• June 3, 2024
    Five stone towers coming out of a green landscape, seen from afar

    By Dr. Frederique Darragon, Independent Researcher; Former Visiting Professor, Sichuan University, China

    Earthquakes are still unpredictable and can still be deadly, even if today’s state-of-the-art technologies of flexible foundations, shock absorbers, shear walls, reinforced concrete, etc, allow for the construction of earthquake-resistant buildings and skyscrapers. The people of the past did not have such sophisticated contraptions. Nevertheless, many of them understood the basic principles of high productivity, resulting in earthquake-resistant constructions. It was not always the case: for example, the Peloponnese Mani inhabitants, who, because of their towers, repelled numerous invasions, did not figure out how to make their towers, which were rather modest in size, earthquake resistant until the 17th century.

    But, nearly two millennia ago, many Himalayan illiterate tribes inhabiting the Sino-Tibetan Marches had created fiercely independent princedoms (some of which were queendoms as recorded in the Chinese Annals of the time) and invented a concept of interlocking stone pillars interspersed with unpegged beams to construct towering edifices that could resist the frequent earthquakes and high altitude climate. Depending on their location in their relative environment, these towers were built for different uses: look-out and sending smoke signal posts, defensive structures, and family status symbols. The tallest and most flamboyant ones were hard to subjugate trading posts on ancient trade routes.

    Based on the 113 wood samples I sent for carbon dating, construction went on from the 4th to the 15th centuries. In their day, such towers must have been counted by the thousands. Apart from numerous ruins, nearly 100 towers are still standing tall, improbably gracing steep slopes and deep ravines of this trade and migration corridor with their timeless beauty and outstanding technical achievement. It appears that construction stopped around the 16th century, or maybe the new towers were of a lower quality, and none are still standing today.

    Towers can be found in four regions that roughly correspond to ancient tribes’ territories: in Sichuan, there are the lands of the Qiang, the Minyag, and the Jiarong; in Tibet, such towers only exist in two small ancient kingdoms of the Southeast: Nyang-po and Kong-po
    Given the remoteness of this corridor of impossible terrain, with many peaks towering over 6000 meters and deep valleys where the Mekong, the Salween, the Yangtze, and their affluents rage towards the lower lands, each princedom had a slightly different natural environment. Only locally available materials were used: timber, local mud or clay, and stones of various shapes, hardness, and quality.

    This knowledge did not come out of nowhere: early on, people must have realized that buildings made of wood were little affected by earthquakes because of the wood’s flexibility.

    As most of this region is south of the 30th parallel, the tree line is around 4,000 meters in altitude. Still, the winters are cold, and the trees grow slowly; consequently, building houses only of timber would have put too much pressure on the environment. Buildings made of stone were also longer-lasting and more adapted to the harsh, high-altitude climate. So, people would build their dwellings of uncut, nearly dry stone and add beams inside the masonry to add tensile force. Wooden beams are frequently used in adobe construction but very rarely in stone construction. As “Habitat” demonstrated, this technique is practically only used on both sides of the Himalayas.

    On the southwestern side (India, Pakistan), it is generally called Kath-khuni. It consists of a relatively large number of beams alternating with rows of stones and mud.

    The eastern side (Sino-Tibetan Marches) consists mainly of stones with some mud and inserted unpegged wooden beams; some of these beams are inside the walls, while others circle the outside of the walls. Both technologies prevent the walls from splitting open. This technique is still used in today’s traditional houses. I discovered only another group of stone buildings including reinforcing beams: the Meteora monasteries in Greece; it appears this style did not spread.

    But another technology was needed to build very tall, free-standing earthquake-resistant towers: interlocking pillars. From the outside, these towers appear similar to ancient towers found in Afghanistan, Iran, or India, but they are not. These three last-mentioned groups of buildings are, in reality, round towers with external buttressing pillars.

    As we have restored quite a few of them, we have discovered the specific construction technique of the Himalayan towers. They are not made of a circular wall with outside buttresses; in fact, they are concave polygons whose zigzagging walls are themselves uniquely composed of interlocking pillars woven together, leaning into and buttressing each other. There could be five to 13 pillars, but the towers with eight or 12 pillars have resisted the earthquakes better. The towers with a different number of pillars are all reduced to a small number of tiny ruins.

