Third World Architecture: Case Study I

February 26, 2010

In Chad, in response to the Darfur crisis, a new project designed by Ghassem Fardanesh was first tested in the field. Plain white tents, arranged in a long grid, covered the desert where a refugee camp was set up. Although it may not have looked especially revolutionary or innovative, these tents were actually the result of a long process of design and development that was a blessing to the refugees and to UNHCR. Inventively called the “Lightweight Emergency Tent,” these tents were designed to replace the old canvas tents that had been used for over 20 years. Made of synthetic plastic and designed ergonomically to meet the needs of both the refugees and UNHCR, I think these tents provide an excellent first case study to study the economic, social, and material challenges of designing for the developing world and, in particular, for disaster relief.

When it all comes down to it, disaster relief is centered on one thing: speed. The faster temporary structures can get to refugees, the more successful they will be. In the past, canvas tents were sent quickly out to sites where refugees would be staying for longer periods of time and where materials for more permanent structures are not available. But canvas tents are heavy, costly, and deteriorate quickly. So, Fardanesh teamed with UNHCR and helped design a new tent. This tent first takes into account the social issues that are a part of any refugee camp: namely the need for privacy. The tent, sized for a 4-5 person family, provides fabric partitions that can be set up to create separate spaces for families to use. The tent itself also maximizes headroom by employing a tunnel shape, and has vents with mosquito netting to circulate air through the tent. The details of the tent are designed to create an easy manufacturing process, and the tent’s synthetic plastic material is durable and keeps the tent cool. The major economic advantage to this tent is its lightweight design, which helps to reduce all shipping costs dramatically.

There are many factors that need to be taken into account when designing housing for the developing world. Whether you are dealing with disaster victims or the extreme poor, the first thing that must always be considered is the end user. Disaster victims and refugees need things quickly and the poor and homeless need things cheap. Beyond that, it is a process of finding innovative solutions to the economic, social, and material problems that are a part of these projects. This is what the architect is trained to do. Our designer, Fardanesh, first tackled the problem of speed in his project by designing this tent to be lightweight and easy to manufacture and assemble. Beyond that, he then tackled the other challenges of privacy, space, air ventilation, durability, and cost. All of these challenges are the ones that can make or break a housing project. If these problems are not answered, the project will fail. Some refugee relief designs have failed because they cannot be transported quick enough, so by the time the shelters arrive, there are already other structures in place and being used. Other designs are too permanent and the camps become long-term communities that were never designed to be permanent. And others never make it off the drawing board because they are too costly. Fardanesh’s understanding of these essential elements made this project a successful housing project, and in turn, a successful case study to understand.

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