Originally reported on Students Rebuild Japan blog in August
Japan Program Coordinator Hiromi Tabei has just returned to San Francisco from a week-long strategy session in Sendai. While she never left Tohoku’s largest city during this trip, conversations with the Japan team and explorations around town confirmed some surprising developments along the coast. Some seem far-fetched, but to what extend do we build for the safety of our neighbors?
Sea Wall, Say Woah
On the Tohoku coast, many villages are having community meetings about sea walls. Each city and town has its own idea on heights of these protective barriers, some proposal reaching 10 meters (33 feet) in height. This may ruin some sunrises, to say the least. There are signs these plans are simply reactionary gestures–and not addressing future tsunami threats realistically.
“Everybody knows they’re not going to do any good,” Hiromi admits. “[The 10-meter walls] are not going to prevent a tsunami when it’s 20 meters high.” Nonetheless many cities are seriously considering such measures. Nothing is set in stone–the cities don’t have the money and a lot of people are protesting any sea wall implementation.
What practical alternatives, if any, have these towns come to? Should people be allowed to rebuild in-place and get washed out again in the next tsunami? Or not rebuild at all where waters have damaged the cities? Maybe city discussions need an infusion of creativity–or design.
“If you can spend the kind of money it takes to build a sea wall, you can probably buy land uphill to relocate people.” Some places are doing just that–they’ve hired an architect or a university to do feasibility studies and planning for what’s basically community relocation. “It’s easier to do with small communities,” says Hiromi. “You don’t have to create a huge new infrastructure that way.” In these schemes, relocation means the most vulnerable households find themselves farthest from sea level.
Uprooting, even if only a couple miles, is a lot to ask of long-time lowland occupants. “It’s had a mixed reaction of course–you cannot have consensus with EVERY-body.” But, some cities are saying, “If you want to move up there, you can.” Staying put doesn’t yield a lot of options. Highwater reconstruction designs, like the new stilt homes of Biloxi, Mississippi, could not withstand a tsunami.
"Porchdog" home in Biloxi, Mississippi, by architect Marlon Blackwell. The Biloxi Model Home program consisted of a series of houses responding to new East Biloxi building codes specifying elevated living spaces following the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina.
My Kingdom For a Sawhorse
It's hard working through post-disaster scarcity. As different as the Tohoku disaster was from Haiti's, the two stricken regions share a shortage of construction materials, and the skilled labor that builds with them. For both places, isolation and infrastructure bear a heavy impact–which is to say there are plenty of resources that could accelerate reconstruction, as the crow flies, geography and inadequate or damaged roads make access to this reconstruction wealth nearly impossible.
"It's sort of beyond our control," Hiromi explains, in the context of scheduling construction for the Kitakami market. "It's concrete, lumber...really basic materials that are lacking." Yet despite these shortages, or perhaps a factor causing them, are the local construction workers that have become extremely busy rebuilding around Tohoku. To the point they can't accept additional projects, and laborers and developers from other regions travel in, renting hotel rooms and charging more for the same services.
It's affecting the market's construction schedule. "We've had to...hurry. The carpenters we've hired could only commit to Kitakami in September and October. Their schedule is really tight." Far better to flex that availability than to re-enter the ether to find a new contractor.
Building designs are beginning to flex to material availability as well, and taking advantage of a rough situation.
The 80-person fishing village of Maeami-hama is a 90-minute twisty, turny, mountainous and verdant drive from the nearest town, Ishinomaki. Like most of the Tohoku coast, Maeami is remote, and its inhabitants, all dependent on the fishing industry, lived on the water where the tsunami destroyed everything. Autumn Ness, as a design fellow and local expert, introduces the landscape of Maeami in one of her Flip-Cam videos. She pans across the inlet and circles clusters of nothing with her fingers. "There used to be a village here...and here..." each one with maybe ten houses to it. "What you see is all there is, they don't go back into the mountains, they're all on the oceanfront." Then aims down by her feet. "You can see that in this village, just like in every other village, all their docks have sunk."
In the months following the tsunami, long-time residents were at a total loss of what to do. "There are people still living in houses high up on the hills, but they have no boats, they have no docks, they have no income.... For someone who's lived in that little village their whole life in their family's house, that belonged to their grandma's grandma's grandma, they're trying to figure out what to do. At 40 or 50 years old, for the first time in your life, do you desert your village and go to the City and find work, or what?? How do you leave the only place you've ever known?"
