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Historically, architecture has been more about space than time; it still takes years for a conventional building to go from idea to built reality. But technology and need are accelerating everything. Disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes, urban problems – including homelessness and skyrocketing rents – and mass migration all demand architecture and design that’s quick to construct. By necessity as well as by choice, architects have learned to think on their feet in extraordinary circumstances. As UK politicians debate the construction of 100,000 prefabricated homes to ease a housing crisis, fast architecture has never been more relevant.

“Rapid-response housing might be the most extreme part of this but I see a pride in being able to create constructions that are low-key and good living environments,” says Stockholm architect Andreas Martin-Löf. He designed Eda, a low-cost single-occupancy building in Knivsta, Sweden; its modules were built off-site and then assembled at a rate of up to 15 apartments per day.

He is one of many architects dealing with issues such as acute housing shortages; others work with NGOs in global displacement hotspots. Agora Architects, a two-person architectural firm working in western Thailand, recently erected classrooms and dormitories in a settlement near the border for Burmese refugees. “Every NGO or INGO worldwide should work with architects,” says Agora’s Jan Glasmeier. “We know a little bit of everything, we see what’s needed, we can connect things.” Besides the dormitories, Glasmeier and his partner Albert Company-Olmo built a nearby clinic using adobe-like mud bricks and old Thai know-how that came from his local team of workers.

Which brings us to the issue of materials. In many rapid-response projects, concrete is an adaptable favourite; one example is the sleek prefab Koda House hailing from Estonia, which takes seven hours to erect and is movable. Martin-Löf’s housing in Sweden, meanwhile, is clad in inexpensive polycarbonate. And in Germany, U3ba created a timber shelter for refugees and homeless people meant to last 40 years; most shelters are far more temporary.

Then there’s the Austrian design firm EOOS, which used donated wood to build kitchens in a sprawling institutional building in Vienna that houses hundreds of refugees. The firm adapted a design developed for high-end clients such as Bavarian kitchen manufacturer Bulthaup and, in realising it, sought collaboration: a Syrian carpenter headed a team of refugees who built the kitchens.

Urban or rural, temporary or permanent, one danger of many rapid-response projects is that they can look a little prison-like. Savvy designers counteract blandness by taking advantage of natural assets and using space well. In a Manhattan microhousing project initiated by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, nArchitects created 55 prefabricated micro-units using full-length windows to flood spaces with light, and customised furniture to allow the homes to have multiple functions. Impressively, the building took just four weeks to erect and now that it’s up, nearly half of the units rent for less than the city’s market rate; eight are occupied by formerly homeless US veterans.

Allowing residents agency in shaping their spaces also affects how liveable they become. Chilean firm Elemental is headed by Alejandro Aravena, who curated the 2016 Architecture Biennale in Venice, which was social solution-driven and called Reporting from the Front. He and his team have created “half-houses” on lots allotted to displaced and low-income residents throughout the country. Building only half a home makes the units affordable; the other half can be filled in or expanded when and how the residents wish.

The German pavilion at last year’s Venice architecture biennale founded its exhibition on the idea of heimat, an essentially untranslatable German word meaning “home” in both a physical and mental sense. “We have a housing-emergency situation and a refugee-emergency situation and [in the pavilion exhibition] we deal with both of them,” says curator Oliver Elser. “It’s really all about home and not just about shelter.”

Making shelters into homes might be the crucial thread running through the different approaches to rapid-response architecture. The idea is not entirely new – architects such as Bruno Taut managed to create quick low-cost buildings that were desirable machines for living when they were made a century ago – and are very much in demand again today.

Architecture and design will continue to shift along with the world’s changing conditions – they have to. After all, many housing booms were set into motion by emergencies (postwar Europe is a case in point) but “many of those old structures have proven to be good; the neighbourhoods have gentrified”, says Martin-Löf. “Buildings for poor people can later feel very different if the construction is of good quality.” We’ve never moved so fast. Combining quick reaction times, good ideas, foresight and durability to achieve a new balance between time and space will be one of architecture’s biggest challenges.

A home in one day, Estonia

Estonian architecture firm Kodasema asked a question: why can’t houses be as smartly designed and affordable as basic cars? The result is Koda House, a movable two-storey dwelling made in seven hours by fitting together concrete-and-wood panels.

Assembly time: Seven hours
Best for: Long-term settlement for displaced people
Key materials: Concrete, wood, glass, metal, fibreglass beams
Cost per house: About €100,000

Tropical Housing Solution, Thailand

It took three weeks for Agora Architects to develop a sturdy hut that can house 25 people. Drawing on funding from the embassy of Luxembourg, it was devised as emergency housing for displaced Burmese refugee students.

Assembly time: Three weeks
Best for: Temporary housing in the tropics
Key materials: Second-hand timber and bamboo
Cost per house: €1,800

Quick Urban High-Rise, USA

Of the 55 compact rental units at Carmel Place in downtown New York, 22 are dedicated to affordable housing, including eight apartments for formerly homeless US veterans. The prototype is designed to be adaptable to different sites.

Assembly time: Four weeks
Best For: Two-people families in dense cities
Key materials: Steel, brick, sustainable natural materials Cost Per House: From €2,400

Refugee Relief Home, Germany

U3ba was approached by the council for Ostfildern, a town near Stuttgart, to design housing for homeless Germans. However, midway through the planning stage the project was adapted to meet the needs of Syrian refugees. The firm went well beyond the brief: it conceived a trio of incredibly attractive houses with angular planes in a monochrome palette.

Assembly time: Two months
Best for: refugee housing
Key materials: bituminous-coated corrugated iron, timber, oriented-strand-boards
Cost per house: €450,000

Disaster Recovery Community Centre, Japan

After two powerful earthquakes pummeled Kumamoto in southern Japan last April, prefectural government officials worked with architect Toyo Ito to conceptualise temporary homes that would be comfortable enough to live in for years. These dwellings were complemented by pop-up “Home for all” community centres; the idea is that they give residents a place to gather and bond outside of their tightly arranged houses.

Assembly time: Four to six weeks
Best for: Creating a sense of togetherness for disaster victims who have been relocated
Key materials: **Wood, tatami mats sourced from Kumamoto prefecture
**Cost per house:
€86,000 for a one-storey, 60 sq m building

Notes: Camping out

In response to crises, the humble tent has long been a reliable shelter for the displaced. Often these dwellings become long-term homes and innovations such as the igloo-like, German-pioneered Domo tent focus on adaptable design to tailor to the individual and cultural needs of occupants.

Notes: Old tricks

With displacement at an all-time high we’ve never been more in need of smart ideas for speedily built housing. While new building technology is an asset, lessons can still be learnt from post First World War architects such as Bruno Taut, who brought colour into the design of affordable housing.

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