawings. They also hired women to make lunch to encourage their husbands to join the rebuilding effort. “Our architects and their technical assistants remained in the background, giving the islanders the know how to rebuild for themselves,” says EAA’s founder Andrea Nield.

To protect the Solomon’s limited timber supply, the elevated and extendable homes were built from materials salvaged from the earthquake-damaged homes. “We only use local materials and the building skill sets available in that community,” says Nield. In the Solomon Islands school program, women wove the windows with palm leaf, as the imported glass louvre windows had shattered during the earthquake. “The weave is strong and flexible in high winds and provides a mellow light and good cross ventilation,” explains Nield.

Emergency Architects Australia closed last year, but their collaborative approach has achieved socially and environmentally sustainable outcomes for communities in Australia and the Asia Pacific region. Former EAA volunteer David Kaunitz has used his EAA experience most recently in Vanuatu where his private practice, Kaunitz Yeung Architecture, designed a prototype classroom for the Takara School on the island of Efate.

Kaunitz was commissioned in 2011 by AusAID to design the double classroom, which meets cyclone and earthquake standards. Local builders constructed a demonstration classroom with a durable portal frame structure made from local timber, a woven sago leaf roof, woven bamboo window hatches and dead coral infill walls, negating the need for more energy-intensive materials such as corrugated steel roof sheeting. The classroom is cheaper to construct than the school’s standard concrete classrooms, has three times more natural ventilation and 20 per cent better natural lighting.

The classrooms can also be built en masse by locals to meet Vanuatu’s growing education demand. “Roof panels and window hatches were made in nearby villages,” says Kaunitz. “This means the community has the skills to maintain and repair the building after a disaster, compared to the current situation where a high level of centralised assistance is needed to repair concrete classrooms.”

Some Australian Indigenous communities are also benefiting from clever building design and a more consultative approach. Melbourne University’s Bower Studio, a humanitarian architecture design studio for architecture masters students, has completed a number of projects in remote parts of Australia. In 2012, the studio finished its work on the Bellary Springs Community Centre in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Construction was a whole-of-town project involving the students, residents, skilled professionals and the Gumula Aboriginal Corporation. Built in just 10 days and designed around three shipping containers, the centre is now a place for functions and health and education programs for the nearby homeland community.

Needless to say, designing a structure for a blazing hot place like the Pilbara is difficult. Bower Studio sought local knowledge to make the most of localised wind patterns and to factor in the path of the sun in the centre’s design. “Shade is the key issue to address,” says Bower Studio coordinator Dr David O’Brien, “the sun can be a killer.”

He adds that “sustainability” is a difficult outcome to measure and balance in such an inhospitable location. Ultimately, the social sustainability aspect of helping communities live in their homeland often outweighs the practicalities of design and building. “If you did the maths on it there is no way you’d build out in the heat of the Pilbara in a community that’s got 20 people in it. But you’ve got to weigh those elements against cultural sustainability and people’s right to live in their traditional homeland.”

Sustainability certainly goes beyond the community centre’s form. O’Brien says the community gained valuable construction experience on the project, and Melbourne University students took time out from building to research local Indigenous housing for Bower Studio’s new project, Homes Plus.

WikiHouse, an open source construction set

It’s aim is to make it possible for anyone to design, share, download, adapt and ‘print’ houses that are low-cost, high-performance and suited to their local needs. Using a CNC machine, the house parts can be digitally ‘printed’ from a standard sheet material like plywood, and the main structure assembled in about a day without the need for conventional construction skills.

WikiHouse combines the potential of distributed digital manufacturing tools like 3D printing and CNC with open, collaborative design to radically lower the thresholds of time, cost, and skill and to put the capability to make generous, healthy, secure housing into the hands of users.

The What is it section on the WikiHouse website has a nice visual of the eight or so steps involved, from selecting a design, setting out the numbered parts on the ground “like a double-layered jigsaw” through to inviting friends and family for the “barn raising”.

Also worth a look is this interview with WikiHouse co-designer Alastair Parvin of London-based design studio 00 (‘zero zero’), where he talks about applications of the WikiHouse. WikiHouse is new and clearly there are only a handful of protoypes around the world, but the aim is to make it accessible to all, especially those at the lower end of the housing spectrum such as residents in Brazil’s favelas or those affected by natural disasters.

The Guardian’s Sustainable Business section recently wrote about the sustainability benefits of the WikiHouse method including the reduction in waste, transportation and even the potential for the designs to achieve Passivehaus standards.

Parvin says architecture needs to empower amateurs. “We are moving into a future where the factory can be everywhere – and increasingly the design team can be everyone.”

“The reality is that the fastest growing cities globally are not formally developed cities but ‘self-made’ cities. So if we’re serious about tackling problems like urbanisation, climate change and inequality, we need to develop solutions not just to construction but also off-grid sustainable infrastructure, and to put them into a democratic commons. A kind of Wikipedia for ‘stuff’.”

Where next?

WikiHouse is a small experiment continuously under development, with a growing community of teams involved, ranging from a team in Christchurch, New Zealand working on solutions to post-earthquake housing, and a group setting up a community making factory in one of Rio’s favelas. The project is seeking collaborators, funders and simply people who want to use and make a WikiHouse for themselves.