    Such an architectural concept is not seen anywhere else. Worldwide, several pentagonal, hexagonal, and octagonal towers exist, but all are convex polygons.

    The houses and towers all have tapered tops, making them more stable. This feature is common in many ancient constructions, as it also prevents the weight of the top from crushing the bottom stones. In tall towers, special care was given to the relative hardness of the stones used.

    The openings were small and few, first because towers were eventually used for defense and second because large openings would have weakened the construction. The types of foundations are difficult to assess. The Minyag and Jiarong towers are often built over rocky soil but have a “solid” bottom part of 3 to 5 meters. In Tibet, the towers have doors at the ground level; one fallen tower was excavated and had 3-meter-deep foundations.

    As said earlier, many efficient high-tech solutions exist today to build earthquake-resistant city buildings; however, such technologies are too expensive, unavailable, or poorly implemented in rural settings. Consequently, it is of utmost interest to document and record these vernacular architect-less building technologies and ensure that this traditional knowledge continues to be used. Such action can save lives, protect intangible heritage, and reinforce local people’s cultural self-esteem.

    For more information see:
    HABITAT: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Climate, edited by Sandra Piesik and published by Thames & Hudson, USA, May 2024

  • May 23, 2024
    View of bloated house in Matanuska River, Alaska, USA
    View of bloated house in Matanuska River, Alaska, USA. Photo: Fotofeeling.

    By Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed, Associate Professor – Construction Management/Disaster Resilience, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle, Australia

    Historically, the large catchments in Asia such as those along the Ganges-Brahmaputra and Mekong rivers experienced floods as part of an annual water cycle, and different forms of flood-adaptive vernacular architecture have developed there over a long time, as discussed in my article in the Habitat book.1 In Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, buildings are constructed on the most elevated land or sites raised by landfills; houses have a platform inside or a loft for emergency refuge. In central Thailand in flood-prone areas, buildings are raised on stilts. In Bangladesh, settlements are built on mounds, and in very low-lying areas, buildings on stilts are constructed. These examples demonstrate the ingenuity and age-old wisdom of flood-adaptive vernacular architecture.

    However, since the ‘great acceleration’ of socio-economic developments since the 1950s,2 various factors such as urbanization and population growth, and significantly, climate change have created challenges to harmony with the nature of vernacular architecture. For example, in my recent studies, it was found that in Thailand, even after the massive 2011 flood, houses are no longer built on stilts, even though people were aware and built an upper story to be on the safe side;3 thus, the adaptive practices are transforming. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated our vulnerability to biohazards, exacerbated by the global escalation of human conflicts and related massive demographic transitions, financial instability, and inequality. It is a trend that may well continue and assume more threatening forms in the future, creating powerful pressures on the sustainability of vernacular architecture.

    Climate change caused by human activity including the creation and operation of the built environment is one of the most serious challenges for vernacular architecture. Disaster after disaster induced by climate change, particularly floods, each more severe than the last one, presents a future scenario of uncertainty and one of the most critical challenges to vernacular architecture. Floods occur widely around the world and are the most common natural hazard. With our planet’s hydrometeorological variability brought about by climate change, floods have become frequent, more widespread, and extensive, and follow erratic patterns; places that hardly had a history of floods are suddenly experiencing them, for example in the desert city of Dubai this year.4

    A key related challenge is the widespread aspiration for ‘modern’ buildings in contexts with a strong tradition of vernacular architecture; this was evident for example in my study in Vanuatu.5 While vernacular architecture there was tuned to local resources and natural hazards, ‘modern’ buildings built without codes and standards were easily damaged and posed a threat to human lives. The built environment develops from the interaction of a wide range of social, economic, cultural, political, and environmental factors. Pressures in any of these factors can lead to vulnerability of architecture, as the Vanuatu example, and indeed a similar global trend demonstrates. As societies aspire to modernize, tremendous pressure is placed on the natural environment. Vernacular architecture is closely linked to nature, draws inspiration from it, and uses natural materials. Yet its creation also has profound impacts on nature in multiple ways such as the removal of trees and vegetation, and together with it, biodiversity and ecosystems. With population growth and urbanization, some of these impacts can be irreversible resulting in negative effects on long-term human wellbeing. For example, even in my much earlier studies,6 it was found that a key natural resource for building vernacular architecture in Bangladesh, bamboo, was declining in supply because of human demand and over-exploitation.

