Architecture for Emergencies: On-site Construction or Prefabrication?

Sikorsky Skycrane transporting a pre-fabricated house. Image © Russavia [Wikimedia] bajo dominio público

While damage control and preparation is an ever increasing factor in how we plan our cities, certain extraordinary circumstances, like natural disasters, remain outside of our ability to plan and demand quick architectural responses that offer instant aid to the people affected, often being the difference between life and death. 
Natural, unpredictable events like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, armed conflicts, territory disputes, or global crises--such as climate change or pandemics--require immediate action in order to mitigate ensuing damage and chaos. Emergency architecture is the immediate answer to the humanitarian side of a conflict, covering everything from housing to medical facilities for the affected. 

For communities lacking resources, refugee camps, and territories hit by natural disasters, the process of organizing emergency housing depends on factors such as the scale of the disaster, the number of people affected, the materials available, geographic location, economic resources, and the help rendered by government and humanitarian entities. 

While the details of every project will be determined by the aforementioned factors, there are really only two approaches taken when assembling emergency housing. On the one hand, there are prefabricated prototypes, ready-made structures which are transported to the disaster area–either in pieces or fully assembled--and are built to withstand and wide range of climate conditions. These include systems of mountable pieces, retractable structures, inflatable pavilions, and textile walls, all of which are easy to transport and even quicker to assemble. On the other hand, emergency structures built on-site tend to utilize local materials and allow the same people benefiting from them to participate in the construction process. When planning emergency housing and deciding which of these approaches to use, it's essential to take into account the urgency of the situation as well as geographic factors and availability of resources and manpower.

With the current global health crisis spurred by COVID-19, many countries are taking extreme construction measures in order to expand their space and resource-strapped medical facilities. By comparing the two previously mentioned approaches to emergency construction, it is possible to study how well they respond to different circumstances, and, consequently, to mix the two approaches as a way to facilitate a quick and efficient construction process that involves the communities that they are benefiting.

Prefabricated Systems

The main advantage of prefabricated prototypes is the lack of time and labor required to assemble them, allowing for the quick delivery of aid those in need of emergency shelter. As it is a temporary structure and can be dismantled and transported, it has no impact on the land and can be reused when needed.  Most importantly, these designs are generic and flexible, allowing them to adapt to any geography and climate. In this way, the expansion and modification of modules is also easy to execute. Some examples:

Tentative, Compact Living Spaces for Disaster Victims / Designnobis

Designnobis has created Tentative, a compact, collapsible "all-in-one" emergency shelter that can be used in any terrain or climate. When disassembled, the Tentative measures 4 meters long, 2 meters wide, and 30 centimeters high, allowing up to 24 units to fit on one semi-truck. Once assembled, the shelter measures 2.5 meters high and can comfortably house two adults and two children.  

Tentative, espacio para víctimas de desastres. Image Cortesía de Designnobis

Pull, Collapsable and Portable Shelter / Jonathan Balderrama

This design focuses on versatility and durability that will serve during any type of humanitarian crisis, from natural disaster to war. This prefabricated "portable shelter" is designed so that it can be added onto other units in order to generate the amount of space needed for any situation.

Pull, refugio portátil y desplegable. Image Cortesía de Jonathan Balderrama

Mobile Hospital Units / JUPE Health

This project aims to address the shortage of beds in medical facilities due to the COVID-19 epidemic. The space is created by an interchangeable chassis that can be collapsed and moved to where it is needed. The objective of the design is that it can be produced and sent anywhere in the world quickly and without hassle. 

Unidades hospitalarias móviles. Image Cortesía de JUPE HEALTH

Local Construction Systems

In his book “Emergency Architecture,” Ian Davis explains that on-site construction projects that use materials familiar to the inhabitants are, not only better received, but are better suited to the climate and geography of the disaster area. Even more importantly, they allow their future inhabitants to actively participate in the building process. This provides cultural benefits as well since the inhabitants can build according to their own styles and customs and can maintain the structure far more easily than a pre-fabricated structure brought in from far away.  Many times, the transportation conditions of emergency shelters are fictitious at best and many of these shelters become permanent installations. For this reason, it is critical that they can be maintained on a local scale. By involving the shelters' future inhabitants in the building process, it is possible to address a number of cultural factors that can then be applied to global solutions. Some examples: 

Prototype for Bamboo House in Nepal / rOOtStudio

rOOtStudio designed and built a prototype for and emergency shelter in response to the housing crisis caused by the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Using easily accessible local materials, including bricks salvaged from the collapsed buildings, and bamboo, the prototypes were able to provide immediate shelter while using local building techniques, allowing them to be produced independently by the community. 

Prototipos de vivienda en bambú para Nepal. Image Cortesía de rOOtstudio

Temporary Dormitories / a.gor.a Architects

The Children Development Center school has built emergency dormitories to provide immediate shelter to its students displaced by armed conflicts. The building materials--recycled wood, bamboo, and reeds--are locally sourced and familiar to the local community, ensuring easy maintenance and conservation of local building techniques. 

Dormitorios Temporales. Image Cortesía de a.gor.a Architects

Temporary Shelter in Nepal / Charles Lai + Takehiko Suzuki

The project's aim is to provide emergency shelter to people affected by the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Built using bamboo, a cheap, abundant, and locally sourced material, the structure can be easily assembled by local builders in as little as 2-3 days. 

Refugio Temporal en Nepal . Image Cortesía de Charles Lai, Takehiko Suzuki

While choosing between construction systems and technique will ultimately depend on the given circumstances--meaning it's impossible to say that one is better than the other--it is possible to combine the two, using prefabricated elements that can then be added to local materials and techniques in order to ensure a rapidly built and durable structure. It's also important to consider the possibilities provided by technology such as robots, 3D printing, and automation. Research should consider any and every possibility according to the given situation in order to render a result that optimizes the construction process while also ensuring the involvement and input of the local community that the project seeks to benefit.  

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About this author
Cite: Maiztegui, Belén. "Architecture for Emergencies: On-site Construction or Prefabrication?" [Arquitectura de emergencia, ¿construcción local o prefabricación?] 26 May 2020. ArchDaily. (Trans. Johnson, Maggie) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

Sikorsky Skycrane transporting a pre-fabricated house. Image © Russavia [Wikimedia] bajo dominio público


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