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About the Author

Robert Stefanicki
Journalist (Warsaw, Poland)

Old salt international affairs writer. At present freelance (looking for a job!), most of his professional life worked for the largest daily in Poland. Focused on Asia and Middle East, where witnessed some dirty wars, now more and more interested in development and other global issues. In collusion with Institute of Global Responsibility, our new and fast growing NGO. Self made photographer (see my website), scuba diver, sailor, cyclist and movie addict.


Skyscraper for Darfur

Published 30th May 2010 - 11 comments - 6227 views -

Sustainable development is a challenge for architects too. A few examples.



This is “Water Tower” designed by Polish architect Hugon Kowalski for 2010 Skyscraper Competition organized by Evolo Magazine. Drawing inspiration from the African savanna, the “baobab skyscraper” comprises a water treatment plant, hospital, school and a food storage center, “to trigger economical development while bridging the cultural differences of the three different religions and languages” in Darfur.

The tower is built by clay bricks, to reduce the negative environmental impact of the materials. The building integrates two water circulation processes, first to heat or cool the building, which is accessible to the users, and the other fulfills the personal water requirements (kitchen and toilets) of the building.


The 5th International Bauhaus Award looked at how the ever-critical relationship between poverty and the housing shortage may be resolved. Two of the prize-winners caught my attention. Vigdis Haugtrø and Johannes Franciscus de Gier from Norway designed a construction of self-sustaining units with euro pallets:



And here you have low-cost housing for Temuco/Chile by Dutchmen Ralf Pasel and Frederik Künzel. Their project is to help the transformation of a shanty town into a legal neighborhood:



Look at this drawing to comprehend how it works:



Due to the small distance between the units, the owners can extend their houses themselves, by filling in the gap to the adjacent dwelling. This participatory principle actually incorporates the very traditional concept of “auto-construction”. The project allows each dwelling to have its front door on ground level and therefore have an individual address to the public realm. Moreover, the ground floor space between two initial service units can be used as living space, a workspace, a garage or even a small shop.


And now the above project upside down (or maybe downside up). To the Eastern Europeans will look familiar:



This project, by Mobius design house from Poland, has been granted first prize in 2009 Architecture for Humanity competition. “Ecomobi” was designed to perch on the sturdy rooftops of Eastern Europe’s post-socialist apartment blocks. Each mobile unit is 37 sq meter big and can be joined with others. While some social housing projects become cramped as families expand, these lightweight modules grow with their inhabitants. Furniture is built into the walls to optimize space, and each home incorporates recycled polycarbonate panels, hemp insulation and passive solar heating. And there are organic gardens that encourage inhabitants to grow and sell their own food.

Well, I’am a little bit skeptical. Most of my life I was living in such a human compressor, and am not sure if extra-inhabitants on the roof will make things better... What do you think?


Let’s go back to Earth. Article 25 is a UK charity that designs and delivers buildings for those in greatest need worldwide. Some of the projects include school for street children in Goa, orphanage in Ghana and (in the picture below) seismic resistant houses in Northern Pakistan, area devastated by a catastrophic earthquake in 2005.


Not beautiful, but local materials, reclaimed from the devastated areas, were used throughout the construction. This effectively reduced the cost of transport, usually a highly restrictive factor in the Himalaya region. Also local labour was used throughout the construction, supporting the local economy.


How about a paper house? Nothing new in Japan. Japanese architect Shigeru Ban is known for his use of inexpensive construction materials such as paperboard and cardboard tubes. Composed of plastic tarpaulins stretched over a cardboard-tube frame, the quick-construction structures first appeared in Rwanda several years ago when UNHCR realized that their original policy of sending a plastic sheet, instruction book and hatchet was leading refugees to cut down too many trees. These structures have been used after the Kobe earthquakes in 1995, for the Congolese refugees, and again in China’s Sichuan Province after the earthquake in 2008. In the picture: construction of a temporary school in Chengdu, China.



Picture credit:,,,,,


  • Bart Knols on 30th May 2010:

    Very interesting topic, also from a health perspective. In the developing world, 70% of all infectious disease transmission occurs in and around the house. Thus, house design plays an important role in the prevention of disease.

    A critical issue in this regard is the problems associated with the ‘copying’ of western styles into structural features of houses in the hot and humid tropics. Very often these designs, though elegant, cheap, or durable, do not take into account the so-called thermal comfort zone of people. Humans around the world feel most comfortable in a certain temperature, relative humidity and airflow (see

    I am currently involved in a project that looks at how local house designs can be altered to increase comfort whilst at the same time controlling diseases (prevent mosquitoes from coming in, improve airflow to reduce TB, and provide concrete floors for diarrhoeal diseases).

    Thanks for bringing up this interesting and important topic!

  • Robert Stefanicki on 31st May 2010:

    Thanks, Bart. You are absolutely right pointing at thermal comfort. This problem is often ignored in humanitarian aid. I remember after tsunami in Sri Lanka homeless people got metal barracks, so hot inside, that they had to live outdoors. Others got Alpine tents. And in Pakistan mountains after earthquake some refugees were granted light tents, unsuitable for the cold weather.

  • Carmen Paun on 31st May 2010:

    Indeed a very interesting and inspiring blog post, Robert. And those blocks definitely look familiar to me. My family back in Romania still lives in one apartment from those kind of buildings. I don’t believe putting more people on the roof is the way to go, but we will see in the future, maybe I am wrong.
    @Bart: The project you are currently working on sounds very very interesting, there are a lot of things we take for granted in our housing and don’t even think about!

  • Radka Lankašová on 31st May 2010:

    Robert, good point - architecture is not just beauty, but real help to people. Each continent and even each country has specific needs due its geography and culture traditions.

    I remember one article which explained how Japanese tackled building bridges (they have earthquakes very often) and later on they exported this technology because many countries are effected by the same.

  • Andrea Arzaba on 31st May 2010:

    I like it how the use local materials, just like you mentioned about “Article 25”. This will also help economical growth smile Architecture can be inspiring too haha

  • Aija Vanaga on 31st May 2010:

    Thanks for post, it has positive feeling in it!
    And that’s somehow rare in this competition.

  • Robert Stefanicki on 31st May 2010:

    Thank you, girls.
    @Aija: What you wrote made me checking: is positiveness so rare here? Indeed, among all the stories on the main page I found only one outright positive (Champions by Jana) and some neutral. The rest is more or less dark… We should do something about it, three months left smile

  • Clare Herbert on 31st May 2010:

    Really interesting post, especially when you consider the hundreds of volunteers who go overseas to build houses modeled on the ‘norm’ in developed countries. In my view, it’s just another reason why short-term volunteers are pointless in the overall Development question.

  • Robert Stefanicki on 01st June 2010:

    @Clare: Do you suggest that short-term volunteers build the houses according to their liking? I thought they do what are told to do by someone more qualified and long-term.. But truth is that coordination and consultation with the local actors is often lacking.

  • Clare Herbert on 02nd June 2010:

    @ Robert: Officially, most NGOs have a process of engagement and evalutation of a communities needs before commencing a build, and this instructs how the volunteers work. BUT, I think that builds are dictated more by the skills of the volunteers and the materials available rather than the needs of the community.

  • Sylwia Presley on 25th July 2010:

    Very interesting topic! I like the idea of changing the norm!

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