As Winter Nears, IRC Designs Innovative Emergency Shelter for Quake Survivors
As relief helicopters chatter through the morning sky outside, John Mason, a shelter advisor with the International Rescue Committee, stands at a white-board drawing out a unique solution to shelter thousands of families left homeless by earthquake in Pakistan.
Time is running out to rebuild homes as winter rapidly approaches, threatening to strand tens of thousands of quake survivors outdoors. Although tents have been distributed as a short-term solution, they lack the insulation needed to help people survive the harsh winter.
The biggest challenge is to find a rapidly erectable structure that will withstand the cold and snow-loads by using materials that are locally available, says Mr. Mason.
The IRC is adapting an innovative design that uses flexible, hollow plastic tubing normally used in the packaging of grains and commodities. The tubing, manufactured in rolls more than a kilometer long, is packed tight with soil and debris which is then twisted into a dome-shaped structure.
But the problem with dome-shaped structures is that they are not always culturally acceptable, so what we've done is adapt it into a rectangular or square structure using the same technique, explains Mr. Mason excitedly.
Mason says that because of its simple design, the entire structure, measuring about 4 meters squared, can easily be completed by a team of four unskilled laborers in about one day.
It is simple enough that anyone can look at it and immediately duplicate it so you don't have to rely on a trained craftsperson in a village to go from house to house. Everyone can get going right at once and build their own.
Once the walls are built from the stuffed tubing, roof beams are then added to support the corrugated sheet-metal roof. Door and window openings can be improvised from salvaged wood and materials scattered among the earthquake debris.
All the material required for the structures is lightweight and easily transportable, making it an attractive solution for villages scattered among the steep terrain of the earthquake zone.
Efficient and innovative shelter design is nothing new to the IRC's emergency response coordinator, Alan Manski, who is working with Mason. Last year, Manski designed and built structures using locally available steel reinforcement bars, plastic sheets and palm-fronds for refugees in Darfur.
It worked. The people liked them so we built about 5,000 of these and it became the standard. IRC led the way, says Mr. Manski.
The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, which is the global relief arm of the United States government, is looking to the IRC to again lead the way in shelter design.
The OFDA has donated about 760 rolls of plastic sheeting that will arrive on a special flight to Pakistan's capital, Islamabad on Friday. The IRC estimates that as many as 7,000 shelters, each housing an entire family, can be constructed from the arriving material.
The structures are an adaptation of a building technique designed by Nadir Khalili, an Iranian-born architect who runs a research site in southern California. According to his website, Mr. Khalili came up with the simple dome design after studying ancient structures left standing after natural disasters. He found that domes, vaults and arches have withstood earthquakes for as long as 4,000 years.
Although innovative, Mr. Khalili's design and the adaptation of it by the IRC remains untested in a real disaster. The organization plans to construct a prototype near its operation headquarters in Manshera to see if it will work.
If we can build one and play around with it until it works, we can use it to show other NGOs, says Mr. Manski.
Earthquake resistance is the long-term challenge facing the IRC, which must create houses that are better-built and more earthquake resistant than the mud and straw structures typical of the region.
There's no point in building something that is going to fall down in the next earthquake, says Mr. Mason, the last thing I want to do is construct a house that's going to fall down on somebody.