    We are now at a critical crossroads—how to translate the lessons of vernacular architecture in the modern context to deal with the challenges posed by climate change, such as floods. Disaster resilience of architecture is often understood as the physical strengthening of buildings; while that is important, improvement of non-structural elements is also necessary, for example, capacity building at both institutional and community levels, early warning systems, and strategies for evacuation and safe refuge. Strategic land use and spatial planning are essential—they allow for avoiding or reducing the exposure to disaster risks that arise from locating and building settlements, facilities, and infrastructure in high-risk areas. For example, with repeat floods in Lismore in Australia, it has now become apparent that people can no longer continue to live in the very lying areas, even though their houses were raised on stilts in response to previous floods—in the recent 2022 flood, the inundation was more than 14 meters.7 There are thus plans to relocate such communities.

    Together with floods, there are other hazards that pose a risk to architecture and human settlements, sometimes occurring together or cascading. It is therefore important to understand the types of disaster risk in a certain area in order to design disaster-resilient buildings. There are many examples from around the world where vernacular architecture has demonstrated its resilience, but with climate change, the nature and extent of risk are changing, with multi-hazard situations emerging, presenting new challenges that test the age-old wisdom of vernacular architecture. It is becoming increasingly necessary for designers to understand these multiple risks and the complexity they present and strive to achieve a balanced approach to addressing them. Building codes in many countries cover hazards—these should be consulted and followed. However, for a vast proportion of the world’s population, such as numerous communities in Asia and those who still build and live in vernacular buildings, there is hardly any application of and compliance with such codes. In one of my studies in the Solomon Islands,8 it was found that the local building codes simply did not acknowledge informal ways of building, and hence, it was proposed to review and update the codes with greater sensitivity to the local context. At this point in time, a synthesis between vernacular and modern knowledge is required, where both can inform the other.

    Sustainable development and disaster resilience are closely linked; many of the targets and indicators of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are concerned with disaster risk reduction of the built environment as a way toward a sustainable future. A study by Sabater et al. mapped vernacular architecture to the SDGs;9 however, there are hardly any studies that specifically explore this link in the context of flood adaptive vernacular architecture. There is definitely an opportunity here to further examine within the transforming global context how vernacular architecture in flood-prone areas of South and Southeast Asia offers potential for developing the future’s resilient buildings. As climate change causes a wider range of challenges, lessons from this architecture will be key to dealing with future risks.

    For more information see:
    HABITAT: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Climate, edited by Sandra Piesik and published by Thames & Hudson, USA, May 2024


    1. Ahmed, I. (2017). Flood adaptations in the Asian vernacular. In Piesik, S. (Ed.). Habitat: Vernacular architecture for a changing planet (pp. 508-513). London: Thames & Hudson.
    2. Steffen, W., Broadgate, W., Deutsch, L., Gaffney, O., & Ludwig, C. (2015). The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review, 2(1), 81-98.
    3. Ahmed, I., Pal, I., & Chonlasin, V. (2023a). Complexities of post-disaster recovery: An example from Thailand. Asian Currents, 8 November 2023.
    4. Watts, J. (2024). Global heating and urbanisation to blame for severity of UAE floods, study finds. Retrieved on 4 May 2020 from
    5. Ahmed, I., & Parrack, C. (2022). Shelter self-recovery: The experience of Vanuatu. Architecture, 2(2), 434-445.
    6.  Ahmed, I. (1998). Crisis of natural building materials and institutional intervention. Habitat International, 22(4), 355-374.
    7.  Siossian, E. (2022). Lismore’s floods see families cling to floating furniture in bid to save themselves. Retrieved on 4 May 2020 from
    8. Ahmed, I. (2023b). Addressing the impacts of inland floods on informal housing in Honiara, Solomon Islands. In Dahiya, B., Pascale, F.D., Pietro, O.D., Farabollini, P., Lugeri, F.R., & Mercatanti, L. (Eds.). Disaster resilience and human settlements: Emerging perspectives in the Anthropocene (pp. 61-81). Singapore: Springer Nature.
    9. Sabater, A.L., Andújar, V.G.L., & Laumain, X. (2022). The SDGs as a useful tool in vernacular architecture management: The case of “17 objectives and a map”. Proceedings of HERITAGE 2022 – International Conference on Vernacular Heritage: Culture, People and Sustainability (pp. 671-678), Valencia, Spain.
  • May 20, 2024
    People walking among the ruins of Miyako, Japan
    People walk among the ruins of Miyako, Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, on March 15, 2011. Photo: KeystoneUSA-ZUMA/REX/Shutterstock (1295547r).

