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Caitlin MacLeod

Designing for Disaster

March 21st, 2019

For my first trick, I'd like to share an article I wrote last year for Part 1 of SEDA Magazine's 'A Guide to Being Unsustainable,' which was adapted from my final year dissertation. I remember that I set out to write one thing, an ode to the conscientious architect, some sort of proof that we could Be the Change We Wanted to See in the World, or something, and ended up discovering that I believed in something entirely different and writing about that instead. Which is not to say I became a cynic: I like to think of this piece more as a call to be more realistic and genuine, and less tokenistic, in our efforts to affect change.


And maybe it's a little cynical. I think that's healthy. 




Climate change and its increasingly apparent effects are being discussed now more than ever. 2017 saw a number of devastating natural disasters: Louisiana’s Tropical Storm Harvey damage, the hurricane in Puerto Rico, the earthquakes of Mexico and the California wildfires to name but a few. We had our own issues in the UK also, with the evacuation of Lancashire residents following widespread flooding across northern Wales and northwest England in November, and Storm Eleanor causing the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to release fifteen flood warnings across the country at the start of the year. The consequences of our mistreatment of the planet are being felt, and they are consequences which hit those living in vulnerable conditions the hardest.


Disaster architect Michael Sorkin has said that ‘the environments of those billions of our fellow citizens who live in conditions that deprive them of opportunities for health and happiness must be the object of an architecture of conscience.’ As stories of natural disaster adorn the headlines on ever more frequent occasions,the need to consider the livelihoods of said billions of citizens is increasingly urgent. The design professional is, on paper, very well-equipped to deal with the challenges that the aftermath of tsunamis, fires and earthquakes pose. That is to say, our core skills in problem-solving, spatial innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration would be - and have been - very useful in the context of an emergency situation. However, what we must acknowledge is that this does not necessarily mean we are fully equipped and qualified to address the complex issues and challenges that are thrown up by natural disasters.


Depressingly often we have watched as charity money dedicated to helping affected communities goes missing, badly made shelters provide little beyond immediate and short-term relief, and those in harm’s way suffer for years with little improvement in living conditions. The current involvement of western architects and the wider design profession in the field of natural disaster relief is minimal, and what effort is being made is often sadly ineffective or even harmful to vulnerable communities. In his lecture Humanitarian Architecture: Who Really Designs?, Dr Anshu Sharma discusses the phenomenon of the ‘igloo’, which he perceives as one such failed response:


David [Sanderson] often says, and I quote him, that “wherever there is an earthquake, there’s an igloo.”…This is an innovation that always seeks a problem…Innovators like us from all over the world…[come] and set up designs and prototypes of what we believe people should be building and what the answer is…I’d like to add that in these twenty-five odd disasters that I’ve worked in, I have also never seen a single family ever live in a house like this…you only see them as prototypes that are coming from the world of innovators and well-meaning architects…very removed from how people work and how society works in these places.


Herein lies the issue. Designers still seek to solve these highly complex, locale-specific problems with design competitions, glossy renders, and clever prototype shelters that can be shipped off to whichever devastated location is in the news that week. When it comes to us helping after disasters in developing countries far from our own, we are entirely removed from the process, focused on the product to the point where, as Dr Sharma highlights, the final shelter solution is one that is so removed from the realities of the devastated community members that it is unusable.


So what is the solution? We must acknowledge architecture as a practice specific to location, and that the process of designing necessarily involves collaboration, information exchange and integration with locale. In an interview with architect William Flinn, he outlined his work with CARE international in the Philippines to me, stressing their focus on teaching ‘build back safer’ techniques to local populations in order that they might future-proof their homes and businesses without having to rely on the charity of design professionals. This technique integrates local materials, vernacular construction techniques and the skills of local workers into the reconstruction process rather than forcing a foreign architecture into a context where it is not welcome. He believes disaster reconstruction is about empowerment’ and asks ‘can we communicate better with communities?’ He stresses ‘knowledge exchange, not knowledge transfer,' seeing the role of the architect as allowing communities to self-recover while guiding and informing their ideas to steer them in a better direction. I believe that if we as design professionals hope to make a meaningful contribution to the world of disaster relief and mitigation in the near future, we must adapt our profession significantly and recalibrate our approach to and perceptions of vulnerable communities, particularly those existing in poorer developing countries. Flinn’s approach is one that departs from an all-too common attitude adopted by architects wherein there is an obsession with design ownership, of design professionals putting their ‘mark’ on their work. As David Sanderson has argued, ‘most architects are taught the exact opposite of what is needed’ when it comes to working in post-disaster contexts. Social Impact Researcher and Strategy and Operations Consultant Nikki Linsell has been an outspoken critic of architects in the field of disaster relief in her published writing work, and as I interviewed her she elaborated on how this hubristic attitude translates into the misguided glorification of architects working in vulnerable communities:


It might not just be architectural charities, but there’s this sort of suggestion where “30,000 kids have gone to school because of us.” And it’s like, well, no, you wouldn’t say that if you were an architect in the UK, it wouldn’t say on your website “check out our lovely new school in London, we’ve educated the next London generation.” No, you haven’t, the teachers have, the public sector have, what you’ve done is created a good, conducive environment to support education. Yet we don’t use those terms in the charitable sector when it comes to architecture.


In a particularly scathing piece by Linsell, she clarifies that her criticism is directed at ‘any architect (or student of) who believes that their heavily culturally potent and political design skills has a justifiable place, let alone positive impact on a targeted ‘vulnerable’ community far-removed physically and socio-politically than themselves.’ I fully agree. By assuming that any attempt to help in ‘poor’ parts of the world is inherently good in itself, we engage in a new kind of imperialism. We limit the growth of built environment sectors in third world countries by flying in our own professionals rather than promoting the use of local workers. We erase culture by ignoring local building techniques and materials and plonking in our own alien prototypes. We continue to perpetuate the myth that poor communities exist to be saved and that it is our job as architects to save them with our superior knowledge of design and construction.


This may seem an entirely negative point of view to take. But I believe it is necessary for us to admit our own limitations before we ‘screw a system of place up beyond recognition’ as Linsell puts it. What we can do is focus on the contexts with which we are familiar, where disasters are occurring with increasing frequency – this is our professional duty. If there is a need to travel abroad, it should be to facilitate learning: empowering local workers and stepping back to adopt a smaller role within a more important whole. As climate change advances, empowering rather than inhibiting vulnerable communities is a far more important a job for us than attempting to promote ourselves as world-saving heroes: in doing this, we champion real and meaningful change in our most vulnerable environments.


A Guide to Being Unsustainable part 1 has recently been published and includes this piece. Part 2 is now under development: when finished, the two guides will be combined to form a lifestyle Colour Supplement to help us all tune into our changing world. It will include fashion, travel, your money, relationship advice, film reviews and a horoscope - I will be publishing a piece on sustainable fashion. You can find out more information at


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