When a 7.0 magnitude earthquake jolted Haiti in January, Shigeru Ban’s knee-jerk reaction was to get on a plane and go help. A veteran relief worker, the Japanese architect has built shelters at disaster sites around the globe.

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This quake was the worst natural catastrophe to strike in years. It killed more than 220,000 people and left an additional 1.2 million homeless, including 500,000 living in primitive tents made of sticks and cloth sheets. Enlisting the aid of students both near and far, Ban hopes to provide sturdy, temporary homes to 50 Haitian families. He currently is raising money for the project.

Designed for easy construction by an unskilled labor force, each 161-square-foot, barn-shaped unit consists of a paper tube frame covered with plastic tarps. Measuring 3 inches in diameter, the polyurethane-coated cylinders are linked together with plywood joints and rope, resulting in a very stable, waterproof structure that maximizes internal space.  According to Ban, all materials can be procured locally at a cost of $300 per shelter.

Ban aims to build the structures for a group of Haitians who have chosen to remain in Port-au-Prince, near their destroyed village in Digner, instead of relocating to a large, government-run camp some distance away. Ban made contact with this community and identified a suitable building site next to the U.S. Embassy during his initial trip to Haiti in February.

Prior to his arrival in Port-au-Prince, Ban traveled to the neighboring Dominican Republic to meet with architecture students and Professor Alex Martinez Suárez at the Universidad Iberoamericana (UNIBE). In addition to helping Ban maneuver in Haiti, the UNIBE students will build the shelters with members of Ban’s studio at the Harvard Graduate School of Design who helped develop the shelter prototype. In the long-term, Ban hopes to build permanent homes in Digner.

Dividing his time between offices in Tokyo, Paris, and New York, Ban is engaged in a variety of commercial, cultural, and residential projects but has been involved with disaster relief since 1994 when he built shelters in Rwanda under the auspices of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. More recently, he has created temporary structures for an elementary school in Sichuan and a concert venue in l’Aquila, Italy following their respective earthquakes. As Ban explains: “I usually find a community that has slipped through the cracks and is without government support.” 

To contribute to Ban’s Haiti project, visit his Web site.

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