Artists bring beauty to emergency housing

Sensemaking / Artists bring beauty to emergency housing

The Konbit Shelter: a pretty quick fix for shelter when natural disasters strike.

17 May 2013

When natural disasters strike, aid agencies rush in with tents, tarpaulins and prefab buildings to provide shelter. Life-saving, perhaps, but hardly environmentally sound. And rarely is such emergency housing beautiful. It does, however, often end up lasting longer than planned. Three years on from the devastating earthquake in Haiti, over 350,000 of the 1.5 million people who were made homeless are still living in temporary shelters, in 500 camps.

In an effort to bridge the gap between emergency shelter and sustainable architecture, a collective of artists and engineers from the US known as Konbit is working with local communities on a new range of building designs. It’s based on the ‘super-adobe’ technique of earth bag architecture (using sandbags comprising 90% earth and just 10% cement), and promises to be resilient to earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and fire – as well as relatively inexpensive. It complies with California’s strict seismic codes.

The structures are finished with a skin of cement or, more sustainably, lime plaster, and painted or lime-washed. So far, the project has constructed a community centre, with distinctive domed, beehive-like structures, and a small family house.

The artists are returning to Haiti in spring 2013 to help build “a model house that is easy to replicate, and to write an instructional booklet in Creole”, says Konbit Technical Director KT Tierney. “Although labour-intensive to build, the demonstration home comes in at the same price point (about $6,000) as temporary prefab plywood housing”, says Tierney. Half of the cost is in labour: the new house is expected to take a team of 15 people five weeks to build, far more than some emergency prefabs that can be erected in a day.

But other factors drive this project. “We are seeking to participate in the rebuilding of Haiti in a way that acknowledges the importance of soulfulness and beauty in people’s daily lives.” Funds have come from selling artwork and a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

A spokesman from Oxfam, which favours plastic sheeting as its emergency shelter response, praised Konbit Shelter as “very much a local solution for a local problem, using inexpensive and locally available materials and able to be built by people within the community.” – Paul Miles

Photo credit: James Cross

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