Urgent Architecture

urgentarchitectureUrgent Architecture:  40 Sustainable Housing Solutions for a Changing World by Bridgette Meinhold was published in 2013 by W.W. Norton.  In this well illustrated and colorful book, Ms. Meinhold makes a good case that with the devastation and hardship incumbent with natural disasters and climate change, population growth, dwindling resources, poverty and conflict, we need to take a fresh look at appropriate architecture for these times.

In examining existing or proposed housing solutions, she has divided the book into five general categories: rapid shelters, transitional shelters, affordable housing, prefab housing, and adaptable housing. Within each category she introduces several specific examples that she feels address the needs expressed.

Rapid shelters are described as shelters that can be assembled in less than a day to provide protection from the elements for a limited amount of time. In evaluating her examples, she takes into account how they would be deployed, how long they take to set up, the skills and tools needed to assemble them, the cost, durability, security and reusability. In this category she examines eight shelters that are mostly industrial solutions; there is only one (a concept for using bamboo to form a framework that can be covered with tarps, etc.) that would be primarily created from natural, local materials. The cost of the prefabricated units range from $1,000 to $10,000 each, so with the added cost of transporting them to the disaster area, the affordability may be questionable. A great deal of cleverness has gone into the design of these shelters, and there is no doubt that they would be useful and welcomed in any true disaster situation.

“Transitional shelters” are any sturdy shelter that can help a family rebuild and expand as time and funds become available, or a portable shelter that can be moved as needed. Of the eight examples shown, most are industrial and prefabricated in nature, ranging in price from $1,200 to $25,000. One is a lovely traditional Mongolian yurt, costing between $5,000 and $12,000; one is a shelter made from a recycled shipping container and one is made almost entirely from recycled pallets. Compared to the cost of housing generally these days, these prices are certainly at the low end of the scale. I would say that the pallet house is the most affordable and sustainable of the lot. One shelter is a vault fabricated out of computer-cut OSB ribs that support corrugated roofing materials; unfortunately this design would create more wasted material than is actually used in the construction!

Then we come to “affordable housing,” which is housing that can be built, bought, or rented by low-income families and that encourages energy-efficient and sustainable living. Represented in this category are a wide variety of projects ranging in price from $2,400 to $8 million; obviously affordability is relative to the situation. The most sustainable examples are the Gabion House made from earthquake debris in Haiti and simple strawbale houses with earthbag foundations constructed in Pakistan (these cost less than $5,000 to build.) A couple of houses shown were constructed from a variety of recycled or reclaimed materials, which is certainly a sustainable way to go. A collection of multi-family units was built in South Africa using the Eco-Beam technique of retaining small earthbags within a rigid metal and wood frame; these cost about $8,000 per unit. At the high end of the scale were two large apartment-style buildings costing over six million dollars each, one with a green roof in the U.K. and the other in China. The Chinese one is a huge, modern version of the traditional Chinese donut-shaped tulou buildings, but made with industrial materials, not the traditional rammed earth.

Prefab houses are homes that are partially or entirely built off site, transported to the site, and then assembled and completed. Prefab housing can be quite efficient in materials use and in energy consumption. I must admit that the examples given leave me rather cold in terms of architectural design, as mostly they are extremely boxy, rectilinear affairs, that are actually poorly designed for passive solar applications. One of them claims to be a net zero energy house, but it turns out that this is mainly accomplished by placing a large photovoltaic system on the roof. The cost of these units ranges from a low of $59/square foot to a high of $172/ square foot, which I suppose is rather standard these days in the U. S. Two of the houses were derived from shipping containers, one is made with salvaged wood, and one uses confined strawbale panels (actually the most expensive of all). The rest use rather standard industrial materials.

The last grouping of homes are labeled “adaptable housing” and described as homes that are designed and built with the express purpose of dealing with changes to our climate. The examples include quite a range of homes designed to withstand floods, fire, hurricanes and tornados, extreme heat, and lack of utilities. Most of these solutions are quite expensive (averaging $180/square foot) and generally built entirely from industrial materials. One house really stands out as accomplishing all of the goals for sustainable architecture, and this is a duplex designed for Bangladesh. It is built from bamboo, brick, recycled plastic bottles and lightweight concrete. The remarkable thing about the design is that the two dwelling units will float in the event of a flood! It even has a small solar electric system, rainwater collection, and compost toilets. All of this was actually built for a total of $10,000 ($12.50/square foot), and it is quite a handsome design.

So does Urgent Architecture live up to its title of showing 40 sustainable solutions for a changing world? I suppose that it depends on how you define “sustainable,” but for me too many of the houses use too much industrial material with too much embodied energy;  too little attention is paid to passive solar design, and they cost too much to be truly considered sustainable. There are a handful of really sustainable solutions presented, and these are refreshing when they emerge. I do applaud the author and publisher in making this attempt at addressing a crucial issue of our time, and finding some fun, innovative, worthwhile, and provocative housing solutions to share.

