Disaster Relief Architecture - Thesis


Hi everyone,


I am a third year architecture student at the Politecnico di Milano. I have to start my thesis soon and would like to do it on disaster relief architecture. I was wondering if anyone had any advice regarding books, websites, magazines or articles which could be useful for me. I would greatly appreciate any help!
I am interested in Architecture for Humanity's work as well as that of Shigeru Ban's - so the idea of working with local or readily available resources to quickly respond to natural or anthropological disasters. This doesn't necessarily mean construction in terms of design but can also look at preventative measures, engineering techniques etc.

Any and all help is really appreciated - thank you!


Apr 12, 15 10:00 am

key search terms: resilience, resilient

Apr 12, 15 1:01 pm

Also, keep in mind disasters don't just happen in tropic climates design for cold weather as well as hot weather.

Peter N

Apr 13, 15 9:23 am

Hi Peter thanks for your reply. Yes of course, I don't intend on limiting my research to only tropical climates, I didn't think that I had implied that...!

Apr 15, 15 4:57 am

Good to hear that you are looking for a more universal solution all too often we get ideas for temporary disaster shelters that are mostly tent structures not something that could work in winter or over a long period of time.

also remember that the materials need to be recyclable or reusable in permanent buildings as it is a poor practice to take back emergency shelters like we in the US did for Sandy or have to dump tons of materials into landfills like we did for Katrina


Over and OUT

Peter N

Apr 15, 15 9:36 am

I definitely agree. I'd like to look at disaster relief architecture from two points of view: one would be designing for the prevention of potential disasters in terms of buildings actually collapsing during a disaster and the other side would look at how architecture responds - so using available materials, limited timing, working with the community.

I actually wanted to use Katrina as an example of the wrong type of management seeing as it wasn't handled very well. Thank you again for your help! It is very appreciated :)


Apr 15, 15 1:59 pm

What about looking at places that set up field hospitals and the like? An example is Blu-Med. Maybe reach out and see what you can learn from them, or take a look at their blog?

Mar 21, 16 5:36 pm

There's a company up here called Weatherhaven that does portable buildings, mostly for the military, but also for disasters I believe.

One big obstacle is bureaucracy, not necessarily design.

Also there's the temporary housing and social issues related to Japanese Tsunami and Fukushima. I think I heard the suicide rate spiked dramatically among families displaced. 

Mar 21, 16 5:48 pm

We do a lot of disaster recovery projects at my university.

shigeru Ban is a prof here currently and built his disaster response efforts as part of our regular curriculum (which is project based - ie, we build stuff).

Some recent plywood housing projects are here if interested. The way we do it is to involve locals in the process. When we dont the outcome is not good. That is the long and short of it.

As for the comments above, Peter makes a bit of an incorrect conclusion, at least based on our experience in the last 5 years or so of working on the ground. Universal solutions are exactly what you cannot have. It is the local solution that is most important. Building a system that is robust enough to work with local desires, and an attitude that starts from the local needs and wishes is essential. It is important to be willing to drop all of your ideas and start from scratch at times. MASS design group has defined this need very well in their work, and with exceptional results, and gave it a cool moniker in Lo-fab. The truth is that when you go to a disaster site the things you learn will inevitably blow away everything you think you know. It is almost a given.

If this is really a topic that interests you, do be aware that there are several phases in recovery from disaster. At first there is very little role for architects to play. It is possible to make temporary shelters of course, and many example exist, including the paper-tube partitions that ban used to create some privacy in the gymnasiums and other spaces in Tohoku. Temporary housing comes much later. Months if not years. This sound absurd, but its true. Even Japan, which stockpiled emergency shelters across the country in preparation for a disaster, took 6 months or more to set out enough spaces for the people who lost their homes. By that time, many moved away never to return.

The more permanent shelters and infrastructure, also a bit temporary to be honest, came some time later. The Home For All projects of Toyo Ito for example. These are important, but its not a simple thing, especially if you want the community to be involved. If you are looking for something to consider, the gap between the imminent needs of disaster, the mid-term needs after recovery starts, and the long-term needs of the displaced (many people stay in the temporary houses for 10 to 15 years), this is still a topic without a good answer. We need more good ideas.

What is not included in the list above is how to prepare for disaster before it happens. How do we build-in solutions to destruction? Is it physical or community/social? Daniel Aldrich is a very excellent resource for this topic and I definitely recommend reading anything by him. My opinion is its mostly social, and the physical design can be used to support society if its working well. When society is dysfunctional it is much much harder.


