Architecture for Emergencies: Is Pre-Fab Better, or On-Site?

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Robison Wells

While damage control and preparation is becoming an increasingly important factor in planning our cities, certain extraordinary circumstances are something we can’t plan for but which require quick architectural responses that offer aid to those affected—and often the difference is life and death.

In these cases there are really only two approaches taken when assembling emergency housing. First, there are prefab units: ready-made structures which are transported to the disaster area–either in pieces or fully assembled. These include systems of mountable pieces, retractable structures, inflatable pavilions, and textile walls, all of which are easy to transport and even quicker to assemble. The second option is emergency structures built on-site, which tend to utilize local materials and allow the same people benefiting from them to participate in the construction process. When planning emergency housing and deciding which of these approaches to use, it is essential to take into account the urgency of the situation as well as geographic factors and availability of resources and manpower.

The main advantage of prefabricated prototypes is the significant difference in time and labor required to assemble them, allowing for the quick delivery of aid those in need of emergency shelter. As it is a temporary structure and can be dismantled and transported, it has no impact on the land and can be reused when needed.  Most importantly, these designs are generic and flexible, allowing them to adapt to any geography and climate. Therefore, the expansion and modification of modules is also easy to execute.

In his book “Emergency Architecture,” Ian Davis explains that on-site construction projects that use materials familiar to the inhabitants are, not only better received, but are better suited to the climate and geography of the disaster area. Even more importantly, they allow their future inhabitants to actively participate in the building process. This provides cultural benefits as well since the inhabitants can build according to their own styles and customs and can maintain the structure far more easily than a pre-fabricated structure brought in from far away.  Many times, the transportation conditions of emergency shelters are fictitious at best and many of these shelters become permanent installations. For this reason, it is critical that they can be maintained on a local scale. By involving the shelters' future inhabitants in the building process, it is possible to address a number of cultural factors that can then be applied to global solutions.

In the end, it will be up to individual situations and, largely, availability of materials, which decide which of these methods to use in construction of emergency facilities.

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