Do Good by Doing Well

Design in the Humanitarian Field

Zhuo Pang (MAUD '18)

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IBTASEM playground in Lebanon
Source: Catalytic Action

This time last year, I was reading a book called “Design like you give a damn: architectural responses to humanitarian crises[1].” by Architecture for Humanity (AFH). It was interesting to find out that although the phrase “humanitarian architect” was repeatedly used in the book, the title framed it as “architectural responses to humanitarian crises”, perhaps in response to the debate that all architects wish to do good and that separating humanitarian architects from the others may form further barriers.

To me, the difference between what is humanitarian or not lies in the context of practice rather than the goal of practitioners. Architectural practice in the humanitarian field has only begun to be noticed in the last two decades, especially after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. In the context of intensified natural disasters, forced displacement and consistent global poverty, the crisis has been protracted and the boundary between temporary and permanent, between humanitarian and development, have been blurred. In the old days when people were only going to be displaced temporarily, a simple shelter (often in the form of a tent or an isobox) would suffice; it was engineers rather than architects who provided solutions. The most important evaluation criteria were efficiency and financial feasibility.

Nowadays when the average time of displacement of refugees are 17 years (according to UNHCR), temporary solutions are not enough.

The physical environment impacts people’s mindsets. Sharing a room with 7 strangers deprives any right to privacy; living in endlessly repeating isoboxes deprives people of identity. Surviving in “minimalism” without amenities deprives the sense of community. In a word, people suffering from humanitarian crises are exactly those who aspire for normalcy, for all the simple things they could do before everything was disrupted. And this is where designers and planners can contribute.

This is not an easy path because of the almost intrinsic challenges in humanitarian practice. I want to point out a few based on my observation:

The challenge of building in conflict areas

Humanitarian design often happens in areas without official government, committed clients, competent contractors or a formal tenure system. At the same time, humanitarian players on the ground often have their own agendas and are responsible to specific donors. Repetition of work is typical and pilot solutions get implemented everywhere. This brings many difficulties in terms of partnership, implementation and maintenance.

The challenge of forming community

Many design efforts celebrate the idea of “creating a sense of community” through place-making; however, in the humanitarian field, people can come from very different income and ethnic groups, all packed into high density environments. Without mutual trust, community is simply non-existent.

The challenge between temporary and permanent

In the spectrum of temporary, transient, and permanent, architects are more comfortable dealing with the latter; however, it is not rare to see purportedly transient housing become permanent in practice. Conversely, people may not welcome permanent architecture because they do not perceive this place as their final destination, and any permanent gestures are perceived by people as consolidation of their current condition.

Challenges remain. Successful humanitarian practices typically begin as successful architectural practices . As Shigeru Ban put it, “you need to be a good architect in the first place.” As cliché as it may sound, a good intention, an adaptive mindset and professionalism shall do the work.


  1. Architecture for Humanity (Organization). 2006. Design like you give a damn: architectural responses to humanitarian crises. New York: Metropolis Books.