Over the last few decades, disasters have increased in frequency as well as strength as a result of Climate Change. Weather-related disasters have tripled over the last Thirty years and they cause insurmountable damages to life and property. Built and un-built components together make up the environment of today. And while we have no control over the latter, the former can very well be designed to mitigate damage during disasters. 

A building is a singular molecule in an urban city or a rural town. Together, many buildings create a liveable and safe space for human beingsthis extends to the time a disaster strikes. A building should be designed, keeping in mind a factor of safety for other natural disasters. An architect with sound knowledge of building construction and vernacular technology of the area can create a sturdy, safe and reliable structure. 

Architects are prime movers of the built environment. Thus, their role in disaster management is critical and requires creative solutions. The following are ways in which an architect can play a key role in disaster management:

1. Planning For Disaster | Disaster Management

As the number and kind of disasters increase, so does our advancement in planning for them. Thus, disaster planning is crucial and involves active participation from architects. Pre-disaster prevention, which requires disaster-resilient architecture, can mitigate damage in hazard-prone areas. It also helps to keep the consequences of a catastrophe stable and short-lived. 

Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, landslides, storms, flooding, wildfires, heatwaves, and droughts are all classified as natural hazards by the World Health Organization (WHO), and each has a distinct effect on the area in which they occur. Planning for materials and techniques that mitigate damages is crucial for combatting such disasters. 

Since architects are key innovators in building strategies and construction techniques, their correct knowledge and scientific attitude towards disaster-resistant structures help allay the effects of a calamity. 

2. Rehabilitation 

Oftentimes, disaster cannot be avoided. Natural disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, war, and fire threaten whole communities and force them to resettle and rehabilitate. An architect can play a key role in designing structures, both permanent and temporary, to accommodate disaster after-effects successfully. 

Addressing the need for displacement due to such natural disasters, the architecture firm Designnobis has come up with a creative emergency shelter design. Called “Tentative”, the disaster response tent can be deployed in almost any terrain, as claimed by the architects. Awarded the Silver award for “Social Design” category of A’ Design Award 2014-2015, Tentative is an example of how creative architectural thinking can help alleviate disaster effects. 

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Compact Arrangement of Tentative by Designnobis_©Designnobis
Role of an architect in disaster management - Sheet3
Full Assembled Tentative by Designnobis_©Designnobis

3. Redefining Building Bye-Laws | Disaster Management

A strategy of pre-disaster mitigation rather than post-disaster relief can be applied while designing buildings in Disaster Prone areas. A change in bye-laws or stricter environmental policy can be advocated to prevent greater loss of life and property. 

An architect plays a key role in determining urban design and city planning, thus their role in the adoption of a preventative strategy can help build better and safer cities. Planning for Disaster through the lens of a long-lasting structure helps in the development of scientific and accurate construction methods which will create safer buildings. 

A pivotal role is also played by architectural institutions as they reevaluate architectural education to ensure adequate knowledge in designing safe buildings. 

4. The New Disaster 

The onset of the year 2020 brought with it a new kind of disaster- a pandemic. The response to such a disaster is very different from the one required for other natural disasters. For one, the home space became a central place for all human activity throughout the day. Thus a new kind of architectural response is needed for this kind of calamity. Creating flexible spaces that allow various activities without it becoming claustrophobic has become the new need. Office spaces and crowded public spaces are redundant and require innovation in their use. 

The fast and efficient design of hospitals is also an important aspect that an architect contributes to. An architect’s role here is to be creative in the adaptive reuse of spaces, as well as to design flexible spaces. Thus, it will be crucial in setting precedents for the coming years and any new biological disasters. 

It didn’t take long for architects to come up with solutions for social distancing and Covid protocols. Architectural group Marvel redesigned public theatres using shipping containers to create a socially distanced open theatre space. Marvel‘s concept involves converting shipping containers into stages bridging between two scaffolding towers, raised 12 feet (3.6 meters) over the street. Marvel is an example of an architect’s role not only in mitigating disaster, but in fact, thriving after it. 

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Shipping Containers resting on a bridge_©Marvel

5. Evaluation Of Mechanisms To Design Safe Buildings | Disaster Management

Traditionally, many vernacular techniques were used to mitigate disaster effects in a region. Kath-Kuni architecture in the northern hilly region of India is an earthquake-resistant vernacular building technique used even today. The Japanese use wood construction due to their regions being prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. 

Traditional Indonesian Houses are built with a trench in the ground and long ridge roofs to make them earthquake resistant. Thus, the knowledge of such techniques and their apt usage is a crucial contribution that an architect can make towards building disaster-resistant and sustainable structures.

Kyoto Pgado in Japan, exceptional earthquake resistance _©Chloe Mulderig
Kyoto Pgado in Japan, exceptional earthquake resistance _©Chloe Mulderig

The world of technology is moving at incredible speeds and the scope of advanced technology should be used in construction. Evolving techniques and creating new evaluation mechanisms for the construction of a building can be the key contribution of technology in architecture. An architect’s role is to correctly understand these mechanisms and their implications, thereby coming to creative solutions for safe structures. 

Recently, materials like Paper tubes, Biomaterials, and Shape Memory Alloys have become widely popular in engineering groups, as engineers increasingly believe these materials can help in the plasticity of a structure required in a high seismic zone. New materials and technologies like Real-time AI (Artificial Intelligence) monitoring are being used in Japan and China to determine seismic activity up to a radius of 2 kilometers. 

Such new data, in the hands of a creative and analytical architect, can be the solution to disaster-prone buildings.

Shipping Containers as a Stage_©Marvel
Shipping Containers as a Stage_©Marvel

"Shama Patwardhan, an Architect from Mumbai, is passionate about architecture and inquisitive about its implications on Social Equity. A human being with eternal panic, she is fond of poetry, art, literature and cat videos on the internet."