Is constructing three-storey buildings the answer?

- by Hiran Miskin ( of Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada )

At a time of such devastating loss of lives and property there are many whom individually, or through NGOs, or at Government level are trying to help the affected, by building housing units for them or by creating a buffer zone where nothing could be built in future.

Prohibiting reconstruction of destroyed homes within 100 - 300 metres of the sea is a very questionable thing to. It could be viewed as an attempt to arrange the pattern of ones existence against ones will. The Government may say that it is done for the fishermen's own good. But are they being quite honest?

The idea of constructing three-storey buildings for the fishermen too is an attempt to re-arrange a pattern of existence. Is there anyway that we could find a more humane solution when finding shelter to all those who have lost everything in the Tsunami? To provide them with a kind housing that could offer both shelter and community?

In Sri Lanka alone over 120,000 houses have been either completely destroyed or partially damaged as a result of the tsunami. Plans are already underway for the Government to provide three-storey buildings to house people who have no houses. The Government has also said that they may consider providing land for those who prefer to have single houses and has promised to bear the cost.

A sad fact is that a vast majority of the Sri Lankan population today is either "mis-housed, ill-housed, or unhoused." In Sri Lanka less than five percent of the population could afford to seek the services of an architect. It is at a time like this that we need the proper counsel of the architects. What is their position on this issue?

Architecture for Humanity is one organization that is trying to make a difference about such conditions existing in the other parts of the world. Another is, an organization and website covering "tools, models and ideas for building a better future."
These two organizations and many other NGOs have launched a reconstruction appeal to help the victims of the Tsunami.

Another group of people who are willing to pass their know-how, free of charge to anyone who wants to make use of it in reconstruction activities, is the National Engineering Research and Development Center (NERD) in Sri Lanka. They came up with cost-effective housing plans to rebuild structures damaged by the Tsunami.

Though we are very appreciative of all these measures, they do not really speak of an unmet need for proper kind of houses and other smaller projects in the affected communities. What I am referring to here is about creation of houses that would help build the communities and personal family lives, than construction of mid-rise housing units.

As I have stated previously, the present government seems to be more interested in providing multi-storeyed buildings more than the creation of individual houses.

Unlike construction of mid to high-rise units, which is focused only upon the economic aspect of things, creation of proper individual houses is the only way that we could truly help these affected people. The homes that we provide for these people should be of the earth and it should create the framework for personal and family life.

The government should first listen to their concerns. It should form partnerships with local groups who employ local labour and utilize local construction techniques to build single houses. If the donor groups too could listen to these people when working with those affected? This would help the funds to be kept within the community, helping to create micro-economies for those trying to escape this disaster. This is the most cost-effective way of rebuilding.

If the Sri Lankan Design Community could provide proper house designs, it will make a difference as to how and where these people will live, how they will eat, sleep and socialize. Such a gesture from the design community will help utilize the given funds to extend beyond simple dwellings to create real communities enabling life to grow, rebuild and renew.

Two recent studies by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and the World Bank provide a glimpse into the deepening social inequality and the continuing deterioration of living standards for the majority of the population. Most of those affected are amongst the poorest 20 percent of the population in Sri Lanka.
As per the report, some 12.5 percent of the population in Sri Lanka still lives in houses made of wattle and daub. These are huts with few, if any, facilities. Over 60 percent of people have no access to piped water. Nearly 23 percent do not have sanitary toilet facilities and about 6 percent do not have any toilet facilities what so ever.

This is not taking into account the main districts under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the North and East of the island.

If we could provide these people with adobe houses or houses made of wattle and daub, that are of proper design, with the basic utilities and infra-structure, that is a hundred times more preferable than building them apartment buildings.

The huts that the 12.5 percent of the population in Sri Lanka still live are roughly 10 ft x 20 ft. This is a rectangular hut that is divided in two - one part covered only on three sides forming an enclosed veranda. If one really analyzes this village lifestyle, and how their day-to-day life takes place, one will find that it is a heaven for them compared to a life in a mid-rise unit.

Those of us who could truly understand the simple lifestyle of the villagers lived in a simple hut with a slanting roof, thatched with grass and straw are few.

The floor of those huts is made smooth with mud and clay over which a coating of cow-dung was applied. It will have only one room and cooking is done under the eave. Their out-house is located approximately 100ft away. Very few of the houses would have a pot latrine attached to the house.
Could you recollect the feeling of comfort experienced in spending time in such huts? Have you ever spent a day of your life under an extended eave of such a hut that is used for sitting on, sleeping and dining?

If the collective mindset is for constructing three-storey buildings to house people in the affected areas, I must say that we are in the midst of a housing crisis. We should tread very carefully when we try to change a people's way of life, age-old culture and livelihood.

As I have said at the outset, the Sri Lankan population today is either "mis-housed, ill-housed, or unhoused." Will the design community rise up to this challenge of correcting this wrong even in a small way? Here they have been given that opportunity? Who will rise up to it and who will exploit this situation without any thought of listening to these peoples real needs are yet to see.



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