The Future of Housing Is Temporary, Biodegradable, and on the Move

Rethinking the value of permanent shelter in an era when refugees are displaced by war and climate change.

Here at GOOD, we believe that design can be used to create positive social, environmental, and economic change. So we're joining forces with our friends at Impact Design Hub to share compelling stories about design that's moving the world forward.

SURI image courtesy of Suricatta


Day after day in 2015, man-made climate change and the migrant crisis in Europe left their mark on societies and landscapes across the world. While governments reached for political tools to fix these dilemmas, architecture firms from Spain to China dreamt up a fresh crop of temporary architecture solutions that can bring shelter to people more quickly, and to more of them, at a fraction of the environmental and financial stress caused by permanent, brick-and-mortar buildings.

Architecture has long been associated with the permanent and unmovable, but with rising sea levels, shrinking land space, and unconventional warfare boosting global refugee numbers to peak highs, structures that can be quickly linked together to house and shelter ephemeral communities—then disassembled and relocated just as quickly—are no longer the stuff of science fiction. From Suricatta’s Shelter Units for Rapid Installation (SURI) to MIT's Rock Printing project, designs for temporary shelters in 2015 presented fluid, capable responses to the world’s many struggles to protect land and people. Though the refugee crisis is the most urgent application of temporary housing designs, these intentionally transitory structures are challenging an age-old assumption: that architecture should last forever.

SURI was one such innovative solution, emerging in response to crises brought on by our rapidly changing world. Unveiled in 2015 by Suricatta, a Spanish architecture firm, SURI is a super-portable trailer that was created with earthquake victims in mind. It has since been deployed to help displaced populations in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Despite their size and competitive cost, SURIs are far more advanced than most contemporary houses. They’re equipped with their own filtration system that turns rain into potable drinking water. Their walls, which can be filled with sand or other earthen materials to help weigh the shelter down, are breathable and thermally insulated to mitigate heat and protect from cold. After a SURI unit lives out its 10-year life span, each piece of the building can be recycled, biodegraded, or reused in other SURI units.

Image courtesy of ALPOD

While meeting the needs of refugees is perhaps the most immediate and necessary application of temporary architecture, other structures, like the apartment pod ALPOD, are challenging the paradigm of what a structure is and how all of us should live in the future, as the costs and burdens of our notions of permanence are revealed by climate change and advancing technology. “In so many ways, a city is so antiquated,” says James Law, whose cybertecture firm designed ALPOD in collaboration with engineering and material assistance from Alu-House and ARUP last year. “Buildings are made out of concrete. They’re expensive to design and build, and wasteful to construct and demolish.”

Law’s design is a testament to that observation. The ALPOD is a stand-alone structure complete with a kitchen, living space, and bathroom that can be stacked on other ALPODs to create an apartment complex, or set up as a single unit. After production takes off in 2016, Law estimates that factories will eventually be able to manufacture a single ALPOD in only four days’ time. Once an ALPOD reaches its destination, it’ll take less than a day to set up.

“The construction industry has kind of lagged behind the car or aerospace industry, because we haven’t really used materials like aluminum in ways beyond how we’re currently using them,” says Law, reflecting on why the transition away from permanent, long-lasting architecture has been (literally) slow to materialize.

Rock printing image courtesy of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab

Meanwhile, engineers from Switzerland and the United States have developed a sustainable approach to building materials that aims to reverse this mind-set. In October, ETH Zurich and MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab unveiled a form of 3D printing at the Chicago Architecture Biennial that they hope can apply the endurance of concrete to the utility and ease of intentionally temporary architecture. They call this “rock printing.”

In the rock printing process, a robotic arm spits out a thin line of string in patterns that loop around and stack on top of one another. With each new layer, the designers empty buckets of rocks into the growing tower. Hours later, a massive column is formed, standing on its own without scaffolds or beams. It’s every bit as durable as a permanent structure, but without the waste and costs that come with construction.

Today, in places ravaged by human and natural catastrophe, there's no time for robots or guidance by design teams, and ultra-mobile solutions like SURI are providing a powerful way to address a desperate need. But as time goes on, more and more of us are likely to find ourselves affected by threats to our land, our populations, and the very notion of stability. That means that a building’s permanence—long considered a major part of its value—may increasingly be seen as a weakness instead of a strength.

As climate change and humanitarian issues evolve, architects will continue to respond with creative solutions like those that debuted in 2015. The most useful of these will be the ones that raise the bar from innovations we've seen in past years, while still looking forward to a time when architects and urban planners consider permanent locations irrelevant, concrete unnecessary, and fixed cities a thing of the past.

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