    By Will Galloway, Assistant Professor, Toronto Metropolitan University Department of Architectural Science; Director, Frontoffice Tokyo

    On March 11, 2011, northern Japan was struck by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake. Large enough to move the centre of gravity of our planet. The event is often written about as a triple disaster. The earthquake itself was enormous. It created a tsunami that swept the coast, destroying more than a hundred and twenty thousand homes, damaging a million more, and taking thousands of lives. The next day we heard the news of a meltdown at Fukushima nuclear power plant.

    My own experience of the disaster was felt miles away in Tokyo, but the duration and sheer physicality of the event was still shocking. The ground was not to be trusted. Trees swayed as if caught in an invisible storm, while cars bounced up and down as though alive. The effect was terrifying and surreal. Trains across the region were stopped. Phones could not be used reliably as bandwidth was reserved for emergency communication. Thousands of commuters were stranded in the city and began a long walk home or settled in for the night where they could. The tenuous nature of our technological existence was made abundantly clear.

    Over the next few days, we watched food supplies dwindle in grocery stores and saw endless lines form at gasoline stations. News of nuclear contamination in our tap water was frightening enough that we sent our children to the countryside while we waited to hear if Tokyo was going to be evacuated. Much later Prime Minister Naoto Kan spoke about how close we came to evacuating 50 million people from the region, and how it was down to luck that it ultimately was avoided. Some nations, like Germany, chose to evacuate their expat population anyway, while many residents left on their own, heading south or finding refuge outside Japan.

    Over the next few weeks, we experienced rolling blackouts as the energy companies struggled to manage the shut down of nuclear power plants across the nation. Always bright Tokyo became dark for awhile, and everyone learned to be frugal with electricity. It felt like our country was changing in profound ways. Optimists began to speculate that the scale of the disaster was so large we would finally begin to take serious action on other massive problems facing Japan as we invested in recovery, from the aging population to our plans for dealing with climate change. Some things did change permanently, but as whole we quickly returned to the way things were before the disaster. That is a kind of resilience.

    In Tohoku, the area hit hardest by the disaster, recovery was more difficult and took more time. Clean up was remarkably quick and organized. Emergency shelters were planned for in advance of disaster and ready to deploy. Whole communities were assembled in school yards and open spaces set aside for just that purpose. Media coverage by the foreign press marveled at the extent of the planning and the communal spirit on display as everyone pitched in and worked first for survival, and then for recovery. As a model of resilience planning in action, it is hard to imagine a better response. It was not perfect, and Japan has almost certainly made changes to its plans for when the next disaster strikes as it learns from its mistakes. Keeping communities together is perhaps a new key ambition, for instance. A lesson learned multiple times as the elderly found themselves isolated in shelters, alone without family and friends. Strong social connections are a clear resource for recovery, as important as all the physical planning we can imagine. A lack of community can undo a lot of good. The lesson is simply that resilience planning should be an investment in community as much as physical infrastructure.

    Today the Tohoku earthquake is receding in the rearview mirror, as even larger events like the Covid-19 pandemic demand our attention and tax our systems. Climate change is similarly making itself felt in daily life. As the scale of problems becomes larger is resilience about bouncing back in the face of disturbance, or is it the ability to adapt and make wholesale change when needed?

    I would like to argue that Japan is a useful example because it can do both. Its strength comes in part from an ability to make large plans that are open-ended when it comes to execution. The example I like to point to is not in fact a plan for resilience at all. It is a part of the way Japan manages its urban planning.

