The Architecture of Disaster Recovery: A Call to Arms for Designers from the World’s Most Vulnerable Regions

BaSiC Initiative
Students with the design team BaSiC Initiative designed a visitor center (shown here under construction) for the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh, India. They used traditional Ladakhi mud-brick construction techniques to create a center with a greeting space and seating area and a gallery for displaying student artwork, with four skylights and a handmade mosaic pattern on the floor.

In Brief

Across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the United States, small teams of architects are helping communities recover from disaster by bridging the gap between short-term emergency needs and long-term sustainable recovery. In the process, these architects have developed a new approach to working with local communities to utilize traditional building materials and cultural resources to build sustainable, integrated buildings. But this level of expertise remains concentrated in the hands of far too few professionals. As the threat of climate change mounts, design schools need to start training a new generation of architects to engage with natural disasters and war zones.

Key Concepts

  • Two hundred million people have been affected by natural disasters and hazards in the last decade. Since the Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 200,000 people in 2004, urgent questions have been raised about the role and responsibility of architects in disaster risk management. There is an immediate need for architects to bring their training, competence, and ingenuity to disaster prevention and recovery.

  • A small group of architects is seeking to fill the void with design solutions that engage and enlist communities by incorporating local building practices in the construction of sustainable buildings and infrastructure.

  • Specific courses in design schools to train a new generation of young architects can transform traditional, compartmentalized approaches to disaster recovery.

Two hundred million people have been affected by natural disasters and hazards in the last decade. For every person who dies, some 3,000 are left facing terrible risks. Ninety-eight percent of these victims live in the developing world, where billions of dollars in aid are absorbed annually by climatic and geologic crises. Extreme temperatures, intense heat waves, increased flooding, and droughts due to climate change are expected to turn ever more people into “eco-refugees.” Among those most affected are recent migrants to cities, where the need for space is so great that many elect to live on dangerous sites such as unstable slopes, fault lines, and flood plains.

The lack of suitable planning—both before the disaster and afterward—is a striking problem with which the design world has only slowly been coming to terms. Following the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, which killed more than 200,000 people, the first questions were asked about the role and responsibility of architects in disaster risk management. A succession of disasters like the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, China, and the 2010 earthquake near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, have offered urgent reminders that professional architects—whether in the developing or developed world—are generally absent from efforts to protect people from disaster. They have had no sustained role in shaping policy or leading best practices in disaster prevention, mitigation, and recovery. There is still no career path that prepares students to work as urgentistes—design professionals who intervene at a crucial moment in the recovery process to produce enduring solutions.

But who, if not architects and planners, is in charge of rebuilding towns and villages leveled by earthquakes and cyclones and of ensuring that the same level of destruction does not occur again? The answer is disquieting: no one. Typically, a patchwork of nongovernmental charities, government agencies, and local residents cobble together solutions. Few among them specialize in building homes or infrastructure before disaster strikes, and rarely are they screened for expertise. Competing mandates and donor priorities, weak coordination, fragmented knowledge, and a blatant disregard for environmental health often characterize the failed practices that prevail after a disaster, and that lead to new dangers as well as intolerable waste. After the Indian Ocean tsunami, the World Conservation Union in Sri Lanka reported that mangroves were cleared haphazardly, trees decimated, and sand dunes mined, and that debris contaminated water supplies and blocked drainage canals. Such environmental degradation puts communities at risk for generations. It does not help that most shelter groups define themselves solely in terms of emergency work, which stops abruptly at the transitional-shelter stage, precluding long-term solutions and effectively condemning people to years of inadequate housing. Still fewer have the breadth of view to go beyond housing and tackle schools or clinics—the public buildings and public spaces which form the built environment that can save or threaten life. Donors aggravate the problem further by insisting on short-term results.

Architects have been slow to respond to the needs of disaster management but there is a growing engagement. In recent years, a handful of professionals in small agencies or scattered through larger firms have helped to introduce innovative and sustainable building methods, land-use planning, and environmental stewardship to disaster zones. A common ideology has emerged on how to bridge the gap between short-term emergency needs and long-term sustainable recovery. In the most successful cases, three of which are presented here, the project is rooted in the profound belief that the local community is at the center of the process leading to pertinent and sustainable solutions, and that culture and architecture are inseparable allies.

