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Architecture for Humanity on the Aftermath of Katrina

AFH.gifReaders who were around for the December tsunami will not be surprised to learn that Architecture for Humanity -- the non-profit architecture and design group run by WorldChanging contributor Cameron Sinclair and his partner/AfH co-founder Kate Stohr -- is already looking at what it can do to help the recovery and rebuilding efforts in New Orleans and the gulf coast. Cameron is currently traveling in Sri Lanka and India, looking in on the post-tsunami construction, while Kate is holding down the AfH fort; she has generously allowed me to quote from a letter that she sent to the American Institute of Architects on what AfH's experience teaches about how best to respond to this disaster.

I am wondering if we shouldn't direct our donations to housing assistance and reconstruction rather than on short-term relief and recovery. I say this only because in our experience with Bam, Grenada and the Tsunami, we've found that though a great many groups will aid and fund emergency/relief efforts there are very few places families and communities can turn six-months, a year, or two-years after a disaster for housing assistance and for help in rebuilding.
I know that it is difficult to turn to donors and say your donation will not be used immediately, but I am wondering if, as a profession, our resources might better be directed helping families and communities in the longer-term. [...]

Some other meaningful things we as a profession could do include:

  • organizing a group of local architects to help community groups clear and salvage debris when the appropriate time comes,

  • organizing a group of local architects to assist local municipalities/FEMA in tasks such as damage assessment, inspections, and so forth,

  • assisting families in accessing FEMA grants and other housing assistance programs,

  • Encouraging architects willing to volunteer their time and assist local municipalities, community groups, families and businesses with basic building repairs and other needs to sign up with the AIA,

  • Advocating for disaster mitigation strategies and planning on a local, state and federal level,

  • Helping to set realistic expectations with the media and other groups about the reconstruction timeframe as well as advocating for long-term funding for a sustainable, community-driven rebuilding effort,

  • and finally, helping to transition families from temporary homes to permanent housing. As we all know, FEMA assistance grants are often used to purchase mobile homes by families who cannot access mortgage loans for traditional housing because of poor credit or for other reasons. Mobile homes are vulnerable to future disasters and cost more over the long-term, greatly reducing a family's ability to escape poverty. Groups such as the Rural Studio Outreach program have designed and built alternative housing prototypes to address this issue. We should promote and fund similar design solutions to this problem.
  • With the kinds of problems and challenges the planet faces this century, we have to re-train ourselves to stop thinking about quick turn-arounds and short-term systems, and to start thinking hard about long-term effects and lengthy efforts. Rebuilding after a disaster like Katrina will be ill-served by attention that lasts only a few weeks, and doubly so by a planning process that is unable -- or unwilling -- to think about how to deal with a slowly, but relentlessly, changing environment.

    (Thank you so very much, Kate -- you folks rock!)


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    Comments (13)

    Etaoin Shrdlu:

    Oh great.

    Now, we'll have all those architects busting their brains to figure out quick and economical ways of quickly building houses, and you can bet that those efforts will be for nothing, as the people stupidness will make them want houses "like before", because those new houses will shout "CHEAPSKATE"... After all, just like a car, a house is a status symbol.

    How many Dymaxion houses are out there, for that matter?

    Daniel Haran:

    Whoa, that's negative! It's just in its early stages, let's give this project some tender loving care instead of harsh criticisms, shall we?

    If they can develop something in the same price range as a mobile home but cost less in maintenance, I'm all for it. Both are cheap- might as well go for the smarter alternative. In any case, that it will appear cheap should not be a show-stopper.

    Even if many people are initially reluctant to go for better designed homes doesn't necessarily mean they're stupid. The need for status symbols is something we greens bemoan, and often don't design for- even though it's a force we could use.

    So a challenge to the architect: can you make these houses as hip as an iPod or a hybrid car? :)

    Design is only a tiny part of the problem. Thinking we'll solve this with "design" is like arriving at a famine with cookbooks.

    People know how to cook. That doesn't help when they have no food. The larger problem is poverty, and financial structures stacked against the poor.

    One of the best things to do would be to change mortgage rules so a home doesn't need to be "finished" before occupancy. Buildings are never "finished" anyway; they're always in flux. A small, efficient, well-crafted "starter" home, with just the basics, could slowly be adapted and improved over time - IF - the mortgage payment was modest and allowed people to plow small amounts of savings back into their home over time.

    One attempt in this direction is the "Grow House" designed by Avi Friedman at McGill University in Montréal. I believe that several hundreds have been built.

    Cameron Sinclair:

    Dear Etaoin,

    Thank you for your forward thinking and open minded response. While most of our team is strategizing on how best to respond. At is basic level architecture is about providing shelter and the role of the architect is to create cost effective, sustainable and innovative structures.

    Perhaps had you actually looked at our work, especially in post-disaster reconstruction, your response would not have been so narrow minded.

    If you think you have something constructive to contribute, why don't you contact me.