For other resources, check out MASS design group. They are not doing disaster but building community and many of the issues are similar. Also check out Architecture in Development and the newly minted Open Architecture Collaborative (OAC), and the publications of AFH, Design Like You give A Damn. Cameron Sinclair's own follow up work is also pretty interesting, the department of small works

I would also suggest that you look into the work of places like Communitere, which does not build but DOES help people to act on the ground, in Haiti, the Philippines, and now in Nepal. Building in a disaster zone is not easy and a partner is essential. People like this are a great help and they know how to deal with the shit that is common every day in a recovering area that make regular architecture a living hell to undertake.

there is a lot out there because it is a hot topic. In my own mind it is the framework that matters more than the design itself. Good examples of how to build are a dime a dozen, but ones that actually include community and understand the challenges on the ground, from rape at public toilets, to lack of clean water, to mental trauma, those ones are really hard to do without being there and being specific. It would be nice if you are able to include some of the issues in your own work as you dig into the subject.

Mar 21, 16 10:05 pm

Hi Will Galloway, Chris-chitect and Polebuilder! Thank you for your replies.

I decided to write my thesis on the primary stages of disaster relief architecture - so mainly looking at the immediate response (bodies involved, how processes varied depending on the gravity of the situation) and the first type of shelter set up. From there, I looked into temporary shelters, the later transitional shelters and finally the semi-permanent shelters. The whole disaster relief architectural process is so complex and detailed, as mentioned by Will Galloway, that I focused my research on the above-mentioned initial phases. I picked 6 key disasters that happened in the past 20 years and looked solutions applied in each one, setting them up against a set of criteria (time constraints, financial constraints, number of people killed, number of people affected, amongst others). From there, I was able to evaluate which disaster relief architectural process had more success and why - but this has only given me a slight insight into the whole entire process!
I also looked at the preparation capacities in each case study, seeing how much they helped when responding to the consequences of the disasters and what could have been changed/improved. Then of course came the issue of evaluating more developed countries against third world countries (the Haiti earthquake vs the Japan tsunami, for example). 


Thank you again for all of your suggestions and insight. Hopefully my future research and academic studies help in providing a more complete view and understanding of the disaster relief architectural process!

May 17, 16 3:51 am

Hi there Jasmine,

This discussion was very interesting and eye opening. I am also about to start writing a dissertation and Iam very intrigued with the idea of destruction and architectures response to it. I would really appreciate if you could share some sources with me regarding the topic and some tips. 

Thanks A lot.

Jul 29, 17 1:04 pm

Why go through all that trouble and just ask for her thesis so you can focus on your extracurricular activities.


Hello Jasmine.

I am currently working a similar idea for my thesis. That is, developing a universal solution for disaster rehabilitation and temporary shelters.

Could you please share you please share your thesis, it would be really helpful for me to gauge the entire concept.


Feb 16, 19 7:16 am


my name is Beneetta. I am doing Architecture in India and will soon start my thesis on disaster management institute and climate monitoring center with emergency relief structures.Can anyone guide me how to approach this topic and suggest good books and websites to refer for the same.

Jul 12, 19 1:38 am

Hi Benedetta,


Hi Benetta , I am Jahanvi also doing my thesis on disaster management institute. Can you please suggest me some case studies related to that. @


hi Jahanvi,


good to know that your topic is also same however i am searching for good case studies...will let you know if i get any.Also please reply to me if u get any at

Non Sequitur

Two lazy students helping each other. What could go wrong.


There isn't such a thing as a lazy architecture student.


Hi Jasmine,

I am currently a architecture student in Nepal. I am currently working on a similar topic for post disaster rehabilitation for the earthquake victims in Nepal.

It will be a great help if you could please share your thesis or some case studies and some tips regarding this topic.


Dec 16, 19 11:29 pm

hello akiras,

 it would be great if you share some information and thoughts on post disaster rehabilation.


Hi rishabhkshah, mananchopra, beneettamaryjose and akiras422, 

Thank you all for reaching out. I had to do a lottt and I mean a lot of research, both online and offline, in order to compile the relevant information for my work. There is a lot of information now, especially compared to 5 years ago, when I prepared my undergraduate thesis.

As mentioned before, disaster relief architecture works in many complex phases - I chose to explore the early stages. I also did not have any other theses to refer to at the time.. There are many studies available online now given the quantity of natural disasters that have occured in recent years, as well as a surge in issues such as over population, the refugee crisis, and communities having to shift to low income housing. 

The United Nations (UNHCR more specifically) recently revamped their emergency shelter handbook. To give you an idea, I had to work with UN related information from the 1980's to complete my work. A big part of writing your thesis has to do with researching, filtering through the quantity of information collected, and developing a topic you are personally interested in. That isn't really something for me, or anyone else, to decide

If it is of any help, I set up a small NGO in Indonesia about a year ago. We provide housing for communities affected by natural disasters or displaced individuals in low income housing. It's called The Shelter Project All the information is open source and therefore available online, so you are more than welcome to reference it in your research. Our non-profit is 100% community based and relies on the efforts of those affected to make it work.

Good luck to you all!


Dec 17, 19 10:17 am

Block this user

Are you sure you want to block this user and hide all related comments throughout the site?

  • ×Search in: