August 21, 2022
Can we avoid ecological mistakes while rebuilding Ukrainian housing after the war?
Sustainable, mixed-use housing
One of the most pressing problems after the war will be housing. So the big question is: how can we reshape the way we think about housing architecture to make it work quickly and at the same time according to climate changes?
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, at least 12 million Ukrainians have become internally displaced and over 5 million have left the country.
Research conducted by the Kyiv School of Economics calculated the current war damage to include 44 sq. km of housing, 105,200 cars, 43,700 agricultural machines, 764 kindergartens, alongside 1,991 shops. Damaged landscapes mean a lot of suffering and loss – but it also means the chance to rebuild a new world on a new basis. Every crisis is an opportunity and my generation – the generation of Ukrainian teenagers – feels obligated to use these opportunities in a post-war reality.
As a teenage girl and a Ukrainian refugee, I feel the need to contribute. It’s hard to accept that I can’t stop the catastrophic events, but I know that total passivity will make the situation even worse. Taking action doesn’t however mean the necessity to stop living my own life – sometimes it’s a matter of asking myself a question, how can I help by doing my part?
From my perspective – a young adult interested in architecture and politics, feeling responsible for a future of not only Ukraine but (taking into consideration such challenges as climate change) the whole world – the way we think about rebuilding Ukraine seems an important public issue for everyone.
In the end, responsible thinking about constructing cities affects the entire planet. I’m convinced that reflecting on how we can recreate Ukrainian architecture after the war can also mean reflecting on how transforming architecture is reshaping our future.
Kharkiv, Ukraine, in March, 2022.
Militaries consume enormous amounts of fuel, which results in global warming. Destroyed agricultural infrastructure in Ukraine is already causing supply problems all around the world.
The pollution of such important resources as water and air is increasing. The war has burned down not only Ukrainian cities but also large tracts of fields, forests, and meadows. That made me wonder about how we can use the horrors of war to rebuild Ukraine more ecologically, considering the climate changes and the need to stop the environmental catastrophe.
Fortunately, it also seems important to our authorities:
President Zelensky show the importance of our choice of actions: “Now is a historic moment. The moment when we can solve many old problems of the whole environment of our life once and for all. When we can make quality urban planning where it did not exist. We can take into account real traffic flows. Guarantee energy saving, environmental friendliness of materials, inclusiveness.” – he said during his daily speech on April 16.
At the same time, we are faced with the risk of rebuilding Ukraine hastily and on an ad hoc basis, without further reflection on replacing one problem with potential new ones. One of the most pressing problems after the war will be housing.
So the big questions are: how can we reshape the way we think about housing architecture to make it work quickly and, at the same time, according to climate changes? Does ecological always mean expensive – which seems to be a particularly important question in the context of a war-torn country? And therefore, what ecological solutions could we consider in the context of rebuilding Ukraine?
In the last few decades, scientists have invented all different types of concepts and materials to create environmentally friendly architecture projects and furnishings, such as solar-powered road lighting, using waste for materials recovery, or basing residential buildings on renewable energy sources.
The main idea is that we need to keep what we already got from nature and support it.
Even in the face of the most urgent problems we cannot forget that we’ll be making long-term decisions that will (or will not) provide us the security of the most-needed resources for the next decades. If we don’t think about the impact of our actions on the environment now, we might experience life-threatening challenges in the future.
That’s why we need to reinvent Ukraine in the same way we want to see it in 20, 50, or even 100 years. Taking ecology into account seems obviously important in this context.
At the same time, Ukraine will have to restore the functionality of the country’s economy in the shortest possible terms.
To make this happen people must return and have the ability to do business. That’s why the first-priority matter will be housing for people who currently have no place to live, because of war damages.
This is not only a matter of buildings but also a matter of rethinking socialisation. People in Ukraine, as the victims of the war, were usually forced to leave their homes. It’s very important that Ukrainians feel safe, that they have their own space, but at the same time can restore the sense of belonging and commuting.
That’s why the temporary housing solutions imply so many difficulties. They are necessary, but at the same time, this type of housing usually has a short shelf-life. And we all know that there is nothing as permanent as temporary. It’s often seen in cities that experienced war and were rebuilt in a great rush, without taking into account responsible, future-oriented urban space management.
Is it then possible to solve the problem of missing apartments quickly, but relatively permanently, i.e. also ecologically?
A lot of architectural studios all around the world are now trying to plan rebuilding Ukraine. For example, the project of the Ukrainian bureau – Balbek bureau – is focused on the psychological and social aspects of post-war housing solutions.
Learn more about this project:
RE: UKRAINE SYSTEM
The goal of this project is to help people not only with accommodation but with their mental health too by creating safe communal spaces based on the sharing economy concepts (the idea of sharing some living spaces and/or household appliances).
The main benefit of this project is its flexibility. The idea behind this housing complex is to create modular 1 or 2-rise buildings with eco-friendly materials and with a possibility to expand the crowd according to their needs. It is also vital that sharing economy concepts are not only ecological but also economical.
There is also a project of two 5-rise buildings, designed with the system of modular timber construction, proposed by the acau architects company in Switzerland. These buildings can accommodate 370 people and cost around 26 million EUR.
The life cycle of this construction is estimated to be more than 10 years, but the answer to the question of whether this kind of solution is good in the long term is not black or white. Because is it even possible to think about housing solutions that are going to be quick, sufficient, and long-lasting at the same time? Is the 10 years period of time long or not?
Even the matter of materials is not so obvious: wood is one of the most eco-friendly materials in the construction field, but at the same time it requires cutting down forests.
