Architecture School – Providing Relief for Syrian Refugees

When many people think of architecture, they might think of designing for the privileged – Infinite pools, ultra-modern, 11 car garages. Though it is true that a part of architecture exists in the realm of dream homes, another part deals with architecture as a solution to social, economic, or environmental issues.

Nadine recently shared an article on Ikea’s answer to refugee housing, which reminded me of the many opportunities that exist for architects and designers to offer real solutions for global issues. Simultaneously, I have been following the welcoming of Syrian refugees into my hometown of Calgary. I thought – Naturally the two issues flow seamlessly together and could be a perfect opportunity for architecture students to get involved.

Are there any architecture schools out there that are exploring the possibility of providing relief for Syrian refugees through design?

Designing disaster relief housing would be such an incredible experience for students and I challenge faculty to consider this type of housing for an upcoming studio. Through a studio of this nature, faculty and students would have an opportunity to connect with a community and provide assistance in a meaningful way. Whether situated in a camp setting, or integrated into a community, such a project would encourage students to consider a variety of unique conditions in their designs.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of such a project would be student’s consideration of cultural appropriateness. Different cultures have very different ways of living, so how will students design a structure that is universally appropriate? Or, would the project focus specifically on Syrian refugees? If so, how might Syrian culture inform the design? What modes of research might be employed to determine the design solution?

Regardless of whether the focus was universal or specific, it would be a challenging exercise in site selection and planning. Students would have to consider the unique experience of refugees displaced from entirely different environments. Overcrowding, efficiency of relief services, and hygiene are of particular concern in the camp setting. While ensuring stability and promoting positive social interactions with an existing population would be important when integrating housing into an established community.

It is one thing to consider the climatic conditions of a particular site when designing, while it is an entirely different challenge to consider the weather extremes across the globe. Is it possible to create a shelter that can protect inhabitants from sub zero and sweltering temperatures, hurricane-force winds, massive snow loads, perhaps even earthquakes or flooding… All simultaneously? I know there are companies all across the globe attempting to come up with this Unifying Theory of Disaster Relief Shelters (or so we’ll call it), but what could happen if we throw students in that mix? School is the opportunity to get crazy with creativity. It is the time before the “real” world tells you all of the reasons something is too difficult to achieve. So why not set students loose on a challenge like this?

Cultural and formal flexibility are really just the beginning. The bottom line of disaster relief housing will be maximizing flexibility in all aspects of the design. As discussed, each individual unit could be adjusted by occupants as they please, however how could a project become flexible on a larger scale and across fluctuating populations/demographics? Could this be an interdisciplinary project that brings together architecture, planning, and various engineering students?

At the foundation of this universal flexibility is clearly: Transportability. A detail that is, yet again, a challenge that is unique when compared to most other studio projects. Thinking back, I honestly cannot remember doing much in the way of transportable architecture while in school. We got into modular designs a bit, but nothing that could be packed up and conveniently shipped. Disaster relief shelters must be easy to assemble and disassemble, with only a few hands to make it happen. The process must be quick, intuitive, and done without special equipment.

Let’s take a moment to lay everything out. We’re looking at this incredibly flexible entity that can respond to culture, immediate site, global extremes, fluctuating demographic, changing needs, and is mobile. It has almost become somewhat of a living system! With all of these different factors coming into play, this could even be the perfect “real” world project to explore through parametric design and ultimately through a build process.

So, the challenge has been set – Solving the Unifying Theory of Disaster Relief Housing! Definitely share with me if you’re working on any such projects. I’d love to hear about what you’re working on!


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