    It may come as a surprise to some that there are only 13 official land-use zones in the Japanese planning system, and they apply from suburbs to city centre, embedded as a national standard in the building code. The power of this arrangement is amplified because the zones are not siloed, except for large factories which rationally stand alone. For the rest, zoning is organized in a kind of stepped pyramid with exclusive low-rise housing at the top and commercial towers and buildings at the bottom. Each step down permits (most of) the functions above, meaning zoning is more like a gradation of potential than a strict prescription within prescribed boundaries. As for the term exclusive, that too is fuzzy as the most exclusive residential zone legally includes clinics, restaurants, apartments and businesses. The outcome is that mixed land-use is common from the suburbs to city centre. Not incidentally, social and economic groups mix naturally as a result, an important way to ensure access to a well-resourced community.

    The power of the system becomes more obvious when it combines with the pace of renewal of buildings in Japan. Famously, homes last only a generation, and large buildings not much more than that, the result of cultural and institutional norms that have a very long history. While there are arguments to be made about the wastefulness of that reality, it is not all one-sided. Cities are as a result radically experimental without the need for any new laws or regulations. More importantly, any given neighbourhood will, over a period of about 30 years replace about a third of its buildings. In that time land use does not necessarily remain constant either. A house can change from a parking lot to an apartment, to a clinic. The issues of neighbors are handled directly through discussion, but there is no legal right to oppose construction. This means NIMBY does not happen (as much). If a city as large as Tokyo with its 38 million inhabitants, wanted to change its very nature, for example by making most buildings carbon neutral, or increasing access to clinics for the elderly, it could theoretically be done in a generation only with simple incentives.

    If the central problem of resilience is that we need to scale solutions across entire communities and even cities, then the Japanese approach to planning is an interesting example. I would go a step further and argue that Japan’s successful response to disaster come not only because of good planning and hard-won experience but also because the systems that create and maintain its built environment are open-ended, if clearly controlled. Emergent by design, there is room to adapt at the local scale, setting up a kind of flexibility that leaves room to react quickly to un-planned for events.

    If our age is defined by the polycrisis, the Japanese approach to resilience is worth a deeper look.

    For more information see:
    HABITAT: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Climate, edited by Sandra Piesik and published by Thames & Hudson, USA, May 2024

  • November 14, 2023
    Hurricane Strong House by +LAB Architects
    Hurricane Strong House by +LAB Architects

    In 2012, Superstorm Sandy devastated waterfront neighborhoods including the Rockaways in Queens. DfRR held a day-long program to look at how agencies, communities and designers, including AIA members, have improved resilience strategies in the ten years since, as well as reviewing new projects currently being put in place.

    We boarded the Rockaway ferry in Manhattan and visited the following sites:

    • Hurricane Strong House at Breezy Point by +LAB Architects
    • Rockaway Boardwalk Restoration by Sage & Coombe Architects
    • Rockaway Boardwalks Reconstruction by WXY architecture + urban design
    • NYC Parks Beach Restoration Modules by Garrison Architects
    • Arverne View by OCV Architects and Local Office Landscape Architecture
    • West Pond Living Shoreline Project at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

    Please watch the 4 minute video here to see the highlights of our tour!

  • April 11, 2021
    Screen Shot 2021 04 01 At 6.00.37 PM (1)
    Screen Shot 2021 04 01 At 6.09.16 PM
    Screen Shot 2021 04 01 at 6.10.48 PM

    Fight or Flight? Rethinking the Urban Footprint
    DfRR Program Series on Managed Retreat
    Illya Azaroff, FAIA, and Gretchen Bank, Associate AIA, Co-chairs


    “Fight or Flight? Rethinking the Urban Footprint” is a six-part series that will address how the urgency of climate change requires design professionals to rethink the built environment. Rising seas, extreme heat, drought, and wildfires are among the environmental stressors that will continue to affect communities throughout the United States and the world. We are now confronted with the urgent need of creating relocation strategies for individual households, communities, and cities.

    As architects, planners, landscape architects, and related professionals, it is our ethical responsibility to integrate thinking about relocation into our practices. The extreme complexity of the economic, social, and environmental impacts associated with climate migration and relocation will be a large part of this conversation, along with equity and environmental justice. We recognize that it is incumbent upon us to find appropriate pathways forward as swiftly as possible, and to continue these conversations.


Our website has detected that you are using a browser that will prevent you from accessing certain features. An upgrade is recommended to experience. Use the links below to upgrade your exisiting browser.