Excerpt: Beyond Shelter

With Hurricane Sandy relief still a prominent aspect of daily life on the east coast, we’ve pulled an excerpt of our title, Beyond Shelter: Architecture and Human Dignity, in which the role and responsibilities of architects are discussed in post-disaster areas.

The Architecture of Risk

After a conflict or disaster are the risks people face addressed poorly by the sprawling community of disaster-relief and development specialists? Can the humanitarian sector improve the way it responds? I believe the answer is yes, and that better architecture and construction are crucial to tempering people’s vulnerability after disasters. By better I mean more durable, more sound, more fit-for-purpose: buildings that serve their occupants in comfort and safety. I also mean built better, in the sense that a better process of building is followed. The building process can be improved to include training local builders, engaging local markets, and ensuring that every structure functions within a larger development scheme. Further, there are not enough good long-term building projects spearheaded by NGOs and donors, a situation that perpetuates vulnerability in developing communities and leads to catastrophe when natural calamities strike. Simply put: there is not enough architectural and design expertise within most organizations and agencies to address and solve this problem. This means that architects (alongside other built-environment professionals) are vital to creating significant change in how disaster relief and development are practiced. In March 2006 Hilary Benn, then the UK Secretary of State for International Development, declared, “Rarely do disasters just happen—they often result from failures of development which increase vulnerability.”  One of the most significant failures of the aid and development process is, quite frankly, in the unintended results of our interventions in the name of recovery.

The Role of the Architect

The specific skills that architects bring to post-disaster reconstruction include the ability to do more with less. The best NGOs persevere to make the greatest difference for the people they serve. During reconstruction NGOs often find themselves responsible for deploying significant funding without necessarily knowing much about construction: they are neither designers nor builders; they have no experience managing contracts; they are not sure what to expect from professionals; and they may not have the capacity to evaluate expertise. Article 25 is a charity based in the United Kingdom that offers a design-consultancy service to nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. The staff members are built-environment professionals from all disciplines. It is a part of our mission to provide NGOs with design and construction expertise. Many NGOs come to us because construction projects have gone wrong—contractors have walked off the site, structures are inadequate or crumbling, they are over budget or past their deadline, and communities are divided over the outcome. The architect is the professional whose role it is to manage all the parties on a project. Architects are designers and builders, certainly, but they are also expert contract managers, able to see the arc of a project. Architects are the party responsible for taking the budget and resources available to a credible, pertinent, long-term built solution, along an optimal path. This, of course, is not the popular view of an architect. At best the public sees architects as artists, at worst as superfluous— profligate spenders charged with executing the whims and fancies of a client’s vision. And heaven knows the press and media outlets have not helped change this perception. If the online reader comments on an article published in CNN Opinion after the massive Haiti earthquake in 2010 are any indication, many people think that architects exist to “make things look pretty.” But now more than ever architects whom we rarely hear about are using their skills to solve problems and improve building in developing countries. This includes erecting schools and sustainable housing as well as participating in post-disaster reconstruction projects around the world. Architects can find solutions that make structures more efficient, cheaper, more resilient, and better suited to their purpose. They steward the hopes, needs, and funding of a client through to project completion. So, if architects are active in many NGO and government-sponsored projects, what is going wrong in disaster relief? The answer is complex. We started Article 25 specifically to help build safer buildings in the context of development and disaster relief. If we are to take people’s vulnerability seriously, we must deploy—and insist on—much greater technical expertise in architecture and construction. Architects can provide some of this expertise, but their skills are not being effectively transmitted to the workers who execute projects on-site—that is, to the permanent residents of the community who will build there in the future. George Ofori of the University of Singapore has studied the factors affecting resilience in communities after a disaster; he advocates developing “the construction industries of the poorer nations in order to equip them to manage disasters” and concludes, “It is important to enhance knowledge on the linkage between good planning, design and construction, and disaster prevention and management. A key missing element is awareness among practitioners.” There is significant awareness of this deficiency among the best organizations, but it has not yet led to consistent industry-wide action on the ground. We are failing to transmit expertise to the lowest practical level. This may be because there is a gap between what architects are perceived to do and what they actually can do. If architects are much more than design experts, good design is much more than aesthetics. In the NGO sector the skilled architect can coordinate the roles of project participants, which allows members of the community—the clients or beneficiaries—to get involved in line with their abilities. The process of construction can include training, skill sharing, and creating economic benefits for local suppliers and markets. This last is crucial: relief and reconstruction offer an opportunity to stimulate and support local businesses. Unfortunately, through lack of expertise, vision, or staff, many NGOs take the path of least resistance and use a single contractor, which often means that the economic benefit to the local economy leaves town when he does. NGOs should not miss the opportunity to bring informal markets and local labor forces into a project; this leads to reduced vulnerability by increasing future capacity, providing a more cohesive and coherent project, and affording the community a greater sense of ownership. Good community consultation and planning can be a powerful engine for change. Architects are adept at such planning methods. These interactions need not be elaborate or fraught. In our first project at Article 25 we designed a school for street children in Goa, India. During the design process we consulted the children and teachers who would be using the facility and discovered that what they most wanted was a theater. We made a simple, cost-free change to the plan, shaping the double step at the front of the building to curve outward to form a stage. Two years after the building was completed I received a flyer advertising a performance by the children to entertain the local community and tourists in the area.