Most residents have evacuated to live with far-off relatives, or moved to new temporary housing, away from the water. These buildings are dug into mountainsides, and don't afford much, if any, common space. (It's a familiar situation that Architecture for Humanity has confronted across the region–common space, an essential to balanced living, swiftly drops out of emergency housing plans.)
While living along the coast has been forbidden by the government, Maeami, and especially a group of locals calling themselves the Reconstruction Team, are working to establish a new community center there. Sited on an existing concrete warehouse foundation (the original structure has long since been cleared away) donated by the Fishermen Union, the new Community House aims to bypass the severe shortages of construction materials and labor. By using scrap plywood pulled from the 2011 wreckage.
Maeami Reconstruction and Fishermen Union members
Model of Maeami community house
Joining Sustainability Panels
Last year a graduate studio from Keio University in Tokyo began rebuilding with an innovative system joining scraps of veneered plywood to form longer structural members. The design was for a specific bathhouse near Ishinomaki, an industrial city specializing in plywood fabrication. However, there was no need for new material–the tsunami had provided plenty of scraps.
Prefabricated roof beams of Veneer house installed by crane
The Veneer House structure being completed
"One of the challenges facing reconstruction efforts in the areas is a marked lack of carpenters and of sophisticated materials and equipment. To overcome that challenge the structure of both phases of the project is formed from plywood panels that can be cut on site and assembled without special skills and using only basic tools and hardware, including hammers, nails, and saws. The entire project can be prepared and assembled by un-skilled volunteer labor and by the residents themselves," the studio describes. The bathhouse was completed last December, meanwhile winning an Inspiration Award from Contract Magazine.
Seeing promise in the potential of this construction system, the Tokyo Chapter of Architecture for Humanity held a fundraiser for this prototype. Once completed, the University studio's professor, Hiroto Kobayashi, welcomed Hiromi to visit the structure. He explained how beautiful the plywood members had looked in the unfurnished room, but that the owner was looking for a softer feel–hence the suspended drapes. When asked whether he was interested to work more using this system, Mr. Kobayashi said yes. "Let's do it again."
Veneer House, interior and structural column
Veneer House exterior
At Maeami-hama, permission has been granted to build the community house on the existing concrete foundation–meaning a significant savings in money, time and materials. "We're getting an agreement signed next week, and will be applying for a building permit," Hiromi says. "And targeting construction to start in 3-4 weeks," meaning a second joined-plywood structure will be completed two years in a row.
Concept sketch for Maeami Community House
"After Kitakami," Hiromi explains, "we might do some small scale interventions with Students Rebuild funding." In disaster reconstruction, size matters–the smaller, the more potentially powerful. While Haiti has plenty of differences from Japan, the "urban acupuncture" program in its Villa Rosa projects, which Architecture for Humanity had a hand in coordinating, has turned micro-zones of construction (at times just a bench, a tree, and a solar-powered street light) into highly-impactful public spaces.
Villa Rosa is an informal community with little other deliberate public space. For all intents and purposes, Ishinomaki, the economically-depressed center of coastal Tohoku, is in the same boat.
"In Ishinomaki there are so many small, empty lots now. All these stores and houses got half demolished by the tsunami, and the government came and finished the job," says Hiromi. Those buildings were not new, and
landowners opted to get them demolished in order to rebuild from scratch.
Ishinomaki structure after the tsunami
Most of these landowners don't have enough money to rebuild right away. In the interim, there will be a lot of empty lots. Regardless, most are waiting for stronger direction form the Japanese government, whether the land will be re-zoned (thereby potentially negating any re-investment), or whether these storeowners will need to be relocated for safety reasons. For the time being, and for the next several months, these parcels are temporarily un-utilized.
"We're thinking we can build some temporary parklets there," for use by the community. "It could be a couple benches and some nice flower pots, or it could be a skate ramp and basketball hoops. That's the thing–kids don't have much space to play. We've heard this from community organizations." As important as schools are for children, places to study and to play are equally essential to...well, life and living...and health. "Not just little kids but teenagers–they don&'t have a place to hang out."
Plans for that will have to wait until next year. When the winter comes, construction will have to come to a halt. Hiromi's been planning what the Tohoku office can do indoors during these months. "After December, we will be getting the next round of RFP's (Request for Proposals, basically a call for designers to send them solid construction ideas) out, so that during the winter applicants can design, the awards go out in Spring," and Architecture for Humanity can get right to construction when the ground
The exact nature of the RFP: TBD.