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Emergency Housing

Directly to deploy emergency housing that can be culturally appropriated, enhancing self-reliance, and with the possibility to evolve into permanent dwellings.

Introduction and motivation, with an example

(part of a lettre to the Red Cross, Fons Verheijen, june 2017)

As professor at the TU Delft I worked on designing and developing emergency shelters made of cardboard. When the faculty building burned down in 2008 all materials were distroyed and the project activities ceased. However, the mounting threat of climate disasters and refugees urges us to have ready at hand sufficient, easily transportable and quickly implementable emergy accommodation that is – ideally – culturally appropriate and offers future perspectives.

After the tsunami disaster in Indonesia I saw emergency housing being flown in in the shape of an igloo. I could not imagine that this fitted well with the local culture. I furthermore read how refugee camps made inhabitants dependent and listless, with little activities at hand. After the shortlived tents were worn down, camp dwellers passively waited for a next solution. I looked for a solution that would stimulate self-initiative. Every human being craves for shelter: we are hut-building creatures by nature.

These various observations led me to formulate the following hypotheses as terms of reference:

  1. Invite traumatised people who are stationed in refugee camps to ‘conquer’ their new environment and adapt it to fit their communal customs and personal wants. This may function as a form of therapy, by avoiding enforced passivity and allowing them to recreate a familiar environment.
  2. Invite people who are accommodated in camps for prolonger periods of time to improve their living situation: by taking (some) control over their lives, they can regain pride and confidence.
  3. Provide the opportunity to use culturally familiar building practices with locally available building materials (wood, branches, rocks, clay etc.).
  4. Temporary housing can so evolve into permanent villages.

Example: Tape-a-house

The shelter, ‘Tape-a-house’, measured 3 by 3 m2, was made of weather resistant cardboard honeycomb panels.

An emergency shelter will be delivered (30 per container) in packages that can easily be carried by 4 men or women to the desired location. One package contains the necessary cardboard honeycomb panels, duct tape to join the panels, a roof velum, a wood stove for heating and cooking without smoke, and several cans of paint and brushes. The shelter of 3x3 m2 is erected by taping 3 panels of 1 meter wide for each side. One panel contains a window and door (cardboard, fabric and a zip), to be positioned where wanted. Similar panels forms the roof, with a 50 cm cantilever on all sides. On top of the roof there will be the velum, because weather conditions require this and to secure the light weight structure with wires. Setting up the house takes about 4 hours. With the paint, inhabitants are challenged to decorate the house and so appropriate it. The can lits are then used to close the openings of the ventilation duct when necessary. 

The cardboard house is expected to remain sound and safe for about 3 years (to be tested). When living in the house for an extended period of time, inhabitants can bit by bit solidify and personify it, for example by cutting out the cardboard panel with the provisional fabric door and replace it with a (handcarved) wooden door and frame. A permanent dwelling needs to be sturdy and durable. Under the 50 cm cantilever, permanent walls can be built, after which the cardboard panels serves as isolation. This more permanent wall can self be made using familiar building practices and with locally available materials. When these outer walls are finished, a more permanent roof can be constructed, which rests on the new outer walls. In this way a locally appropriate, more permanent building can be constructed by inhabitants themselves.

The project

Notably, cardboard as material and the pilot design of ‘tape-a-house’ are merely options. What this project aims for is to design directly to deploy emergency housing that can be culturally appropriated, enhancing self-reliance, and with the possibility to evolve into permanent dwellings.

Prof. Thijs Asselbergs, my successor at the Delft University of Technology, and his team, are continuing this search for effective shelter design. ArchiScienza wants to collaborate with this team and expand the search into a broader, multidisciplinary project.

The real value of promising designs can only be ascertained when they have been implemented in practice and the four hypotheses have been falsified or validated. At the Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology department of Leiden University a new Master program was set up last year called the Sociology of Policy in Practice (scientific director prof. Peter Pels). Students are trained to conduct anthropological research with the aim of contributing to improved policies and interventions, in service of NGOs, governments or businesses. Such partners provide a research question, which students do fieldwork on and write a thesis about.

ArchiScienza would like to invite the Red Cross as crucial partner to this research project. The Red Cross can suggest and provide access to refugee camps for preliminary fieldwork research by anthropology students who study the camp and the experiences and needs of its inhabitants. Their findings feed into the design process of the Delft team. In collaboration with commercial partners, mature designs can be produced, let’s say in tenfold, and shipped to wherever the Red Cross suggests. Team members from the universities of Delft and Leiden come along to evaluate the protoype and suggest improvements. Such a cyclical and multidisciplinary research and development approach can be compared to the Delft Nuon Solar Team. Eventually the project may cumulate into PhD studies at both Leiden University and TU Delft.

The project would thus entail a collaboration between Leiden Universiteit, TU Delft, Red Cross and commercial partner(s). ArchiScienza can provide substantial funding for this project over the next 5 years, take up the managing role and seek co-funding. Personally, I am able and willing to commit to the project as free researcher.

The Red Cross

Concretely, we ask from the Red Cross the following:

  • A co-commisioning role in developing the exact assignments the collaboration with Leiden Universiteit en Delft University of Technology, formulating the research question for the anthropology and architecture students
  • Suggest and provide access to emercency camps where the research can be conducted and the prototype tested
  • Notably, all expenses (travel costs of students, production of prototypes) will be covered by ArchiScienza and co-funders found by ArchiScienza.

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