16 thoughts on “Urgent Architecture”

  1. You don’t have to imagine what a disaster victim will say, in the case of Haiti it is exactly what happened. A disaster victim I met in Haiti did get a temporary $10,000 emergency shelter. He was indeed flabbergasted at the cost and wished he had the money instead so he could build a real house. On the other hand if he had given the money he would more likely build the old ways that he knew, the way that caused so much devastation in the first place. The temporary shelter would cost that much because of transportation cost, mostly, to bring it to the country. But I like the sustainable concept I have been exposed to in this blog, and I hope one day I can get the help I need to build my own earthbag round house.

    • Thanks for the report. $10,000 is a lot of money to me. It probably seems like a million dollars to some. I know I could build a very nice home for $10,000.

      Attracting volunteers for earthbag projects: Develop a solid plan. Start a blog and work hard to get others enthused. Maybe make some videos. Post a free message on our Bulletin Board. https://naturalbuildingblog.siterubix.com/bulletin-board/

  2. It has been quoted many times that 50% of the world’s population lives in earthen housing.


    How many of the “40 Sustainable Housing Solutions” were earthen in nature?

    • There is only one house shown that utilizes earth and that is the Eco-Beam earthbag/wood and steel frame structure built in South Africa.

      • Strange that no other earthen technologies were considered.

        Especially now that many engineers are exploring the earthquake resisting abilities of such structures and how to improve them. Even something like adobe, if it is wrapped in wire mesh inside and out, and especially if the interior and exterior mesh is tied together through the wall, then plastered over, can be extremely earthquake resistant.

        I viewed a couple of interviews on YouTube of the author.


        She seems more interested in promoting commercialized techniques than sustainability or even safety. One interview she was even campaigning for stricter building codes as the answer.

        What good is it to have a safe design that uses materials that the population cannot afford to use?

        Sorry, but I’m not impressed with her knowledge of the subject.

        She looked more like a spokesman for the commercial advertisers that support the Inhabitat website that is pays her regular salary.


        Her pretty face and her position on Inhabitat will surely help her sell a lot of books, but I question whether she has ever built anything in her life, let alone a practical sustainable structure that an average person could live in. Well… except for her coffee table she built out of shipping pallets. (2nd interview listed above). I guess that qualifies her as an expert, right?

        Perhaps I’m being overly harsh. I haven’t read the book.

        Then again, I’m not particularly inspired to want to buy it.

        There are far better books out there, by people I have a lot more confidence in their knowledge.

        • People approach problems from all different angles. The industrial design approach starts out with the assumption that shelters will be purchased by NGOs and shipped in to disaster areas. They assume local resources may not be available and that shelters need to be erected very quickly. There’s some value in that approach. One shelter design may not work in every instance.

          In general though, I agree with what you’re saying in regards to using low cost local materials and minimizing codes. Some people have lived a pampered life and don’t realize the harm brought about by codes (= countless millions can’t afford homes due to the added cost and complexity of bureaucratic regulations).

          Oh, and it’s worth pointing out that many people promote industrial solutions because of the profit motive. It’s far harder to make money off simple, low tech methods such as adobe and earthbag building. If it can’t be commercialized, fewer people promote it.

          • The thing that set of alarm bells for me was during one of the interviews I linked to above. She compared Chile to Haiti, and claimed that the reason the death toll was higher in Haiti was because they had inadequate building codes.

            That statement proved to me that she has absolutely no understanding of the situation at all.

            The problem never was building codes, it was POVERTY. Haiti is a very poor country. If she were somehow cause the government (such as it is) in Haiti to adopt Chile’s building codes, the result would be massive deaths. More deaths than were caused by the earthquake.

            Chile’s building codes imposed in Haiti would drive almost all the population out of housing. Very few there would be able to afford a home at all, (sadly too many Haitians cannot afford a home now). The building codes from Chile would drive housing costs even higher. More people would be without shelter, and even more would die from causes related to exposure, bad water, bad sanitation, disease, even more violence than exists today, etc, etc, etc.

            The only website I could find that had statistics about the comparitive incomes of Hatians and Chileans was the UN.


            Chile’s Gross national income per capita (current US$) from year 2010 $10987.20


            Haiti’s Gross national income per capita (current US$) from year 2010 $611.70

            So… let’s look at this income comparison.

            A Haitian must work a year and a half to earn as much money as a Chilean earns in one month.

            A $10000 emergency shelter?
            That’s less than 1 year’s wages in Chile

            A $10000 emergency shelter In Haiti?
            If a family ate no food and starved themselves for 17 months.
            If a family never bought new clothes or shoes for 17 months.
            If a family never bought soap or toothpaste to wash or clean themselves for 17 months
            If a family never got sick and had to pay for a doctor while not eating or wearing good clothes or taking a bath for 17 months.
            If a family never spent any money on anything.
            If all they did was work and save.

            That Haitian family could then pay for an “Emergency” shelter almost a year and a half after a disaster hit.


            Building codes are the ultimate in unfunded mandates. They solve no problems.

            The real solution is to educate the people and provide them a path out of poverty.
            The real solution is to teach Haitians how to take care of themselves using the resources that they have available to them right where they are, but to respect those resources and not waste them.

            Look at the Satellite Map showing the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.


            Haiti has squandered its forests.

