Post-Katrina: The quest for better emergency shelter

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The January earthquake in Haiti reminded us that in the face of natural disasters, the design community has an opportunity -- some might say a responsibility -- to create relief housing for the millions of people around the world displaced by natural disasters. Events such as Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunamis that followed the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake made millions homeless. Desperate times have called for immediate shelters for the masses -- smarter designs, be they expanded prefab modules, fabric tents or portable units made of recycled materials.

The American Institute of Architects’ Young Architects Forum and Committee on Design called on students and design professionals to develop “temporary/permanent relief housing” to be used following natural disaster. Entries were to provide housing for about 500 families on a hypothetical site: 200 acres that included the Houston Astrodome and its vast parking lots.

The AIA awarded three of the entries earlier this month. Tied for first place: Woven Shelter, pictured at top and designed by Jiyoun Kim, who asked the question: How can a temporary structure can be turned into a more permanent shelter?

Designed out of lightweight fabric, this easy-to-assemble tent uses locally available materials -- plastic bottles, mud, aggregate -- to fill doughnut-shaped material that forms the shelter.


Gene Kaufman’s design Free also placed first. This entry proposed prefabricated housing consisting of three nesting modules that condense for storage and transportation. The design includes cooking/bathing, sleeping and living areas when fully expanded, and it’s equipped with rotating solar panels and demountable wind turbines, above right. A car hitch allows it to be transported to a more permanent location once the effects of the disaster have subsided.

Third place: Eric Polite’s Community Unit, pictured under the tree silhouette at right, is a prefabricated design made of recycled materials and assembled off-site. Flares on the side of the unit allow for natural ventilation and light.

It can be stacked to maximize space, and in a more permanent arrangement, the units can connect together to form small communities, right.

The Community Unit also can be attached to a car and transported. If at some point residents want to express style, they can with different patterns on the exterior.

The three entries are just the latest word in what’s an ongoing conversation about how the design world can address humanitarian crises around the world.

-- Roselle Curwen

CORRECTED: An earlier version of this post said the Indian Ocean earthquake was 1994.


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