The Experts

Before the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, architects had hardly figured in the task of post-disaster aid. But when the enormous waves destroyed homes, property, and infrastructure over vast coastal areas in eight countries, the need for shelter became an emergency on an unprecedented scale. Suddenly, reconstruction entered the disaster-relief agenda. It quickly became clear that the skills of architects were not being employed in this effort; worse, they were being neither offered nor sought. We were all caught flat-footed. Since then the profession has recognized that it has skills of critical value to long-term recovery. Still, the number of competent architects involved in nonprofit work remains small. All too frequently lip service is paid to the need for real expertise in construction and architecture while at the same time, on the ground, NGOs are putting most of their efforts into training novices to execute only basic skills. There is a plethora of booklets produced by NGOs, targeted at those with no experience or professional expertise. This serves only to promote the use of unskilled, barely trained, well-intentioned volunteers, who arrive from all corners of the globe in the wake of a disaster, at the expense of putting truly skilled best practices in play. Thus, lack of expert staffs is common in NGOs. Meanwhile, after a disaster local experts may have died or, if they are present, may be preoccupied with personal crises or in need of retraining to respond to the structural problems raised by the event. The use of expertise should not be confused with imposing top-down solutions. On the contrary: expertise is a key tool to integrate an NGO project with a community. It genuinely brings capacity, not prescription. It also brings credibility that is vital to persuading local and national governments to act, as well as innovative ideas that communities need to better steward donor funds. Yet at conferences around the world we continue to talk about plastic sheets and lean-to structures—temporary fixes—while NGOs plow ahead without the professional skills they need to rebuild properly.

The Donors
Large donors have a role to play here. Donors rarely fund the placement of innovative construction expertise in the field. They do sometimes provide funding for basic training, but this is rarely a good idea. It does not help that most shelter groups define themselves solely in terms of humanitarian or emergency work. They have no truck with the long-term, complex matter of building sustainable, resilient systems. Emergency funding and disaster relief are their domain. Shelter provision in these silos of practice is basic, temporary, inadequate for security, and does nothing to help restore people’s livelihoods. This sort of practice, fueled by competition among agencies, impairs the human rights of those suffering after a disaster. Further, emergency humanitarian funding stops abruptly at the transitional-shelter stage, precluding long-term solutions and effectively condemning people for years to inadequate shelter. Donors have been called on to increase funding time-scales and link disaster response to long-term development. This is wise but not easy. For example, one experienced NGO initiated a policy in 2006 that allows funding to be used over three years, where only 30 percent can be spent in the first six months. Unfortunately, in practice, the unintended result is that the emergency-shelter phase gets dragged out, while relief is still not linked to long-term reconstruction. Indeed, in practice, emergency-relief shelter groups go out of their way to exclude, even ignore, the goals of longer-term development and recovery. The three-year window, adopted by many NGOs, has become a means to extend their territory, prolonging basic emergency-shelter response long past the immediate moment of crisis and condemning communities to a protracted state of provisional shelter. For the larger, well-known agencies emergency funding is easy to come by. The outpouring of sympathy that developed nations muster after natural disasters is usually immense; it has even sometimes forced international aid agencies to turn down donations because they lacked the capacity to deploy the huge sums available. The responsibility to resolve this quandary lies with donor nations and governments, who must take the lead in demanding that organizations seek high-value solutions, and matching their offers of funds to much longer time frames. At present, unfortunately, the opposite is common practice: donors often insist upon a term limit to a redevelopment project. They want a clear end date to be established in advance and may require that millions of dollars be spent in just a year or two. As a result money may go unspent or be returned; medical supplies are thrown out, supplies bottleneck, and resources are wasted. This is inexcusable. An obvious way to use money wisely after disasters is to build better, safer buildings that embrace long-term infrastructural and environmental planning. It is an old truism that earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings do. In a disaster the death toll is compounded by the loss of infrastructure. This is nowhere more evident than in the heartbreaking reality of the earthquake in Haiti, where critical buildings such as hospitals were lost. Donor agencies must promote safe built solutions, and this requires that they allow funds to be spent gradually, across tenacious programs overseen by international as well as local NGOs. Disaster relief and long-term development must be inextricably linked, and development opportunities assessed and insisted upon in every aspect of the reconstruction process.

