Launch Slideshow

Raising Roofs

Within days of the tsunami that swept away coastal villages across Southeast Asia last December, tens of thousands of people flooded the phone lines of relief organizations to pledge money and volunteer to help with the cleanup.

Raising Roofs

Within days of the tsunami that swept away coastal villages across Southeast Asia last December, tens of thousands of people flooded the phone lines of relief organizations to pledge money and volunteer to help with the cleanup.

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    Reuters/Arko Datta

    A Sri Lankan man salvages wood from the debris of tsunami-ravaged houses in Kalmunai, on Sri Lanka's east coast.

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    Reuters/Arko Datta

    Villages lie in ruin in the country’s Ampara region.

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    Shelter For Life

    The model above shows a 10-foot-by-12-foot veranda that can be closed in to create an extra room.

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    Shelter For Life

    In Sri Lanka, permanent houses such as these, designed by Shelter For Life for Sri Lankans displaced by the civil war, will soon house tsunami victims.

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    Shelter For Life

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    Shelter For Life

Within days of the tsunami that swept away coastal villages across Southeast Asia last December, tens of thousands of people flooded the phone lines of relief organizations to pledge money and volunteer to help with the cleanup. Architects were part of the rush to respond. It didn't take long for Craig Williams, president of the North American chapter of Architects Without Borders, to collect the names of 500 architects and tradespeople who were willing to hop on a plane at a moment's notice. But while many other volunteers have headed to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, and Thailand to put up tents and pass out food, architects are gearing up for the long haul, partnering with their in-country counterparts to design and reconstruct entire towns.

Architects Without Borders, an international network of volunteers based in Sebastopol, Calif., has sent six teams into four countries and will soon deploy two dozen more. Working with other relief agencies and local governments, the teams are assessing the damage to existing structures, identifying potential building projects, and noting logistical challenges. In India they're helping to rebuild 98 villages, ranging in size from 28 to 500 houses. But Williams, whose day job is designing schools at TLCD Architecture in Santa Rosa, says it's not enough to simply roll out the tracing paper. “Architects are anxious to come up with schemes of what villages and houses might look like, but that's only part of what needs to happen,” he says. “We're looking for good project managers who can do triage on disparate issues, deal with language barriers and corruption, and engage the local leadership in creating entrepreneurial opportunities.”

In Sri Lanka, the group is working on charrettes with local architects to come up with a design for kit houses that go up fast and can be easily converted to permanent housing. Community development is at the core of the scheme, which is to set up small village enterprises for putting the kits together. Williams says that in Sri Lanka, where the building capacity was 5,000 homes a year and half a million people were displaced, limited supplies have unleashed price gouging and rampant opportunism. “Big construction companies out of Hong Kong are clamoring for a piece of the pie,” Williams says. “We're looking for solutions that don't create a negative environmental impact.”

Over the last six years, Shelter For Life, a nonprofit international group in Oshkosh, Wis., has built more than 250 permanent homes for Sri Lankans displaced by the civil war. Now it has raised almost $300,000 for tsunami survivors. SFL plans to use that money, in addition to a $1 million U.S. government grant, to build 2,000 temporary shelters comprising a metal frame, bitumen panels, and metal roofing covered with thatch to keep out the heat. Once land allocations are approved, the materials will be reused on permanent homes. “A good architect is someone who listens to the needs of people but offers more than they're asking for,” says Dutch architect Harry van Burik, international program director at SFL. Working with local architects, the group has introduced plans for a two-room starter house made of cement blocks or adobe that can be expanded to six rooms in the future. SFL hopes to build 10,000 such permanent houses over the next four years, at a cost of roughly $1,500 apiece. “The biggest hurdle to rebuilding lives is a permanent place to live,” van Burik says. “Once people have that, they take ownership of their lives because they have hope in the future.”

The philosophy guiding these organizations is that a thoughtful, collaborative approach is the foundation for restoring destroyed communities. Architecture for Humanity, a 5-year-old nonprofit association with members in more than 100 countries, has raised $180,000 to begin constructing schools, clinics, and other public buildings in Kirinda and Pottuvil, Sri Lanka. “We're looking for ways to create an economic engine—re-establish a fish market and create marketplaces so the economy can grow,” says founder Cameron Sinclair, who also teaches architecture at Montana State University. His students are doing charrettes for houses in India and Indonesia that explore traditional vernacular forms, available materials, and passive heating and cooling. “I never dictate how something looks,” he says. “I'm the conduit and facilitator, making sure good design happens on all these projects.”

Architecture students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are eager to do more than write checks too. Three of the university's doctoral students in architecture are on the faculty of the University of Moratuwa, near Colombo, Sri Lanka, and have close ties with the government. So UWM is discussing plans to send studios of 12 to 14 students to work with Sri Lankan students on joint housing relief projects. “We have a strong ethic here at our school of getting involved, but we do it modestly; we're not interested in being part of the problem,” says department chair Don Hanlon.

The American Institute of Architects takes a similar stance. It is also giving the affected countries a chance to recover to a point where they can begin thinking about redevelopment. David Downey, who heads up tsunami relief at the AIA, says it has compiled a list of non-government organizations that are legitimate and are targeting long-term building projects. In addition to convening an information-sharing meeting among design and building professionals and the U.S. Agency for International Development last January, the AIA is planning a reconnaissance trip with its sister organizations in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Malaysia. “We've put out a call to our members for volunteers who are willing to serve” once a strategy gets under way,” says Downey, Associate AIA.

As media coverage of the disaster fades, the need for funds and volunteers will continue to grow. Craig Williams is grateful for the generosity of his employers, who pay him 12 hours a week to carry out his altruistic work. “Architects who'd like to contribute could have someone in their firm provide a stipend for them to go to Asia for a month, or for time to assist in a back-reach capacity,” he says. “We're at a critical juncture where awareness has been raised. We need to stay focused on these issues.”