Helpful Hands: Six Architects And Foundations That Design For Disaster-Stricken Areas

TF Ahmad TF Ahmad

In early November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan hit Micronesia and the Philippines, leaving over 6,000 dead and almost $6 billion in damage. Since March 2011, the Syrian Civil War has left an estimated 165,000 dead and caused 2.5 million to flee to neighboring countries. The 2010 Haitian Earthquake left an estimated 220,000 dead and 188,000 homes damaged. Also destroyed were 60% of government buildings and 80% of schools in the capital Port-au-Prince.

In addition to immediate needs of food, shelter, and medical attention, long-term relief for crisis-stricken areas requires ingenuity. Architects, builders, and organizations around the world have been ever-present in the effort to provide housing and infrastructure to communities facing massive challenges. Below are six examples of creative and innovative efforts by these groups.

1. Shigeru Ban

Shigeru Ban is an award-winning Japanese architect who specializes in “architectonic poetry” through the use of simple materials and geometry. Ban, who studied at SCI-Arc and Cooper Union, is praised for his humanitarianism and innovative use of paper and cardboard as building materials. His notable works include Takatori Catholic Church, the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, and multi-story container housing in Japan.

The Takatori Church in Kobe, Japan. Photo credit: Bujdosó Attila.

The Takatori Church, built pro-bono for the Takatori parish community following the Kobe earthquake of 1995, utilized paper tubing to create a temporary dome and worship space. It was deconstructed in 2005 and donated to a Catholic community in Taiwan. Similarly, the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch was completed as a temporary replacement for the church that stood prior to the earthquake that wreaked havoc on the city in 2011. The triangular structure features smaller triangular windows held together by cardboard tubes.

Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch. Photo credit: Shigeru Ban Architects.

Again in 2011, when a tsunami and earthquake devastated Japan, Shigeru Ban designed multi-level housing fashioned from shipping containers, providing shelter for many victims who’d lost everything. These homes were stacked atop one another to give the appearance of a massive community. In all of Ban’s built work, his minimalist principles and austere use of materials have shone through, irrespective of his clientele.

Temporary container housing for tsunami victims. Photo credit: JA+U (Japan Architecture + Urbanism) magazine.

2. IKEA Foundation

IKEA is known globally as a leader in cheap, ready-to-assemble furniture. The accessibility of IKEA products has allowed the founder, Ingvar Kamprad, to become one of the richest men in the world. His company snatched the title of world’s largest furniture retailer in 2008. IKEA’s profits have been used to fund projects and provide aid around the world through the IKEA Foundation.

Ikea Refugee Housing Unit. Image credit: IKEA Foundation.

Ikea Refugee Housing Unit exploded. Image credit: IKEA Foundation.

The foundation has partnered with the United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to create a ready-to-assemble refugee dwelling with the capacity to generate its own electricity. The dwellings have been used in Ethiopia and boast a five-year lifespan—despite the large price tag relative to canvas tents. With technology and design improvements, the IKEA Foundation hopes to collaborate with refugees to create better living conditions for families affected by conflict.

3. TYIN Tegnestue

TYIN Tegnestue is a Norway-based architecture firm that operates out of the city of Trondheim. Principles Andreas G. Gjertsen and Yashar Hanstad, in collaboration with students from various universities, have completed projects in Burma, Haiti, Thailand, and Uganda. This international approach lends a diversity to their projects and steeps them in local culture, building practices, and materials.

Photo credit: TYIN tegnestue.

Projects such as the Klong Toey community in Bangkok, Thailand, which provides housing and public space to a large informal community, and the Cassia Co-op Training Center in Sumatra, Indonesia, which provides not only fair employment but also proper sanitation, access to educational facilities, and proper healthcare, showcase the need-based design that TYIN Tegnestue offers to its clients. The firm has won many distinctions and awards and hosted workshops. Their projects have been showcased in numerous publications.

Cassia Co-op Training Center in Sumatra. Photo credit: Pasi Aalto /

4. Green Horizon Global

Green Horizon Global focuses on quick-built, self-sustaining structures that require little outside assistance to operate. Through standardization, factory-made components, and recyclable materials, this private company seeks to reduce cost and time spent on construction. The structures, however, often sacrifice aesthetics and longevity for functionality and speed. Products are offered for use in the residential, commercial, and military sectors as well as “Rapid Response” construction, water filtration, and renewable energy.

Rending of QuickHab structure. Image credit: Green Horizon Global.

Explosion of QuickHAB structure. Image credit: Green Horizon Global.

Where many designers focus solely on the energy creation and consumption of the final design, Green Horizon claims to operate one of the greenest, most environmentally-friendly manufacturing facilities. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Green Horizon developed QuickHab, a modular housing unit that fits together easily.

5. MASS Design Group

Utilizing a diverse group of architects, designers, and researchers, MASS Design Group creates solutions in healthcare architecture around the globe, often collaborating with local communities in need of betterment. Projects by this 501c3 not-for-profit include a hospital and schoolhouse in underdeveloped regions of Rwanda as well as a Cholera treatment center and tuberculosis hospital in Haiti.

Baturo Hospital in Ruhengeri, Rwanda. Photo credit: Iwan Baan.

Tuberculosis Hospital in Port-au-Prince. Photo credit: MASS Design Group.

All of these projects champion the use of local materials, trained local workers, natural ventilation, passive design technology, sanitation infrastructure, and are inherently sustainable buildings. With the training of local workers comes jobs, a boost to the local economy, and a strong idea that the space is defined by and for the community that utilizes it. MASS Design Group also won an Architizer A+ Awards for collaboration and was honored at the A+ Gala for the Do-Good Award.

6. Kéré Architecture

This small German and Bukinabé firm specializes in sustainable architecture with small footprints and local ecological building solutions. The principle of the firm, Diébédo Francis Kéré, was born in Gando, a small village in Burkina Faso. As the son of the head of Gando, Kéré acquired exceptional schooling and studied architecture at Technische Universität Berlin. After starting his non-profit, Schulbausteine für Gando, Kéré returned home to spread his knowledge of smart building solutions to his people.

The Primary School in Gando Photo credit: Helge Fahrnberger /

School library in Gando. Photo credit: GandoIT.

His primary school in Gando received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and his numerous other projects in Mali and Burkina Faso have garnered praise from the international community. Despite accepting a professorship at Harvard in 2012, Diébédo Kéré still returns to Gando to continue the work of his organization.