Future Housing in Vanuatu

The overlaps between practice and design research

Sonder’s Co-Principal Wendy Christie is a PhD Candidate within the Department of Art, Design and Architecture at Monash University.  Her practice-based research compliments the studio design work produced at Sonder Architects. We provide in-kind support to this research via sharing resources, time, creative inspiration, and challenging ideas through rigorous debate. 

In 2015, Cyclone Pam tore through Vanuatu, leaving about 75 thousand people homeless. While most people rebuilt from salvaged materials, they were left with the same problem: Unsafe housing.

A typical response to disaster housing in developing countries is prefabricated housing; however, these usually well-meaning ‘solutions’ inevitably lack cultural and environmental context and arrive when people are at their most vulnerable. During my time living in Vanuatu, I observed unique dwelling patterns that do not suit a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Now, imagine you are an architect in Vanuatu, as I was, working on a community housing project.    Where would you start?  There’s no housing policy. No department of housing.  Few suitable precedents.  You know the links between poor housing, health, and social outcomes. You also know the importance of culturally specific design.  If only there were some kind of guidebook…

The Universal Declaration of Human rights states that everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living…. So how can a country like Vanuatu work towards achieving this basic human right? And this is where my research begins, asking, “How can design research contribute to appropriate, long-term housing in Vanuatu?”

Using creative design as the primary research tool, I seek to produce new knowledge to inform future housing in Vanuatu.  This process has identified culturally distinct housing arrangements that include wood-fire cooking houses and outside living rooms.

A collaborative design process will include a series of interviews and design exhibitions in Vanuatu. The participants will be primarily ni-Vanuatu professionals who will ultimately shape the design research conclusions.  Design case studies will also be developed in collaboration with local homeowners in urban, peri-urban, and rural locations.

This case-study design process is comparable to the approach that we offer through our practice:  The place is appreciated; the site’s physical features considered; the family consulted; and future needs assessed.  From here an iterative design process, allowing for feedback and amendments, will culminate in a final masterplan for each household.

Using a hybrid drawing mode that mixes architectural drawing and graphic ethnography (aka comic books) the drawings will impart technical, narrative, and emotional detail. The outcome will be a design anthology or “guidebook” that can be used by future architects and policy makers to inform future housing in Vanuatu, for both disaster and long-term applications. It will also create a precedent of place specific design research for other Pacific Island countries.


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