Bangladesh Building Collapse: How Can Safer Buildings Be Built?

In June 2012 a young British architect set sail for Bangladesh, working in collaboration with Engineers Without Borders (EWB-UK) for a local organization - Simple Action For the Environment (SAFE).

Bordered by India, Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries. The low-lying nature of the terrain (with a large percentage of the land less than 12m above sea level) means that Bangladesh is vulnerable to flooding and cyclones and is now widely recognized as one of the countries at greatest risk from climate change. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that a 1m rise in sea level will engulf approximately 13% of the landmass in the southern belt displacing 15-20 million people by 2050.

Six major floods were recorded in the 19th century, with figures rising to 18 in the 20th century. For example, in 2004, the monsoon arrived early, adding to the heavy rainfall already experienced since June of that year. River levels continued to rise and on July 8th widespread flooding resulted.

“41 out of 64 districts were affected engulfing two-thirds of the country and affecting more than 25 million of its 130 million people.” - WATERAID

”During the storm, around 1.5 million homes were ripped apart, nearly 750,000 acres of crops were destroyed and over 1.5 million farm animals were killed. There was also huge damage to fishing boats and materials, and drinking water was contaminated” - BRITISH RED CROSS

More recently in 2007, Cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh and in turn triggered a tidal wave, which struck the coastline resulting in over 3,300 deaths, injuring approximately 34,500 individuals and forcing the evacuation of nearly one million. In terms of infrastructure and livelihoods the devastation was extensive. Nearly half the population of Bangladesh is living on less than $1 a day. With the ever-present threat of natural disasters, improved shelter construction techniques based on successful existing practices is just one of the many aspects to encourage community self-reliance rather than dependence on aid.

Jo Ashbridge, educated at the University of Bath and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, left the comfort of hot running water and Cadburys Dairy Milk chocolate to relocate to Bangladesh, following her passion for sustainable and environmental architecture. Keen to learn about local practices and the use of unique materials including earth and bamboo, she began her journey in Dinajpur, a village in northwest Bangladesh.

Following her work with EWB-UK she was awarded the RIBA Boyd Auger Scholarship to investigate the role of earthen architecture within low-income communities at risk of flooding.

As I type this post, she is coming to the end of her yearlong project. The compressed stabilized earth blocks (CSEBs) are being laid for a prototype house, the doors and windows carved from ‘ampata’ by local carpenters and treated bamboo waiting to be cleaned, split, notched and nailed. There is a buzz of excitement in the village, which can almost definitely be felt all the way in New York City (Concentrate hard. Yep that buzz. Nope, it’s not the subway running underfoot. Promise).


Progress - Jo Ashbridge - RIBA Boyd Auger Scholarship 2012 from Jo Ashbridge on Vimeo.

What led you to this current project in Bangladesh?

From an early stage, environmental design and the idea that architecture began with the human need for shelter has been key in my architectural education.

In the UK, architects can make mistakes. We all spend a large proportion of our day in and around the built environment, how this has been conceived is truly important. There have been a number of studies, which suggest architecture can greatly affect the way we work and interact. For example in a work context, a successful lighting strategy and the incorporation of daylight and its dynamics can benefit circadian rhythms, improve the visual environment and can increase productivity and therefore overall efficiencies. In a
healthcare context, the ability for patients to connect with the outside world and local environment through the considered use of fenestration has been suggested to reduce feelings of isolation and claustrophobia which may improve recovery times. Galleries can offer a blank canvas upon which we display works of art, but the architecture affects the way we approach it. The size, proportion and progression of spaces may encourage us to pause for thought or move quickly on by. Clearly then architecture is a social responsibility on all continents, however these issues are magnified in the developing world due to the fragile nature of the system in which it operates.

My passion and future career direction is to focus on development both at home and overseas. The drive is to create innovative architectural and associated infrastructure solutions that are sensitive to the environment, culture and traditions whilst responding to the real needs of populations.

When you first arrived in Bangladesh how did you even begin to detail and address the many factors that influence sustainable and successful building in such a temperamental climate and landscape?

The research project was provisionally broken down into three stages; analysis of existing conditions, on-site development of improved construction techniques and the building of a prototype house for a low-income family.

I am a real advocate for research. Phase one involved extensive travel across three chosen divisions, documenting shelter responses provided by national and international agencies alongside local vernacular.

I then began testing and developing improvements to traditional earthen construction. My hope was that the final build would exhibit environmental design principles to improve ventilation, heating and cooling strategies, address issues of standing water, the risk of
flash floods, monsoon rains and strong winds and offer a sustainable material response so that the local community may replicate and propagate the research findings and improved techniques. Working with the beneficiary household and their neighbors, and with the support of SAFE we wanted to create a new vision for the future, offer modest improvements, alternative approaches and new solutions for areas with limited assets.

The planning and research phase was stimulating and terrifying in equal measure.

For this final phase of your project, you are building a prototype house for one lucky family based on your months of research all over Bangladesh. What are the factors that influenced your decisions and how does an architect think when building such a structure from scratch?

I have chosen to locate the prototype house in Sundarban, one of 205 villages in Dinajpur Sadar sub-district (Dinajpur district, Rangpur division). Sundarban is however a particularly sprawling settlement, consisting of countless "paras" (hamlets).

A priority for me was to ensure the collaboration of a local organization, rooted in the community. Essentially it was my way in to a world so different than my own. There is no doubt that it strengthened the project in many ways, from supporting logistics and material sourcing to gaining trust and therefore minimizing the perception of the "omniscient European," which I am desperately keen to avoid.

Many of the design decisions have been a direct result of phase one research and phase two testing, however I was determined to ensure the family were seen as clients rather than merely beneficiaries. The aim is to create a building that not only responds to the climate and landscape, that is sensitive to local particularities and is relevant for areas with limited assets but also addresses the specific needs of the family. Participation is and has been paramount.

So what is the plan for the next and last few months?

With the successful construction of the first ventilated improved pit latrine in the village a week or so ago and the foundations set for the build, we are now in full swing. We have a couple of months and limited funds remaining to get this house up and running and the
excitement on site is palpable. Fingers crossed that our fundraising efforts have not been in vain (DONATE: www.gofundme.com/housing-in-bangladesh) and we can complete the new two-storey earth and bamboo house on schedule. What a sight that will be!

For more information on Jo’s project read her blogging updates at:

www.joashbridge.breezi.com/blog

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Beth Ashbridge

PhD in Chemical Biology. Currently Research Fellow in Cancer Biology (www.bettybooashbridge.wordpress.com)

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