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2010 YAF/COD Ideas Competition Recipients

Designing Emergency Shelters Before Disaster Strikes

One free, one flexible, one timeless

by Zach Mortice

Associate Editor

Before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and before the earthquake in Haiti, government-issued disaster housing trailers seemed like a reasonable way to deliver functional emergency shelter that is mobile, mass-produced, and affordable. But this procession of calamities brought emergency housing trailers’ faults into sharp, public view.

After Katrina, nightly newscasts featured expansive shots of row upon row of FEMA trailers, stretching monotonously to the horizon. These same newscasts heard from the Americans forced into them, who talked about the formaldehyde fumes that were making them sick.

Emergency housing trailers are in the news again. According to the Associated Press, the trailer industry and Mississippi state legislators are pushing for these “potentially formaldehyde-laced trailers” to be auctioned off and sent to Haiti as emergency shelter. The more that is known about emergency housing trailers, it seems, the more their inflexibility, demoralizing repetitiveness, and functional limitations come into focus.

The finalists (co-winners and a third-place entry) of this year’s Ideas Competition, jointly sponsored by the AIA Committee on Design and the AIA Young Architects Forum, worked through this legacy, either by reforming the trailer tradition or radically reacting against it. Unveiled at the 2010 National Convention in Miami, the recipients are FREE (1st Place) Gene Kaufman , AIA; Woven Shelter (1st Place) Ji-Youn Kim; and The Community Unit (3rd Place) Eric Polite. These proposals go high-tech and primitive-tech, alternately looking for ways to use sustainable, pre-fabricated building technology to humanize emergency shelter, while also stripping away contemporary expectations of disaster shelter down to a zero-carbon and resource impact.

All these ideas sprang from a simple competition brief that tasked designers with creating disaster housing for 500 displaced families. Its nominal site is the Astrodome in Houston. The entries had to be temporary-to-permanent and find a way to build a “livable community” among the refugees. The competition was juried by Barton Phelps, FAIA, of Barton Phelps Associates, Larry Scarpa, FAIA, of Pugh + Scarpa, and Mehrdad Yazdani, Assoc. AIA, of Yazdani Studio of Cannon Design.

All the competition entries had to contend with issues of socioeconomic specificity. FREE and The Community Unit are obviously aimed at industrialized, modern cultural contexts. Then again, the average American family likely wouldn’t feel entirely comfortable in FREE’s 320 square feet. But if they had lived their entire lives in the crowded Mumbai shantytown of Dharavi, it “would be like a mansion” to them, Kaufman says.

But there has to be some kind of response in an emergency, and the biggest question for architects grappling with this issue today is when that response should come. “I think that architects should jump right in,” says Polite. “Architects are creative people, and there’s never an [overabundance] of great ideas.”

Kaufman disagrees. For him, quality design solutions ultimately flow from clients; the people that will use these buildings. Disasters smash below people’s need for well-designed space, and impact their very ability to feed and clothe themselves. Until this baseline level of biological need is met, if the client “is homeless, they have no food, and are in very bad sanitary conditions,” Kaufman says, “they don’t really want to talk about design.”

2010 Young Architects Forum/Committee on Design Ideas Competition Recipients

> Gene Kaufman, AIA: The Marketplace Makes it FREE

> Ji-Youn Kim: Shelter Woven Through Culture and History

> Eric Polite: Community in Scale and Program

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