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Architecture for Humanity UK Prepares for Another Year of New Homeless Shelters for Crisis Open Christmas, London

Tuesday's well-attended meeting organised by AfH UK in Islington, London, highlights the increased interest in professionals of the built environment in volunteering their time and skill for projects of a humanitarian nature, as well as becoming involved in discussions surrounding the increased struggle of many communities throughout the world. As Arch-peace embarks on pro bono projects in the Asia-pacific region, AfH's experiences provides valuable lessons into how projects are approached, and varied pro bono projects can really be.

The meeting began with a presentation on a recent project in Romania headed by Chris Medland, for the World Wildlife Fund (from 9-5, he is an architect practising in London). The project involved community assistance in the drying and storing of Arnica flowers, grown only in certain parts of Europe and sensitive to pesticides, taking approximately 30 years to re-grow after being affected. Arnica is used in medicinal and cosmetic products, having widely acknowledged benefits to human health. Most of the interest in the flower has come from German companies and due to its temperament, is costly to obtain. With a seven-week deadline and none of the design team having ever visited Romania, this project not only involved the design of a building, but extensive research on the region and its climate and local materials.

Parts of Romania are extremely isolated from the city and many of its impoverished community use basic farming practises. The design of a hut for the drying or Arnica was made harder by the unreliable supply of electricity. Further, due to the requirements of German companies, the design team worked under strict parameters, meaning that only untreated wood could be used in the construction, giving the building a 40-year lifespan before needing to be recladded. The main idea was to Keep it Simple - this was no Guggenheim approach to design, but one which people on the ground could understand, build and use. The end result was a heating system which did not rely on electricity supply and internally, a series of shelves which would be moved in the drying process, with the air being regulated by a louvered chimney. The most important lessons coming out of the project was a design aimed to provide simple and practical solutions based on good knowledge of the local area, its climate, and construction methods.

AfH UK are preparing for the Crisis Open Christmas event this year. AfH are responsible for finding 6 temporary sites, and designing and constructing the interiors, to be used in the two weeks leading up to Christmas. All materials are donated by various manufacturing companies. Having myself volunteered last year in the temporary shelter within the London Arena before it was demolished, the project involves a considerable amount of dedication and passion. London's homeless population is set to increase with the influx of immigrants from newly joined members of the European Economic Area. I volunteered as a receptionist for the medical centre, and found that many homeless were in fact relatively well educated and well travelled; dispelling most of my assumptions of urban nomads. Many had multiple illnesses such as HIV, cancer, and arthritis combined, which they were willing to disclose to me in a very honest and open manner.

This year's shelters will be scattered throughout London and will give homeless people access to food, doctors, dentists, podiatrists, hairdressers, as well as providing training workshops on computer skills, art, meditation, yoga and general wellbeing, and most importantly, companionship. AfH's involvement in making last year's shelters happen was commendable. This year it is hoped to adopt a modular method of design and construction for hairdressers studios, doctors suites and the like, which can hopefully be reused on other projects.

This week's meeting comes after the launch of the new book 'Design Like You Give a Damn' published by the main branch of Architecture for Humanity, which highlights the many innovative architectural pro bono projects occurring throughout the world.

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Javiera Maturana

Architects for Peace UK


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