What is humanitarian architecture you ask? Simply put, it is the practice of using architecture as a solution to solve the worlds most pressing humanitarian issues. As the humanitarian architecture field expands year after year, we have started to notice an exciting trend here at Build Abroad. That is, this emerging sector is rife with innovation and growing each year as more and more socially minding individuals find the basic mission truly resonating with them. This innovation is due to the fact that unusual constraints and natural factors give those in the field an opportunity for experimentation that conventional architects are often not afforded. Below, we’ll highlight why innovation belongs at the forefront of humanitarian architecture and why you should join the cause.

The Importance of Speed and Suboptimal Resources

Often times, when implementing humanitarian architecture projects, organizational teams are working with different groups displaced by natural disasters, refugees, or communities facing unforeseeable circumstances like clean water shortages. In these cases, there’s almost never enough time or available resources to come up with a plan that functions the best or looks the most aesthetically pleasing. With an unplanned event like a natural disaster, more people have been affected beyond anything the government or local organizations can be prepared for scope wise. Groups of people are suffering and every second wasted is another second that someone goes without a home, privacy, or normalcy in their life. The exciting part about these problems and the field in general is organizations have to execute and ship before ready. There is no waiting, rough drafts, or feedback from stakeholders. There aren’t enough qualified people or bodies to get the job done perfectly. There isn’t an abundance of necessary materials needed to get the job done. In the end, a best effort is sent out as soon as possible and then adjustments are made from there. This makes for a fast-paced and unique environment driven by solution-based work rather than perfectly executed jobs.

Interesting Problems

How can we make materials last longer and have multiple uses all while remaining affordable? Irregular constraints like these take a lot more time to solve. We’ve seen all types of organizations and communities come together to solve problems just like this. Even the private sector has started to provide semi-permanent solutions. Take IKEA’s Better Shelter for example, which won design of the year. One of the most important concepts to keep in mind when designing for humanitarian causes is that one must make temporary items multifunctional throughout product lifecycle. These IKEA shelters, fitting into a shippable box, do just this. They not only last for 3 years, but are also reusable with whatever local materials are at hand, from mud bricks to corrugated iron. They are also modular, allowing a community to assemble the shelters together to make clinics, schools, or whatever else they need at that moment.

Considering Region, Culture and Communities

There is also the importance of solving problems differently based on region, culture, and a communities beliefs. A related and complex issue seen in designing for refugee camps is that a lot of different cultures having varying opinions on how a shelter should be configured. Placing of a shelter’s door in a shotgun style fashion will provide anyone a full interior view upon entering the unit, something not allowed among Muslim refugees, who have a different gender culture than Western countries. Something else designers must wrestle with is the intuitive sense to implement large windows, which would generally provide great airflow. The problem here is these aren’t great for overall privacy. The Managing Director of Better Shelter, Johan Karlsson tested many of these issues stating:

“Our main conclusion after the test was that we can never make a shelter that works for every family around the world.” His team is now focusing on making the Better Shelter more easily reconfigurable. “We need to have something that is adaptable and flexible.”

Märta Terne also of Ikea’s Better Shelter chimes in about solving the problems as best as one can saying, “The shelters were never designed to meet Swiss fire regulations or to be used indoors as the city proposed. The humanitarian aid world doesn’t adhere to the same safety standards as you would for permanent buildings in Europe made of concrete and stone. But there are strict rules about the distance between shelters and no cooking is allowed inside.”

The Humanitarian Architecture Field is Growing

In the field of architecture, when it’s all said and done, humanitarian work is all about solving complex problems with less time, money, and resources. Basically, one is asked to do more with less. Instead of shying away from these issues, they’ve been met full on by those passionate to make a change. After all, architecture boils down to a core of providing shelter for those who need it. If we work together we can find a unique way to help more people in sustainable yet effective ways.

By conducting research, site visits, design meetings, model workshops, and public forums, organizations and firms have the chance to connect with the most important people in the design process — the community. Working with these people ensures the need is correctly identified while empowering the community to have a stake in the project. This communal responsibility is rarely seen elsewhere but in social architecture projects. By choosing to go with the use of local materials and a “guide versus control” mentality, the community will once more be self-sufficient by the end of the program. YR Architecture, an architectural solutions organization, says it best, “Community involvement, local resources, and sustainable practices are not the only characteristics of humanitarian architecture projects. It also takes a lot of creativity, determination, coordination, and hard work to make them happen. On such a limited budget (if there’s funding at all) and with limited other resources, it’s truly remarkable the positive and lasting impact humanitarian architecture can have on some of the poorest communities around the world”.