Can we then at all escape harm to the environment in the building industry? Should we worry more about the damages caused to nature in the process of earning this material or about the fuel which we waste to transport it? Or maybe it’s also about the functionality of the building, whether it uses too much energy on unnecessary things?
Ecology is never black or white – it’s more about the process of making the building industry more sustainable than pretending that building at all can be harmless to nature.
To make architecture more ecological we also need to consider its endurance over time to limit waste production.
Talking about the longevity of buildings, we should understand that all constructions need to be restored over time.
However, nowadays we need to rebuild or reconstruct modern buildings more often than in the past if they are made of cheap materials. For example, wood or stone is much more sustainable in the face of time than plastics. Our choice of fast and unsustainable materials and way of constructing reduces the lifespan of the buildings but increases the speed of the process of construction.
Learn more about this project:
Ecological Living Module
New York, NY
A good example of such an attitude is “Ecological Living Module”. It is one of the most innovative and interesting projects conceived in 2018 by Gray Organschi Architecture, Yale’s Center for Ecosystems in Architecture, and also commissioned by the UN Environment and UN Habitat programmes.
A key feature and advantage of this project are that it can provide its habitat with electricity almost autonomically. Solar Panels and batteries store enough energy to insulate the house over the year. Also, there is a green wall that can provide food for families of four for approximately 260 days per year. The living space is about 21 sq. m. and if this project is released on a larger scale, the cost per unit will be around $50,000.
The uniqueness of this project in its attitude to ecology. It showed that an ecological lifestyle can be cheap and functional, because, for example, you don’t need to pay for electricity and in advance, it might be much more economical.
Even if it seems impossible on a large scale, just imagine a city which is built with the idea of an eco-living module.
The whole green city, where everybody uses the electricity earned from the solar panels, eats their self-grown green food enjoying a comfortable and stylish life.
Maybe if this was real, it wouldn’t solve all the problems connected with ecology even in this city, because solar panels can brake, rising own food is dependent on weather and we still lack a good solution for the solar battery waste, but it’s obviously much better than not paying attention to ecology at all.
I also believe that now we have a possibility to recreate and improve old solutions. Small steps are on the way to great changes, such as creating new types of furniture made of eco-friendly materials or recycled plastics, steel, and aluminium.
The best solutions are renewable materials because they can grow fast, or are already recycled materials. For example, we can use such materials as sheep wool, plant-based polyurethane rigid foam, and straw bales for insulation of the house. These materials are completely eco-friendly and renewable while their functions are similar to not-ecological ones.
But if it’s so easy then why haven’t eco-friendly buildings already replaced ordinary housing?
Several factors can cause developers to give preference to the ordinary building concept rather than to an eco-friendly option.
The first difficulties emerge on the financial stage. There are a lot of variations of eco-friendly materials, also, their cost can vary as well. But even if we use only the cheapest materials, which are even cheaper than alternatives, there we meet another type of difficulty. Such difficulties as the lack of experts who can work with these materials, and because of it, higher salaries which may result in the total costs no longer being cheaper.
Also, the demand for green housing is still less than usual. So, if we, as customers, want to change the situation in the construction field we should give preference to the eco-friendly type of housing, even if the cost of it is a little higher than the ordinary one.
Demand will stimulate market growth making it more economical in the future. For me, realising that even my little steps, such as buying the simplest products, can be harmful or valuable, is at the same time overwhelming and hopeful. Every time you are buying a recycled can of soda instead of a non-recycled alternative, maybe you won’t change the whole marketplace, but if there are a lot of people like you, even a big company will eventually change its attitude.
Shipping container houses
From recycled soda, we can think further about recycling whole housing units.
There are a lot of examples of re-used spaces for living, such as shipping containers which are unfit for use as intended but can be reused with the benefit of our surroundings as a temporary housing conversion.
For example, there is a project of temporary housing containers in Onagawa, proposed by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. Containers can be built in three variations: 19.8 sq.m (for two people); 29.7sq.m (for three or four people), and 39.6 sq.m (for more than four people). The origin of the idea was for the people who suffered from an emergency, such as an earthquake -as common in Japan.
The advantage of this project is that it is mostly made of shipping containers, usually considered a waste product. The idea of reusing this for the social project is a very good way of dealing with resources we already have.
Also, in this project, they’ve done it in a very stylish way. The combination of wood, steel, and a space filled with light creates a feeling of calmness and makes it easier to feel at home. If we look at the construction of this residence, we might be surprised how it is possible to create something so beautiful with ordinary shipping containers.
It brought me to the thought that the key part of building temporary housing is the attitude. By this I mean that to make people happy with their temporary home, it should be a comfortable place to live which will help people feel at ease and safe.
About the author
Born in 2005 in Ukraine, Maria studies in Odessa. She is interested in the architectural field and plans to study Building Environment (architecture).
For Harbingers’ Magazine, she writes about the rebuilding of Ukraine.
When I am thinking about the future of Ukraine I am of the full belief that even such horrifying events as war cannot break down Ukrainian society. After this inexplicable war, Ukraine can be one of the fastest developing countries because lots of the citizens who escaped want not only to come back to normal life in their homeland, but also to recreate it with a new attitude.
That’s why I believe we might see a lot of cultural communities, recycling facilities, and educational institutes emerge in Ukraine after the war. I can imagine walking around in my home city and watching the happy faces of people who are just enjoying the clear sky. The value of green walls producing food or sustainable housing would be great. But at the start, we will value just this clear sky without any bombs or fighters.