The Right to Return Safely

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Deborah Gans, principal of the New York–based architecture firm Gans Studio, and James Dart, principal of the design firm DARCH, found that the storm’s destruction of the New Orleans landscape created the need for a new kind of development covenant linked to the right to return safely. The covenant rejects the draconian idea, forwarded by some, that the answer to New Orleans’ problems is to shrink the city and move to higher ground. Instead, Gans and Dart worked with local communities to discover smaller scaled and often cultural solutions to flood management.


Deborah Gans
Following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, architects Deborah Gans and James Dart designed raised and protected homes that could withstand future flooding. They developed five designs total; seen here is their design for a mother-in-law unit: a rear residence is one story aboveground, connected to a street level unit by an internal stair.

In New Orleans East, a mixed income suburb built on marshy land along the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, they found that families have historically developed strategies for managing their socioeconomic and physical conditions. For example, the strategy of house swapping among family members follows an environmental logic. Because some people have large property holdings within a neighborhood, they can abandon flood-prone houses on low ground and rent out their properties up hill within the neighborhood to extended family. The neighborhood population thus remains housed, whether they are young or old, wage earning or unemployed.

For Gans and Dart, this discovery underscored the importance of focusing their efforts on a neighborhood scale. One of the early steps was to identify standard community-based planning elements, such as the ten-minute walk to public transportation, schools, and markets, as well as the perimeters defined by family networks, natural drainage patterns, existing sewer systems and pumps, routes of evacuation, and sites of refuge. A test “model block of proper size” emerged from this analysis. It was a group of about twelve blocks in Plum Orchard within a set of preexisting borders formed by three roads and a defined green space: an evacuation route to Baton Rouge, an old commercial artery that connects the east to the downtown, and drainage infrastructure at the lowest edge of the site.

The planning principles for the model block treated the site as one continuous field rather than as a street map. A foundational principle for building in New Orleans is the Base Flood Elevation, or BFE, the elevation of a 100-year flood. It affects all aspects of life—from house insurance to zoning and ecosystems to livelihoods. Gans and Dart therefore chose to describe the landscape sectionally as a series of plans cut at different heights above sea level, in order to study the way in which floodplains might suggest new combinations of environment and behavior. Historically, the cultural landscapes of New Orleans have been linked by water and elevation to indigenous building types: saltwater wetland to fishing cottage; brackish marsh to raised Creole cottage; freshwater to house with a raised center hall; and upland to shotgun house.

For instance, at BFE 0–0 (that is, sea level), the model block is a continuous planted landscape, punctuated by the piles, porches, and stairs of raised houses, and features water-management tools such as bioswales and seasonal ponds. At BFE 20–0, one can see the scale and density of the neighborhood, which includes a mix of clustered and traditionally sited houses in a multistory residential development. The development supports mixed demographics and can help pay for social infrastructure such as playgrounds. Taken together, the complete set of graded field conditions from BFE 0–0 to BFE 20–0 and their attendant water-management resources ensure that the neighborhood can be pumped out rapidly during almost any flood. These conditions can help the community learn to live with water. To rebuild houses in these neighborhoods required that Gans and Dart develop suitably raised and protected housing typologies while also looking below the sill plate at the social and economic ground on which these houses would stand. They developed five designs that responded to the variety of family lifestyles—all negotiate elevation through a series of thresholds that begin at the ground and end with the raised story.

Sadly, so far, not a single house has been built. Political controversy, lack of will and experience among the partners, and difficulties in financing have stymied progress. The current failure of this project is incidental within a much larger crisis in the rebuilding effort. It points to the limits of a community approach when it is not supported by and coordinated with economic and physical plans at civic and larger scales. At the same time, the refugee citizens of the nearby Ninth Ward have taken up the idea of the right to return safely and have forced politicians to adopt a more sustainable model for reconstruction, offering hope for neighborhoods like Plum Orchard.

Building for Peace

The context for Robin Cross’s work in the Gola Forest of sub-Saharan Africa might seem quite different from that of New Orleans. But, like Gans and Dart, Cross seeks to use reconstruction to lay a foundation for creating and maintaining civil society. Sierra Leone has suffered terribly from a recurrent pattern of civil war, violent changes in government, the missteps of foreign intervention, and, ultimately, the world’s indifference. In 2009 Cross and his team at Article 25, a UK charity specializing in post-disaster reconstruction, became involved in the territory along the country’s eastern border through the Gola Forest Programme. In his view, disaster risk reduction during the rebuilding process in former war zones must take the form of peace building. Forty percent of post-conflict states return to war within a decade. At every stage of the process—from decisions on land use and planning to architectural design and construction—Cross wanted building a lasting peace to be the priority.


