City from Scratch

The New York–based architectural firm Gans and Jelacic has developed disaster-relief housing that is more than temporary shelter. The structures also attempt to accommodate the long-term hopes and dreams of displaced people.

Deborah Gans and Matthew Jelacic began analyzing refugee settlements and experiences in 1999, when they entered an Architecture for Humanity competition that called for low-cost quick-assembly alternatives to the white tent in response to the crises in Kosovo and Bosnia. The request for proposals specified that the structures be capable of withstanding two years of weather and use; in other words, the design was to be a temporary solution to what the organization saw as a temporary problem.

Realizing that the problem was larger in scope than the competition guidelines recognized, the team decided to continue the project on their own and used grant money from the Keep Walking Foundation to study the issue firsthand. “I went to Bosnia to document the work that had been done—to see how they handled the problem,” Jelacic says. They found that people were attempting to construct permanent homes at the settlements.

Of the 21 million refugees on Earth, few are actually seeking short-term asylum. A majority of those who flee—whether to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster—intend to establish a new life elsewhere. And for many, returning to their homeland is never an option. As a result refugee settlements remain in place for years, even decades, and evolve into cities that serve as the center of commerce and exchange within a region. “While assisted with humanitarian aid,” Gans explains, “camps develop an economy of their own because at some point inhabitants start gathering wood or growing their own food. People don’t lie idle.” However, despite economic growth the camps often remain make-shift in structure.

Gans and Jelacic want to provide the resources necessary to erect the basic infrastructure for a sustainable community. The housing unit they developed consists of living quarters flanked on either side by an unfolding kitchen and bathroom. Made of scaffolding, the unit is designed to be sheathed in materials either found at the settlement site or provided by the UN. Its triangular shape allows the unit to better adapt to uneven terrain, and it can be quickly and easily constructed by a woman or elderly person with minimal assistance and few, if any, tools. In addition to addressing the most immediate problems—the urgent need for temporary shelter and running water—the dwellings’ combined scaffolding forms a foundation upon which a permanent house, and ultimately a permanent city, can be built. “The beams are strong enough to take the weight of construction for a house built around it,” Gans says. “You could then use it as interior scaffolding and lay the floor beams for a higher story on top of it.”

Gans and Jelacic believe that disaster-relief housing potentially has widespread application—possibly as a solution to housing shortages worldwide. “Really, what’s the difference between a refugee and a displaced person?” Gans asks. “That’s part of our fascination. Even though we started out with this very extreme situation, we think ultimately it’s a normative condition, especially if you look closely at those countries with great influxes of people.

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