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Architecture In Aid of Nepal

A group of architects have responded to the recent earthquake disaster in Nepal with a prototype temporary relief shelter under a Hong Kong based initiative called Architecture for the Mass. Sylvia Chan writes.

Architecture In Aid of Nepal

The Gorkha earthquake in April 2015, which killed more than 9,000, has left hundreds of thousands of Nepalese homeless. A group of architects have recently established Architecture for the Mass, a volunteer group based in Hong Kong, to contribute their professional architectural knowledge to the disaster relief efforts. Earlier this month, Architecture for the Mass completed in Duwakot a prototype temporary shelter that employs local materials and labour. Sylvia Chan speaks with Charles Lai from Hong Kong, one of the founders of Architecture for the Mass, about the design of the prototype that facilitates fast construction at a low cost.


The Nepal earthquake happened on 25 April. When did you decide to engage in this disaster relief project? What drove you to start the project and what are your main ambitions?

One of the main drives for us to engage in this project was to see how vulnerable the construction in Nepal is. An earthquake alone cannot kill people. It is usually architecture that kills people in an earthquake. Even in this contemporary era, the majority of the global population resides in architecture not built by professionals (i.e. engineers, architects, or professional contractors). The despair about professionals not being involved in construction drove Takehiko Suzuki and I to organise Architecture for the Mass to bring professional knowledge into our daily projects. We got in touch with some Hong Kong based NGOs and NPOs that have worked in Nepal before and engaged them in a collaboration where we as architects provide our knowledge and technical support in reconstructing the homes for the victims.


The prototype for the temporary shelter was built in Duwakot. Why was this site chosen for the prototype?

A Hong Kong based volunteer group, One Village Focus Funds, has worked in the village before, and we worked with them on this project. We noticed that after the earthquake, the disaster relief efforts from the government and other major disaster relief agencies were unable to [reach] remote villages such as Duwakot. Our aim is to make sure that the disaster relief efforts cover these areas deprived of support and aid from the outside world. One Village Focus Funds has established a network of local volunteers in the village. They surveyed the area and identified some households that urgently needed help. The prototype was built as a temporary shelter for one of these households.


The design of the prototype involved a lot of research on the damage done by the earthquake. Could you tell us more about the research process and your findings?

We consulted with our NGO/NPO partners about the condition of the site. The main concern for them was the monsoon season. In Nepal monsoons are harsh and life for the Nepalese is already difficult even without the earthquake. Homes and structures were damaged in the earthquake and villagers were more vulnerable to the harsh rains and thunderstorms. In this project, we engaged in a charrette-like design process. We proposed a design and [had discussions] with the engineers and consultants [involved in] Architecture for the Mass. We then [had discussions] with our NGO/NPO partners and made sure that they felt confident about the practicality and feasibility of the design.


Transportation of building materials is difficult in Nepal given the topography of the country. The earthquake only exacerbated the problem. You obviously took these issues into account when you designed the prototype, which uses mainly local materials. Could you tell us about these materials and how the locals can source them?

It was indeed our intention to minimise the need for transportation. Nepal is a hilly country and transportation is always a problem. We sourced some materials at the beginning and discovered that bamboo is available almost everywhere in the region. In most villages, there are shops that sell bamboo poles for construction. It is an abundant material in Nepal and is very cheap. This helps minimise the cost of construction. The bamboo structural framework allows for flexibility in material choice for the envelope. It is a separated system and users can attach other materials onto the structural frame to respond to different climate conditions.


Could you tell us about the form of the prototype?

One of the major challenges for the local Nepalese is the monsoon season from June to September. Food and grains will rot if not properly stored, making life more difficult for them. The primary function of the shelter is to keep grains and food supplies from the damp environment during the monsoon season. Elements such as pitched roofs and elevated floor have been introduced to keep the interior from the harsh weather.


The prototype design would enable around 10 unskilled workers to assemble a 3m x 6m shelter in two days. What enables this fast construction?

The project’s [design] is [made] as simple as possible. Each bamboo frame can be assembled by a small team of two to three workers on site. The elements can be fabricated in parallel at the same time, speeding up the construction process. For sites that do not have enough open space for construction, the frames can be fabricated off-site and then transported to the site for assembly. The construction process has been meticulously designed and considered to allow for independence to any specific site conditions and other unforeseeable factors.


How is this prototype different from the shelters built by the locals themselves? How has the design taken climate and further risks of earthquakes into consideration?

The primary consideration of this project is the earthquake-resistant ability of the structure to avoid future possibilities of collapse. The structural frame has diagonal bracings in all directions to ensure that the structure is sound and stable. The bamboo structure serves as a framework for different envelope materials and configurations and can be tailored for specific needs and functions. The elevated floor ensures that the interior is a proper habitat and provides storage for food supplies against humidity. Potentially the temporary shelter could serve as transitional housing that would last for two to three years while reconstruction takes place.


You have prepared a DIY construction manual that would enable the locals to build a shelter all by themselves, or even appropriate the prototype you have done into different sizes for different functions. Is it difficult to convince the locals to build a shelter according to your prototype?

The locals welcomed new techniques and knowledge and were generally convinced about the design. We are confident that the design has an impact not only on the practical level; it can also enhance the knowledge and techniques of the locals. The shelter design and manual are open to the public. If there is a need for the shelter in other regions, we are always available to provide technical support.

How are you going to further implement this project in Nepal, so that more people will benefit from it?

Right now, our team of architectural students and volunteers are working on school reconstruction projects in the region of Gorkha and Katunge based on our prototype. We will soon announce our fundraising efforts for these reconstruction projects, including charity sales and crowdfunding. You are welcome to stay tune through our official Facebook page.

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