Article 25: What We Do

Article 25 is a group of architects, engineers, surveyors, development professionals, planners, communication experts, and financial analysts. For us the process of development and the process of building are seamlessly intertwined. The opportunity to use a building as a catalyst for lasting change is not to be missed in the design and construction phases. Project design is imbedded not only in building design but in how the whole construction process is coordinated. This is where architects become not only relevant, but vital. In Sierra Leone we are developing schools. The country is extremely poor, with heavily damaged infrastructure following a civil war. Our brief was to design a new model school that would drastically improve the quality of the buildings and, therefore, education. Article 25’s designs match or improve on the costs of the Plan, Care, and UNICEF models per square foot. And we go considerably further, improving cooling and ventilation systems, using space more intelligently, and addressing child safety. We also accommodate structural variables, such as allowing for the interchangeable use of either sawn timber or bush-poles collected locally during construction. As these features suggest, our designs enable community-based solutions rather than relying solely on a prescriptive, contractor-oriented approach. Experts on the ground can leverage funding and design parameters. In Pakistan an Article 25 team member was charged with ensuring safe building practices while training the local labor force to construct the seismically resistant homes that we had designed. He had limited funding but his presence made all the difference. While the design had worked well on paper, he introduced changes that saved the budget: for example, a more-than-adequate 6 mm-gauge rebar was used instead of the proposed 8 mm rebar, reducing both transport and material costs. In a project of this nature, in remote, mountainous villages, transport can be two-thirds of the cost of materials. Having saved money on transportation, he was able to construct retaining walls on the mountain where the houses were being built. Being flexible and able to adapt to the terrain saves lives at no additional cost, and shows the leverage architectural expertise brings to a project. Even one-off funding of a building in post-disaster development has great potential for the community. Good processes reverberate long after the cameras are gone. A recent study for the World Bank concludes that “school construction programs are irreplaceable opportunities to improve the skills of the informal sector, if they are given the opportunity to compete for local small contracts and receive adequate site supervision.” Maintenance is a central issue that is often overlooked by development organizations with a short-term remit. The same study also points out that the durability of school buildings in developing countries “not only results from design and quality construction, but also relies heavily on maintenance.” Embedding skills and a sense of ownership in the beneficiary group can guarantee that maintenance will be managed by the local community, which thus is able to safeguard the initial investment and maximize the building’s long-term utility. All too often we hear of brand-new homes, built by well-intentioned NGOs, whose upkeep was too expensive, so that they are abandoned by their residents, leaving crumbling white elephants. The opportunity to involve local small contractors and labor—and supervise them well—is another asset that the architecturally adept NGO brings to the project cycle.


Despite vigorous recent arguments that development opportunities should go hand in hand with post-disaster reconstruction, little has changed in practice. We need to ask whether our task should be undertaken without addressing the root problems that contribute to the scope of a catastrophe. Root causes revolve around poverty, in many cases abject poverty, which grossly increases people’s vulnerability to catastrophic events. Peoples living in countries low on the United Nations Human Development Index are far more likely to live in unsafe, poorly built, poorly located accommodations, and are far less likely to have the resources to cope with or recover from catastrophic pressure. Poverty is every bit as much a disaster as an earthquake or tsunami. But it is long, slow, and drawn-out, an emergency missing the initial precipitating event. Antipoverty development should be higher on the global agenda, but it makes for poor media copy compared to a sudden and horrifying single event such as a natural disaster. The “CNN Effect,” in which relentless news coverage of an immediate and vivid event stimulates mass interest in it, affects the perception of a need for action. For example, by February 2005, one month after the Indian Ocean tsunami, the international community had donated $500 per person affected by the tsunami, compared to the $0.50 received for each person affected by Uganda’s eighteen-year war. Further, not taking anthropic risk into account leaves people in harm’s way. Countries recovering from human-created disasters fall into a game of Russian roulette, to use the phrase of the economist Paul Collier of Oxford University. After a civil war ends, he explains, in the poorest countries there is a one in six chance that a nation will return to war within ten years, because a critical demographic, young men, are left out of recovery planning. Effective post-conflict reconstruction can address this directly. Reconstruction is a programmatic, systemic task, not a surgical intervention; it is labor-intensive and as such can generate livelihoods. Building builds capacity builds security. Building fundamentally reduces vulnerability.

