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INTERVIEW: With Bridgette Meinhold, Author of ‘Urgent Architecture’
When Inhabitat’s Architecture Editor, Bridgette Meinhold, heard about the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 and the massive devastation it caused, she wanted to help, and was drawn to start investigating different options for temporary shelters and disaster relief housing. This exploration gradually broadened to a larger focus on design for disaster-preparedness; seeking out what type of shelters can best withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, rising sea levels and tornados. Now I’m thrilled to say that after years of research, Bridgette has just published an incredible new book entitled Urgent Architecture: 40 Sustainable Housing Solutions for a Changing World. Urgent Architecture showcases inspiring and innovative ideas for resilient design – design that will withstand the test of time – surviving climate change, rising sea levels, manmade and natural disasters. I recently had a chance to interview Bridgette about her new book at Inhabitat HQ in NYC, and she gave me some fascinating insight into her inspiration for the book, the impact climate change will have on future housing and what she believes is necessary to create a more sustainable and responsive built landscape. Watch the video above for the interview, and if you want to learn more, you can get your own copy of Urgent Architecture here.
A full transcript of the interview with pics is available after the jump.
INHABITAT: So the title of your book is called Urgent Architecture. What does that mean and where did the idea come from?
Bridgette: Back in 2010 when the earthquake hit in Haiti, and then following the earthquake that hit in Chile, I started thinking about how there’s an urgent need for shelter right after disaster strikes to provide housing for people, and that concept really got me thinking about that there’s a housing emergency all over the world because of climate change, because of poverty, and for the future how do we build to ensure that even if a disaster happens our houses will remain standing and we’ll live through the disaster.
INHABITAT: On that note, what do you think is the most pressing environmental challenge we’re facing around the globe in terms of housing?
Bridgette: Climate change is impacting everyone, everywhere, and for the majority of people, that means rising waters. Most of the world’s population lives on the coast, and so most of the world is going to be affected in some way by flooding, and so I think designing smartly for flooding, for storm surges, for hurricanes and cyclones is really important.
One of the great projects that I showcased in my book is the Lift House – it was created in Bangladesh, and this house is centered around a central brick core and then two sides of it are made with lightweight materials like reed and bamboo, and it actually raises up off the ground when flood waters come. Everything remains safe and dry for them, and then when the water recedes the house just goes back. It’s meant for areas that receive flooding often, they know that floods are going to come on an annual basis and they’re prepared for it.
Another house I showcase in my book was built in Mississippi. It’s called the Porchdog House and it was built in response to Hurricane Katrina. The house is both hurricane-proof and flood-proof. Building on stilts is a common practice in flood prone areas in the South. This is a little bit more structurally sound, can withstand a lot higher winds, and also it’s super low maintenance–you don’t have to do anything to the house, and a great way for architects to start thinking about how design should be in areas like this.
INHABITAT: I saw in your book a floating house outside of Amsterdam. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Bridgette: Yeah, the Water Villa by Koen Olthuis. That’s a great house. It was built not too long ago. Floating houses are becoming more popular and also a really interesting way to address rising sea levels for those that can handle the rocking. I personally couldn’t, because that would make me completely motion sick, but a floating house circumvents that problem of flooding because the house sits on the water.
INHABITAT: Now one thing I think is really interesting about your book is that when people think of green building they’re often thinking about photovoltaics and green roots, a more traditional idea of green building, – but this really goes way beyond that. This approach is looking more at how we can build houses to last over time. Do you think that resiliency is maybe kind of a new approach to sustainability or green building?
Bridgette: It’s definitely an extension of it. All of those things that you said are really important, but absolutely resiliency is an extension of and how we should be building. We should be building houses that can last, that can withstand anything that gets thrown at them.
INHABITAT: Let’s talk about earthquakes! I’m especially interested in earthquakes, because I’m from California, where we have lots of earthquakes. You dealt with a couple of houses in your book that were designed specifically to address earthquakes.
Bridgette: The PAKSBAB building—Pakistan appropriate straw building—is an organization that went and taught people in Pakistan how to build earthquake-proof straw bale homes. Not only are they helping people in Pakistan gain new skills, but the way they’ve designed the foundation, the walls, and then the roof system means that these buildings can withstand earthquakes and keep people safe. And they’re affordable and easy to build.
INHABITAT: There’s a house in your book that uses rubble from the Haiti earthquake.
Bridgette: The Gabion House in Haiti is an amazing project because after the earthquake all these concrete cinder block houses fell down. And rather than actually haul it out of the city, which was what was happening, these projects took the rubble from the sites that they were working on and smashed it up into smaller chunks and put the rubble into gabion baskets, which are often used for retaining walls but can be used, actually, as kind of building blocks. These will be earthquake-proof houses and they’re not bringing in new material but using what they had right there.
INHABITAT: You have a number of designs in your book that feature recycled shipping pallets, so I want you to tell me a little bit about those. In particular, there’s one design in your book called the Slumtube, which I think is sort of unfortunate name, but a great design.
Bridgette: Pallet architecture is really interesting because pallets are found all over the world and they’re free materials that anybody can use and build with. The Slumtube was made by a duo from Germany and they traveled to South Africa and wanted to teach the people how to build warmer, better houses for themselves using found materials. The slum part, I can’t really speak to why they named it that way, but I don’t think it was meant as a slight towards the people who live down there. They spent three months living and working near Johannesburg.
I just love the concept of how shipping pallets are kind of this universal building block that anybody can use.
INHABITAT: You’re the shipping pallet expert at Inhabitat. Anything that’s made out of shipping pallets, Bridgette knows about them.
Bridgette: Yep. I’ve even built my coffee table out of shipping pallets.
INHABITAT: Let’s talk about yurts. It seems like there are a lot of yurts in your book. Everyone loves yurts – why?
Bridgette: Yurts are really interesting. They’ve been around for centuries, originally in Mongolia and still. But now they’ve made it into Western culture. The beauty of yurts is they can be dismantled and taken down and moved. There’s a chance that we may have refugees because of climate change and people may need to move in the future regularly, and I thought it was an interesting way of providing housing for people on the go.
INHABITAT: So who do you see as the audience for this book?
Bridgette: I’m trying to reach pretty much everybody. I want everybody to start thinking that housing is more than just where you live. It’s a place where you can go and be safe. It’s for DIYers, it’s for emergency organizations, it’s for cities. I would love if cities and local governments took a look at this book and thought about how they can build smarter, safer houses for their communities.
INHABITAT: One thing I think is so great about this book is that even though it’s a book about architecture, it’s not full of architectural jargon and it’s really accessible yet well-written. Congratulations on that! You did an amazing job.
For anyone interested in learning about fireproof, flood-proof, earthquake-proof, or disaster-proof housing—or any of the other things that we talked about here—the book is called Urgent Architecture. It’s published by W.W. Norton, and you can pick it up on Amazon.com or in your local bookstore.
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