Article 25
The Gola Forest Programme in Sierra Leone provides a plan for sustainable settlements within a large protected zone between Sierra Leone and Liberia. Robin Cross and his team at Article 25 sought to involve local residents as much as possible in the planning and building process. Shown here is a community workshop in Lalehun village to discuss local needs for resources and infrastructure.

The Gola Forest Programme is a collaborative initiative that unites the government of Sierra Leone, the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone, and the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The project protects an expansive and fragile rainforest that covers 290 square miles. The land runs in a long tract along the Liberian border and comprises parts of seven chiefdoms. This is the same stretch of prime West African rainforest that was used by rebel soldiers as a corridor for the export of blood diamonds during 11 years of civil war.

The population along the wider forest edge is thought to comprise more than 130,000 residents. There is little potable water and there are no health care facilities. A generation of uneducated youth, accustomed to nothing but violence and warfare, has come to adulthood bereft of skills and purpose. Mining companies and timber merchants eye the forest jealously for the goods it may yield.

The Gola Forest Programme offered a master plan for new conservation facilities and sustainable settlements within the protected zone, dubbed the “peace park” by locals. The crucial question that Cross faced was, how to build in a way that would reconcile the interests of the national government and regional powers with the competing demands of human development and environmental conservation? His building strategy was self-evident: celebrate and capitalize on the rich diversity of the local environment, build toward transparency, and press for community involvement, so residents would actively take hold of and protect the project as their own during the peace-building process.

The project started in Old and New Lalehun. Old Lalehun is the original village. The new village appeared in the 1980s, when settlers displaced by war took over an abandoned logging compound. Both communities sit on the forest edge. Article 25 led group work and mapping exercises, creating ample space to exchange knowledge, ambitions, and aspirations as well as fears around regeneration work. The process acquainted the professional team with the residents’ ideas and skills while helping to establish a consensus among diverse groups of community members regarding priorities. Participatory workshops further galvanized communities to work as a team.

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Article 25
For the Gola Forest Programme, Article 25 led mapping exercises with local residents. They found that men and women mapped their surroundings differently. Men tended to create geographically accurate maps of their village while women produced maps that were more descriptive and qualitative, revealing social as well as geographic features.

Cross was keenly aware that decisions in spatial planning can exacerbate or prevent exploitation of one community by another. He and his team took steps to avoid allowing the new members of the community—100 well-paid park staffers—to appear as an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty. He also wanted to prevent the existing villages from exploiting the wealth of the new residents, a negative situation in which everything from food to women could become a medium of exchange. Cross addressed these concerns by including common facilities for education, social life, and trade and paying attention to site lines and common views. Positive social transactions between the two communities can occur organically if they have open and neutral environments in which trust and knowledge can be fostered. Thus, both communities share the benefits of a school, health clinic, and market. Construction was based on locally sourced materials wherever possible, and all structures were designed to be inexpensive to maintain and suited for multipurpose use.

The Gola project has the potential to stem some of the traditional flow of migrants from the countryside to the city. But with the likelihood of further disruption from climate change, Cross believes Sierra Leone needs to extend the scope of the Gola Forest Programme to provide a nationwide ecological strategy that offers meaningful jobs in the countryside, and to stop the region from sliding back into conflict.

Design as Mitigation

The preceding two projects both sought to channel a community’s inherent strength through the design process. Francesca Galeazzi’s project with Arup takes that concept further by creating hybrid building technologies that promote cultural resilience. In her work at the Druk White Lotus School, in the mountainous Ladakh region of northern India, she demonstrates that the buildings themselves can be at once catalysts for lasting change and sources of social cohesion and continuity.

Ladakh is an ancient kingdom in a remote, high-altitude desert that lies some 11,500 feet above sea level and close to Tibet’s western border. For nearly six months of the year, the valley is cut off by prolonged snowfall. Winter temperatures drop as low as –22°F. In the summer, the intense solar radiation at this altitude forces temperatures over 100°F. The rain shield formed by the Himalayas prevents the Indian monsoon from reaching this region. The little water available for use comes from winter snowmelt. The retreat of Himalayan glaciers and abnormal climatic patterns, both attributed to global warming, increasingly threaten the availability of this precious resource. Due to its location near the contested Kashmir region, Ladakh has also been the scene of regular fighting between India and Pakistan over the past 60 years.