Paying the Way

Collier is able to comment effectively on this because he is well-equipped to assess incentives, risk-and-reward scenarios, and market forces. We measure the development of the poorest countries—the bottom billion—with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, eight rules of thumb that remind us of what we would like to achieve as a global society by 2015. Every goal implicitly depends on a building: schools are required for education and hospitals and clinics for health care. Alternative proposals—for instance, those that favor open-air education or street-corner schooling—are a vain and idealistic hope. A UNESCO report found that “outdoor learning may have been a viable emergency expedient in India when it was a newly emerging country [but] the ‘no building’ solution is unsatisfactory. . . . schools without their own building . . . tend to have low attendance and those who do attend are inclined to have a poor academic performance.” A World Bank study in Ghana showed that simply improving the physical quality of school buildings— mending leaky roofs, for example—improved math and literacy scores by over 2 standard deviations, or more than 97 percent. This improvement is greater than what was achieved by providing basic teaching equipment such as blackboards. The report argues, “A cost-benefit analysis . . . shows that repairing classrooms (a policy option ignored in most education studies) is a cost-effective investment in Ghana, relative to providing more instructional materials and improving teacher quality.” At present the way emergencies are handled and funded militates against mitigation and sustained recovery. It is in the interest of the global economy to get disaster relief and development right, yet we do not assess the risks correctly; changes in the way donors fund post-disaster recovery and in the way organizations allocate the funds received are critical if we want to increase the investment in expertise over time. Currently, risks associated with short emergencies—precipitating events— are usually prioritized over long emergencies such as endemic poverty. Consequently, we do a poor job of assessing risk in relation to ongoing issues such as livelihoods. We prefer to respond to sudden emergencies; we attend to them psychologically and so are drawn to overreact to event-driven disasters, while overlooking long-term crises like HIV/AIDS and other diseases, poverty, or ongoing civil unrest. Donors focus too exclusively on emergency relief precisely because they are only human, but our indifference to the larger and longer emergencies perpetuates them. As a matter of principle, the project cycle of any development or relief effort should include capacity building. So, if we are not good at evaluating risk, should it be done impartially, using a formula? Financial managers use a simple option-pricing equation, Risk = Hazard x Vulnerability, to analyze ventures. This equation has been adopted by researchers in other disciplines, but development and shelter practitioners usually see it as an analogy and not a strict mathematical relation to be applied directly to their work. They are mistaken. R = H x V can be illustrated in the simple act of buying a lottery ticket. The Hazard (in this case a good hazard) is winning the lottery. The Vulnerability is the chance of winning—one in fourteen million in the UK National Lottery, for instance. This means that multiplying Hazard by Vulnerability shows us that a fair purchase price for a ticket, if the jackpot is £7 million, would be 50 pence (i.e., £7 million x 1/14). On a rollover week, if the jackpot is £14 million it would be fair to price the risk at £1 per ticket and it would be reasonable to risk £1 in this case. This example shows that risk assessment can be a fairly precise calculation if the Hazard and Vulnerability can be well-quantified. Development specialists can benefit enormously from bringing in skills that are not part of their core set. These may well come from economists, who can optimize the costs and benefits of interventions, as well as from built-environment professionals. Article 25 was founded on the premise that development, and construction in particular, should be brought to the fore as an integral part of disaster-risk reduction and emergency relief because decreased vulnerability to disaster depends on resilience— on having a long-term solution. One of the keys to resilience is a lasting physical fabric. As natural and man-made disasters increase—and they are on the rise—it is our responsibility to provide the means of mitigating vulnerability. It seems so obvious. But I still find myself asking, will we be lucky and smart? Will we be able to look back, for example, on our current work in Haiti and say, for the first time, yes, we have taken the ethos of resilience truly to heart? At the time of the earthquake, former president Bill Clinton was appointed UN special envoy for the island; on January 14, two days after the event, he wrote in the Washington Post, “As we clear the rubble, we will create better tomorrows by building Haiti back better: with stronger buildings, better schools and health care.” This is not a trivial responsibility; taking “better” to heart means that NGOs must require that the expertise of built-environment professionals be at the forefront of rebuilding efforts. We must change our approach to building to consider how as well as what we build. If we intend truly to build back better and leave safer communities there needs to be a sea change in the way humanitarian work is carried out. It would be terrible if the billions of dollars in disaster-relief funding that are going to Haiti only leave people at greater risk.

Paperback, 8 x 8 in.
304 pages, 300 color.
ISBN 9781935202479