09 June 2011
Home, sustainable home
Think of sustainable housing design, and you probably think of rainwater tanks and alternative energy. But when your home and community have been destroyed by natural or man-made disasters, a truly sustainable rebuilding project involves much more than eco-friendliness.
Dr Esther Charlesworth in Sri Lanka, soon after the 2004 tsunami.
RMIT Vietnam students are working on housing designs for marginalised communities.
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The devastation left by the recent earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan drove home the importance of mobilising rapid, efficient responses to provide emergency shelter, food and medical care. But what happens when the emergency is over and aid teams pull out?
"When it comes to housing, the designs used for emergency shelter are very seldom appropriate for the community's longer term needs," says RMIT architect Dr Esther Charlesworth.
"Whether the disaster is natural or man-made, reconstruction efforts in countries already rendered vulnerable through economic or social disadvantage tend to be spearheaded by aid teams that come in from outside."
This creates what Charlesworth calls the "triple disaster phenomenon". After the initial disaster subsides, there's a political disaster, because the government is ill-equipped to deal with the situation.
Then comes the reconstruction disaster. Albeit with goodwill, Western aid organisations go into vulnerable communities, build prefabricated or culturally inappropriate housing, and leave. There's little community consultation or consideration of longer-term sustainability issues.
"I've seen deserted prefab houses littered all over post-tsunami Sri Lanka," says Charlesworth, "because they were built for nuclear families, in communities where multi-generational living was the norm."
What's more, post-disaster housing is often climatically inappropriate and unsustainable. "Design and construction requirements are quite different for desert areas compared with the wet tropics, for example, but too often there's a one-size-fits-all approach."
Charlesworth also contends that most housing in vulnerable communities fails the economic sustainability test. Builders often use imported materials and labour - depriving local communities of employment opportunities. And it's not just post-disaster zones that suffer. Communities experiencing longstanding social marginalisation also bear the brunt.
"I've seen it time and again in the Northern Territory," says Charlesworth. "Fly-in/fly-out workers roll out housing programs in remote communities, while residents continue to experience high unemployment."
To begin addressing some of these issues, Charlesworth has just embarked on a four-year study of successful sustainable housing design in vulnerable communities. With the help of a $600,000 Australian Research Council grant, her team is looking at four case studies in communities experiencing vulnerability: Vietnam (climate change), New Orleans (natural disaster), Sri Lanka (civil war) and remote indigenous communities in Australia (social marginalisation).
Charlesworth and her team are investigating the most significant changes each housing project has created. Collaborating with local community representatives, funding agencies and not-for-profit housing design organisations, the team is examining how these success stories could help other communities and agencies deal with disasters and marginalisation.
In Vietnam, students from RMIT's campus in Ho Chi Minh City are participating in the research. "Vietnam is highly vulnerable to climate change," says Charlesworth, "but as yet there's little evidence of sustainable housing solutions."
Her team is also looking at the role of architects. "I want to examine how our profession can deal more effectively with disaster mitigation and humanitarian issues, and embrace this field as a mainstream pursuit."
Above all, Charlesworth hopes the project will make a lasting difference. "Architects are trained to diagnose problems and find tangible solutions," she says. "When post-disaster or marginalised communities see a model of their new town, they feel enormous hope that, despite their trauma, they can start afresh."
This story was first published in RMIT's Making Cities Work magazine.