Under the patronage of His Holiness, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the Drupka Trust, which commissioned the school, wanted to help Ladakhi youth negotiate India’s rigorous national exam system successfully while allowing them to maintain a deep connection to the traditional cultures and fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas. It is exactly the challenge all economically poor communities face: how to survive in a modern world that increasingly renders traditional, low-impact lifestyles unviable.

Galeazzi and her design team at Arup Associates chose an approach that was both innovative and low tech for building the school, which would accommodate almost a thousand students. Given the fragility of the ecosystem, the design team planned for a nearly zero-impact system for water, energy, and waste management. The buildings needed to be able to respond to drought, retreating glaciers, and less predictable weather patterns, as well as be easy to operate and maintain. These principles are in clear contrast to the high-tech approach adopted in the area in recent years, especially by foreign firms, which produce buildings that are difficult to use and expensive to maintain. As a result, many of the newer structures have decayed rapidly or stopped functioning altogether.


Christian Richters
This kindergarten classroom at the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh, India has a butterfly roof, which provides natural daylight and captures rainfall.

The team prioritized simplicity, robustness, adaptability, and appropriateness. Because Ladakh is a highly seismic zone, the engineers used the latest analysis software to develop earthquake-resistant construction. Passive solar-energy systems, the optimum use of natural ventilation, natural daylight, and double glazing are systemic. The real challenge for the design team arose each time the analysis results had to be translated into construction techniques. Designing for Ladakh, with its unreliable power supplies and consequent limitations on the use of machinery, meant that materials had to be simple to procure and buildings simple to build and run.

Galeazzi and her team were inspired by the superbly rendered mud-brick and stone construction of the ancient monasteries. Most of the materials—stone, mud mortar, mud bricks, timber, and grass—are indigenous to Ladakh. Using these materials allowed the designers to severely limit reliance on imported products. Glass, structural timber, cement, and steel had to be delivered from other parts of Kashmir or India. Trombe walls were adapted from vernacular practice for the residences. The Trombe system involves thick walls coated externally with dark, heat-absorbing paint and faced with two layers of glass, separated by a small gap to create an air pocket. Heat from sunlight passing through the glass is absorbed by the dark surface, stored in the wall, and conducted slowly inward through the masonry. Adjustable openings on the top and bottom of the wall transfer heat from the air cavity to the room inside. This increases the efficiency of the system and ensures that the rooms are constantly kept comfortable even when outdoor temperatures drop well below zero. There is no need for the wood- and dung-burning stoves or gas heaters commonly used in Ladakh households. In a location that would otherwise be desert, the water cycle of the site relies on a solar-powered pump that delivers potable groundwater by gravity feed. When the pump is not in operation, the solar panels charge batteries.

Another design team, BaSiC Initiative, working with Galeazzi’s firm, realized that, though the buildings worked well, there was little protected outdoor space. At this altitude, shade is a critical asset. So textile canopies were designed to function as outdoor classrooms. Ladakhis, like most herding cultures in the Himalayas, lead their lives outdoors. Engineered for high winds but designed and woven by expert local craftsman, the canopies are based on the herding tents used at summer campsites. These rebo that fill the interstitial spaces and dot the landscape are perfect hybrids between an isolated culture that favors an outdoor way of life and advanced computer-driven technology. In the end, the addition of these simple canopies creates a more complex site, one in which Ladakhis can still rely on a range of ways to live with an extreme climate.

The overall result is a school that a Ladakhi child and parent can immediately recognize as being connected to their culture and way of life. It is this sense of belonging that invites them to learn from the radical propositions that culminate in the building’s efficiency and structural logic and that promise survival in a mountainous region racked with earthquakes, retreating glaciers, and spontaneous floods. Interpreting these local conditions in a responsive and appropriate way and furthering innovation and improvement without depriving the design of its indigenous roots are the principles of an extraordinary partnership that can provide a model for other fragile communities and cultures under pressure to change.

