An Architect for Disasters and the Poor

DSC00157Missoula    The problem of affordable housing and post-disaster housing are coupled together by cost and for those who care, by speed.

Cost, because no one in government anymore wants to put the real price tag on what it would take to finally put all Americans into decent and affordable housing, much less the hundreds of millions of others globally. Regardless of the best intentions, it now takes big money, as Mayor Bill de Blasio is discovering as he looks to the public housing authority for a New York City fix and find it’s running a $77 million deficit. In the terrible choices made with too few alternatives, too little is done with a shrug and half-hearted commitments.

The same thing happens in the wake of disasters when tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands are suddenly left without housing. The policy planners’ hope is always that the problem is temporary. After Katrina in 2005, people were still in FEMA trailers years later and it is still easy to see families living in half-built homes even now nine years later. After many disasters in the developing world refugees might be living in such temporary housing for more than ten years. Visiting Japan in the wake of the earthquake and the nuclear plant problems in 2012, there were whole settlements of people living without the knowledge of whether they would ever be allowed to return. Either way, temporary, means cheap, and a disaster defines an emergency, and that means fast.

This is a problem I’ve come back to often and tried to puzzle through in a small way in my Battle for the Ninth Ward: ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster. Living off the grid on Rock Creek in a post-Katrina Airstream, seemed a fitting place to read about the architect and recent Pulitzer Prize winner, Shigeru Ban, and what he offers as viable alternatives in this space. Ironically the house he built as part of the architectural display that is the essence of Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” housing development in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, has never seemed to be much of a solution. The New Yorker piece by Dana Goodyear gave me a lot more to chew on and appreciate in understanding his work and the potential his contribution could make though, as I was better able to translate some of his other experiments into the required formulas of cost and efficiency.

Ban is focused on construction with commonplace and renewable building materials: paper tubes, shipping containers, and wood, lots of wood. For example fifty dollar, post-disaster tents to be provided by the United Nations where the infrastructure holding them together is in Goodyear’s description, a “simple skeleton of recycled-paper tubes, fitted together with plastic joints and braced with ropes describing the pattern of an unfinished star.” When you read that you can’t help but say to yourself, “Hey, I could build that!”

A picture in The New Yorker of a classroom built after the Japanese earthquake was worth more than a thousand words. The pitched roof was constructed of large, cut paper tubes with what looked like one 2×4 joined along the length and the paper beams connected to identical paper columns that held up the prefab walls, all guyed together with buckled cables to buttress the load bearing weight, and some thin plywood sheeting on the roof with circles cut to allow light. It was attractive and functional. It didn’t look cheap, but you knew it was cheap because you could see the materials.

After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, for a group of Vietnamese immigrants living in squalid tents he built:

…a cluster of cabins with walls made from upright paper tubes set on a foundation of donated Kirin beer crates filled with sand…smooth paper columns supporting crisp white canvass roofs…They are inexpensive, easy to assemble, and made from widely available energy-efficient components.

Nine years after Kartrina, I have steadily kept up the payments on two acres of ground, mud, and swamp on a bayou across Lake Ponchartrain. The fishing camp and everything around it other than 35 stubby piers is long gone, and annually my family debates how to get the camp back in action for its beauty, peace, and proximity, hardly a half-hour from where we all live in Bywater. I always vote against a structure since it seems to be simply providing more toothpicks for the next hurricane to spit out around the wetlands of the abutting Bayou Branch National Wildlife Refuge. We look at hunters’ tents and yurts, and wonder if we would have the time to disassemble them before the next storm, and there’s always a next storm, my friends, just know that.

I don’t know that there’s a solution on the bayou or for the pressing needs for affordable and post-disaster housing, but Architect Ban is going in some interesting directions, and he’s now given me some ideas for what might be a compromise that works, and that we could all afford. His work deserves serious attention and widespread examination.

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