When the massive earthquake hit in Sichuan province last month, environmental NGOs across China shifted gears. "We wanted to do anything we could to help, and there were lots of volunteers who needed to be organized," Niu Kejia, director of NGO Green SOS, told me this week in the capital, Chengdu. With tens of thousands killed and millions left homeless, says Niu, "the environment wasn't the first thing we were thinking about."
But as relief crews fan out across the affected region, providing temporary housing and preparing to build more permanent structures, leaders of green NGOs say they have begun to look for ways they can fill in the gaps. For instance, Xiao Yan, a professor at USC, and a group called INBAR have each designed an instant modular home made of bamboo, which is both strong and easily renewable; at least 100 houses have been sent to the region.
"For people doing green work in China, this is a huge opportunity to encourage people to adapt to greener lifestyles," says Meg Young of Ecologia, an NGO that focuses on sustainable development at the grassroots level in China.
One of professor Xiao Yan's bamboo earthquake relief houses in the town of Guangyuan. The temporary structure took two weeks to design and takes two hours to build
To build structures that are both sturdy and sustainable, aid workers and designers insist fancy solutions aren't necessary. In fact, while newer buildings collapsed like tofu, many older buildings managed to withstand the quake. "Instead of using cement slabs, we're looking for ways to put older building knowledge to use to make wooden houses," says Young.
"We're hoping to build models of sustainable housing that we can then present to local governments," says Young. Bryan Withall, who is leading rebuilding efforts by Habitat for Humanity, which hopes to raise $5 million to build at least 1000 new homes, said that NGOs like his might also benefit from the government's push in recent years for a "new socialist countryside." "We're going to emphasize tight-knit streets that encourage community, and safer, more sustainable design practices," he said.
Also getting involved are designers in other Chinese cities and elsewhere. The magazines Urban China and Domus China have each launched projects to help reconstruct schools and homes, while ABBS has launched a competition to come up with designs for new homes. Architecture for Humanity has also launched a website. And there have been talks to launch a joint rebuilding project in the style of Brad Pitt's idea for New Orleans.
In general, say aid workers, the quake has made the government more tolerant than ever before to NGOs (though not to reporters or protesting parents, apparently).
In the days before the quake, police arrested some people affiliated with a protest over a chemical plant. Now, it seems that government suspicion of NGOs has given way, at least temporarily, to acceptance and even dependence. "Before NGOs were not really encouraged, but now the government makes no effort to restrict us" said Niu of Green SOS.
Still, this week some volunteers complained of confusing or opaque local policies toward NGOs not registered or affiliated with government groups, and one group said that it had been blocked from entering a ravaged town by soldiers.
Worse, said some NGO workers, local officials were seeking to cover up cases of poor designs of schools that led to serious casualties. In the village of Luoshui, for example, officials appeared to seek to hide damage and deaths from visiting national government officials for fear of punishment. And in some cases, police had stifled protest by grieving parents. "Some people are very angry," said one volunteer. "But they're very grateful to have us helping them."
What are your thoughts? How role can sustainable building play in the reconstruction happening in Sichuan, or in other disaster-devastated places?
To donate to relief efforts visit the website of Sichuan Quake Relief .
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Bamboo Houses Stand Up To Earthquakes
China Earthquake Threatens Nearby Dams, Environment
Aftershock of China's Earthquake: A Grassroots Compassion
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Photo: Associated Press