    Dendrobium alderwildtianum:

    makes sense. Particularly when people may have land but not enough money to build back on it, then they need help for future proof housing not an inadequate temporary fix. It's not unknown for residents to suffer a couple of disasters in a row.

    on the fringes, i imagine self-contained floating houses (like dutch house boats which aren't actualy boats at all but barges/pontoons), on a tether, that allow the delta to flood occasionally (of course there are issues with permanent infrastructure). A mash-up of modern rural living and traditionl floodplain lifestyles where you clear out & let the soils be rejuvenated now & then. Where I grew up theyt had houses that held up well under both hurricanes and floods: ie a house on stilts with mostly open area at ground level: could be used as carport or open air living space, with a small brick room at ground level (positioned under the top floor at 2/3 of the length of the house, ground level brick room no more than 1/3 the size of the top part of the house to be hurricane resistent). These houses were very liveable, practical in a hot climate and not expensive to build. An adaption of that for high-density housing would have poles rammed deep into the ground (Dutch style as well to cope with shifting, sinking land) and open (living) areas at ground level that can inundated, actual homes starting at 2nd/3rd floor above.

    Cameron, and all

    I had supported AFH on Asian Tsunami, because I thought it was the best way to help, and I would be ready to do the same here, but there is something different. Despite all New Orleans represents for both its inhabitants and humanity legacy at large, the current events tend to show that building a town in this very place, and let it grow as it grew, was not sustainable. Re-building in the same place would certainly not make sense, unless radically new urbanism and architectural concepts, along the lines of those proposed by the previous comment, are used. But maybe the best solution is complete re-location, based on the hard-learned lesson that a city in such a place is doomed to face the same kind of destruction in the future, given ongoing climate change, accelerating sea level rise, more powerful storms and sea surges (let alone the social aspects of the tragedy). America is a large country after all, in the past towns have grown from nothing to thousands, certainly this can be done again, and on more sustainable basis.
    Does it make sense to you?

    gary demos:

    if the time frame is a year or two out, for rebuilding of residences, maybe a product called grancrete would be of use. It was developed by, I believe, Argonne Nat. Labs. It's going through testing by the Fed Gov. and has many advantages in building new homes. The first advantage is a much lower cost, the second is it's waterproof. There is a website that deals with the implementation of the new material. http://www.grancrete.net/index_12.htm

    Joe Deely:

    I with Bernard on this.. we need to study carefully whether it makes any sense to rebuild in this location.

    If we do, then property owners should be required to purchase some form of flood/disaster insurance above and beyond any regular insurance.

    Hi all,

    Actually when I was talking about transitioning families from temporary to permanent housing, I was thinking of architects getting involved to help municipalities explore policy and planning alternatives. Some may be as simple as enabling families to use FEMA grants in less restricted ways, such as for the purchase of cooperative housing in multi-unit dwellings. Or, helping families access additional forms of housing assistance, so that they can afford better housing options...

    I know these don't sound like exciting things, but they are the kinds of things that really make a difference to families.

    But hey, a hip humble home would be good too.

    Saul Accetta:

    I think talking about mortgages and what sorts of housing people will want to live in long term is getting way ahead of the actual circumstances that we have today. The priority would seem to be fast economical, safe and sanitary shelter. Shelter that can be built in a manner that will allow for long-term adaptation and expansion would be ideal. The idea that many of these folks will have the resources to carry a mortgage when their businesses or employers are gone is pure fantasy.

    Regardless of intentions, whatever "temporary housing" is set up in the next month will continue to be occupied for many years to come if not forever. This will be particularly true for the working poor, elderly, disabled, and unemployed.


    What most likely to happen is a ton of the poor and alot of others will simply move out of the region to places where housing is cheap and such. Dont froget not too far from there there are places where most everyone moved out over the years and vacant homes sit waiting for them.

    By the time the city rebuilds alot of people wont be wanting to go back.

    Saul Accetta wrote: "I think talking about mortgages and what sorts of housing people will want to live in long term is getting way ahead...The idea that many of these folks will have the resources to carry a mortgage when their businesses or employers are gone is pure fantasy."

    Saul, thanks - I think you're right. When I talked of "mortgages" I was thinking of household resources available to change and adapt the basic "starter shelter", slowly, piecemeal over time. And I was thinking that people sould have control over their surroundings, so they can adapt them as they see fit.

    My first thoughts on "design" are these:

    - Narrow fronts, to allow infrastructure connections at low cost.
    - Attached row houses, for high density.
    - Party walls of masonry, for acoustic privacy (and since N.O. isn't an earthquake zone).
    - Courtyards, for defensible private outside space, and the possibility of leaving windows open without fear, for ventilation and lower AC costs.
    - Courtyards made by placing 2 basic, rectangular, possibly prefabricated structures at the front and back of the narrow lot and linking them with a breezeway.
    - Zoning allows the back structure to be a home occupation, a "granny flat" rental or other income-producing use.

    But I know very little about the particulars of New Orleans. Other folks will have better ideas. Care to share them?

    Erika Dean:

    I think a large problem here is the suggestion that all we need to worry about is New Orleans. Lets not forget that an entire region of our country has been affected, spanning over three states! These people do need immediate shelter, however many of tehm may not have the money or resources to move somewhere else. I think that if nothing else, this could be used to create new opportunites for the impoverished humans who lost what little they had. Why not employ them to help rebuild the city?!? Why not work on creating new homes and communities for those who had everything washed away?

    You think it better to suggest they leave, find somewhere else and then employ those who already have homes and jobs to rebuild teh part of the country they have no real connection to?!?


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