The Way Forward

Architectural know-how is critical in post-crisis situations. Far more than builders and expert contract managers, architects working in close collaboration with communities can help them act on their own behalf. Playing the roles of designer, historian, negotiator, and advocate, architects develop site alternatives that help secure land tenure; reblock overcrowded slums; afford better access to water, sanitation, air, and light; introduce public spaces; and improve the relationship with the local ecology. They can represent community consensus on viable projects to intransigent or indifferent governments, and this, in turn, promotes local independence. It is terribly difficult for communities to successfully represent their own best interests in the face of intractable politics. Moreover, recovery extends well beyond the need for shelter. In a state of emergency it is nearly impossible for desperate individuals to imagine a better future. Architectural expertise can promote public health, encourage investing in new skills and environmental awareness, and advocate for mitigating risk, which together help ensure a sustainable and safe way of life.


Article 25
For the Gola Forest Programme, the local community provided a range of skilled workers, including metalsmiths, carpenters, weavers, and grass thatchers.

Still, fresh approaches that lessen the vulnerability of fragile populations and strengthen their resilience and potential will come only from the combined resources and experience of working collaboratively. We cannot wait. In 2009 112.8 million people were affected by natural disasters. A year later the United Nations spent a record $3 billion across 24 countries helping people recover from natural catastrophes. Poor communities at risk face multiple problems, some emerging so quickly, at pace with rapidly changing weather patterns, that we cannot keep up with them. Then, last March, the world was shocked by the disasters that overwhelmed Japan. Devastating the country’s northeastern infrastructure in Tohoku, the cascade of events reminded us all of the need for integrated systems of risk mitigation and that extraordinary vulnerability still threatens highly developed countries. The way forward is in broad conversations, creative partnerships, and as yet untried alliances among design professionals and humanitarian aid experts, anthropologists, conservation ecologists, bankers and economists, structural engineers, public-health officials, and surveyors. Building structures will never be enough; we must build discussion and understanding, vision and leadership, management skills, confidence, trust, optimism, and a sense of ownership and accountability. For this we must reinvest architecture with the capacity to be a powerful, disruptive force, a source of discovery and change.

To do so, we need to start training architects to think differently about their vocations. There are very few actual programs in disaster relief and management. At the moment, the only program that is officially recognized by the European Union is the Master of International Cooperation in Sustainable Emergency Architecture at Universitat Internacional de Catalunya in Barcelona. But other programs are emerging. I-Rec is a web-based international network focused on the study of reconstruction after disasters, based at the University of Montreal. Patrick Coulombel, the director of Architectes de l’Urgence in France, is also starting a program this year at ESTP (École Spéciale des Travaux Publiques) in Paris. And Harvard has announced a new post-graduate master’s degree in Anticipatory Spatial Practices. In July 2011, Sergio Palleroni, Bryan Bell, Roberta Feldman, and David Perkes launched a certificate program in Public Interest Design that will include risk mitigation.

There is a handful of individuals who teach these subjects as seminars and studios at universities and architecture schools. At Columbia and MIT, at schools in Portland, San Diego, New Orleans, Montreal, Paris, Caracas, São Paolo, and Santiago, and at new universities being established in Japan and India, students are working on projects that revolutionize social housing, tackle poverty, segregation, and violence in cities, and rethink our response to risk. These innovative programs are providing alternatives to the traditional design studios that promote self-interest and flights of fantasy—though these qualities are not in themselves bad. Rather, when aspiring architects are confronted with the real world, when they test their mettle against social injustice, and especially when they are given the opportunity to work directly with communities in need, they have risen to the challenge as the examples cited here have shown.


This article is based on Beyond Shelter: Architecture and Human Dignity (Marie J. Aquilino, ed., Metropolis Books, 2011) which features 20 reports from the field written by the founders of some of the most provocative architecture and engineering firms in the world and the leaders of some of the most accomplished nonprofit organizations, research centers, and international agencies in this field, including Architectes de l’Urgence, Article 25, the Red Cross, UN-Habitat, and the World Wildlife Fund. These people are on the frontlines of disaster prevention and recovery in a wide range of urban and rural locales, including Manila, New Orleans, Gujarat, São Paulo, Sudan, Vietnam, Kashmir, Haiti, Greensburg, Kansas, and the Gola Forest in Sierra Leone. Beyond Shelter is intended to help a diverse group of decision makers understand, value, and engage architects as partners in reshaping the ways in which we respond to the growing threat of disaster risk around the world.