Monday, 18 November 2013

Can architecture help in a disaster?

Floods, hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes. Does architecture have a role to play here, either immediately or in the longer term?

In the immediate aftermath, that is the days following a catastrophic, disaster event, the answer is probably not. The immediate need is food, water and shelter. For shelter, the International Federation of Red Cross and red Crescent societies has even moved away from providing tents. Instead they have kits that are cheaper to produce and distribute, that contain waterproof sheets and tools. The objective is to provide the survivors with a practical and flexible set of tools so that they can make their own waterproof shelters using materials around them. IFRC Shelter Kit.

Architecture can start to become relevant when considering what is going to be rebuilt after the disaster. Probably the most useful and constructive advice is that which can be given to, and used by, those immediately involved in rebuilding. In many poorer areas it can well be the residents themselves.

Building in flood prone areas.

Bangladesh includes areas that are prone to widespread flooding. I was impressed by the simple, illustrated, no-nonsense guide, the Handbook on Design and Construction of Housing for Flood-Prone Rural Areas of Bangladesh
It provides practical advice on laying foundations and simple building techniques that are more flood resistant. A combination of photographs of people working on site and illustrative, amusing cartoons present the information in an accessible manner to local people.

As we know in the UK, flooding can occur here as well. The Royal Institute of British Architects have also provided a guide on designing for Flood risk in our country, though it is designed more for planners, architects and those in construction.

Hurricanes and Earthquakes

Architecture For Humanity is an organisation that, after the Haiti earthquake, has provided a number of useful documents. There are The  General Recommendations for Improved Building Practices in Earthquake and Hurricane Prone Areas.

It looks at the stresses caused by wind on a building.The document gives advice on appropriate shapes for both the basic plan and the roof. It suggests using independent units in construction, so that one does not lead to the destruction of the other.

And then there is also the local Haitian manual provided by Architecture For Humanity. Written in the local language, it follows the same principles as the Bangladesh flood risk Handbook mentioned above.

An example of a European response to the earthquake disaster in Abruzzo,  Italy, is the use of new materials, cross laminated timber or CLT, the rapid reconstruction of new homes. Since 2000 and 9/4000 properties have been built with CLT in Abruzzo. Work by the architect Pierluigi Bonomo with CLT to replace a damaged brick house is mentioned here.

The masters of dealing with earthquakes are the Japanese.

Three strategies are currently used:

  1. Active dampening using a mobile weight – risky if there is a power cut.
  2. Shock absorbers and 
  3. The eccentrically braced frame.

Can you make a tornado proof house?

With the tornado season in the states unexpectedly running into November with severe damage, is it possible to make a tornado proof house in these areas? Well yes, if you can afford the equivalent of a nuclear bunker to withstand winds that can range from 150 to 300 mph and the high-energy impacts from objects that are been flung around by the storm! But the cost would be prohibitive and you’d have to avoid windows and doors. The general advice is to construct a safe room within the house or below the house according to the International Code Council (ICC)-500 standard.

However one thing that you can do to minimise the damage that occurs during a tornado, is to increase building’s resistance to damage.  For this, homes must be built with what is called a ‘continuous load path,’ a series of reinforced connections that tie every element together from roof to foundation, like a chain. Important connections would include rafters to top plates, top plates to studs, studs to bottom plates and bottom plates to foundation.

You would still need that safe room though!


Good architecture can help. It’s key role is in the construction of buildings that will resist future disasters. Good architecture could work on multiple set of levels: From very basic construction guidelines for local people who are self building, to high-technology solutions for cityscape construction. But there will always be catastrophes and disasters. There will always be a need for an immediate response from the emergency services. Architecture’s a role in the long term is to try and keep this need to a minimum in the aftermath of a major disaster.

Further reading . Here are some other more individual examples and solutions for particular disaster environments:

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