            They need help. Not in the form of shelters handed out from charity.

            They need help in the form of educating their children. They need to learn how to grow food to feed themselves and their families. They need to learn how to build their own home with their own two hands.

            If someone like Bridget really cared about the people of Haiti she would look a the root cause of the problems and not promote some bureaucratic nightmare like forcing building codes on a population that can’t afford a new piece of tin for a roof over a cardboard shanty.


            Urgent Architecture?

            How about Urgent Common Sense?

            How about teaching Haiti’s children how to plant a permaculture food forest to replace the forests that their parents and grandparents squandered?

            How about teaching Haiti’s children how to build an earthquake resistant home using the materials they already have around them that they CAN AFFORD!!

            Haiti is blessed with a fantastic climate for most of the year. They can grow almost anything there. They should have such an agricultural abundance that they could be exporting exotic fruits and vegetables to the wealthy of other countries.

            Haiti has everything it needs to turn itself into a paradise, except the educational system to teach their children how to make it happen.

            Sometimes the most urgent need is to focus on the long term and stop spending money on expensive band aids that make people more dependent on outside help instead of teaching them how to take care of themselves.

            Yes. I disagree with Bridget. I think she has no clue what she is talking about. She seems more concerned with an artistic interpretation of what a building should look like instead of a building having the beauty of elegantly performing it’s function in a way that creates a beautiful way of life.

            Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of artistry in the appearance of architecture, but the beauty of a building performing it’s function with grace and ease is the most important aspect of that beauty, not the wall style or the eye pleasing roof line.

          • I made a MASSIVE ERROR in my above comment.

            Every instance where I mention 17 months… should be 17 YEARS!!!

            A $10000 emergency shelter In Haiti?
            If a family ate no food and starved themselves for 17 years.
            If a family never bought new clothes or shoes for 17 years.
            If a family never bought soap or toothpaste to wash or clean themselves for 17 years
            If a family never got sick and had to pay for a doctor while not eating or wearing good clothes or taking a bath for 17 years.
            If a family never spent any money on anything.
            If all they did was work and save.

            That Haitian family could then pay for an “Emergency” shelter 17 years later.

            That means a pregnant woman during the earthquake could provide an “Emergency Shelter” for her child by the time the child approaches his/her 18th birthday.

          • It’s actually far worse than what you say. These shelters in many cases are being forced upon disaster victims, take it or leave it. (They’re better than plastic tarps, so people submit.) Every culture has their own preferred styles, rooms sizes and layouts, etc. that have evolved over the centuries, and now suddenly they have to live in some strange gizmo shelter that’s totally foreign to them. It’s soul crushing and unethical. I’ve looked at a lot of emergency shelters and believe me many look like they came from another planet. Here are some examples:
            Shelters like these have no connection to what most people think of housing/shelter.

          • Well said, Owen.

            I’m going to take it one step further.

            I say Joseph Jenkins understands “Urgent Architecture” far better than Bridget Meinhold.

            The structures he was involved in building create more beauty in the lives of Haiti’s people than anything Bridget may have included in her book.


            I say his buildings have more beauty to them than anything Bridget has imagined.

            Joseph’s buildings work. Joseph’s buildings are affordable. Joseph’s buildings stop the spread of disease. Joseph’s buildings can be built from materials already at hand. Joseph’s buildings improve people’s lives. Joseph’s building’s keep people healthy. Joseph’s buildings help feed people.

            That’s beautiful. Very beautiful architecture. Especially when painted by school children.

            Joe gets it.

  3. Good book review. Thanks, Kelly.

    The high tech/high cost solutions irk me the most. Imagine a disaster victim who ends up with a temporary $10,000 emergency shelter. In poor countries especially that’s a lot of money. They would be flabbergasted at the cost and wish they had been given the money instead so they could build a real house with local materials. Looking at dozens of brands of high tech/high cost emergency shelters makes me believe they’re primarily designed to generate profit for the manufacturer instead of helping people. (I’m not against businesses making a profit, of course, but the needs of the recipients should be prioritized.)

    Example found by searching Google Images: Uber Shelter
    I don’t see a price given, but this high tech shelter would obviously cost a lot of money. There may be some limited use of these shelters, but in most cases they are far beyond what most disaster victims can afford. Do a survey of disaster victims in developing countries and I think 99% would prefer receiving $10,000 toward a decent home instead of a gizmo type shelter.

    • The Uber Shelter is one of the examples given in the book, and it is listed as a transitional shelter at $3,200. It is made from metal and plastic and is the most basic of shelters. They say that it can be made more permanent over time by adding locally sources materials.

  4. I always enjoy looking at these designs – and, I am very glad that people are sending these ideas out. The ‘problem’ or the ‘kicker’ for me anyways – is that while it might only actually ‘cost’ $1,000 or $10,000 to actually build one of these little beauties – it is in almost every case – with the exception of say, the Hudson Bay hinterlands or the developing global south – a ‘challenge’ to put any of them up legally. This without adding one or two zeroes to the number to meet the codes. So – I end up excited and hopeful and disappointed and frustrated all in the same breath. Is there some sort of forum working to change the codes so that we can live the way we can and want?


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