I remember sitting through a lecture some years back about disaster relief and the architects who spring forth to build structures for refugees or displaced folks and being in awe at what amazing solutions the architects came up with. I don't remember the particular architect who was being featured at the time, but I do remember being reminded of a Plato quote my dad uses (and usually butchers) whenever he's attempting to heed my worries: necessity is the mother of invention. I think that quote (thank you, Plato) is exactly it; when the need arises, the innovation has to be there (it just has to be). Before you continue, I suggest you read this wonderful short story on invention.
Let's take a look at Hurricane Katrina and the demand it placed on quick thinking (for many things) but especially housing for the many people displaced by the storm. Daniel Libeskind, a fairly eccentric and well-known architect (and also thee architect who has designed the Freedom Tower at ground zero) designed a 580-square-foot house "with two small bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and possibly a veranda." Additionally, the price of building the tiny house was estimated at $3,700 or less and could be built in about two weeks. What Libeskind designed was a way to give the people who had lost their homes homes again, not trailers, motel rooms or cruise ship rooms.
Another architect who presented relief ideas for Katrina is Sean Godsell, who has designed temporary housing out of shipping containers; he calls them Future Shacks. Godsell designed the housing to be appropriate for nearly any disaster in the world - flood, fire, earthquake, typhoon, refugee housing, etc. The Future Shack is built out of a 20-foot shipping container that is readily available, inexpensive, and durable. Even better is that the unit is self-contained and can be assembled in 24 hours.
These examples of disaster relief architecture provide a tremendously humbling example of how designers, through innovation, can benefit society at large. Personally, I've struggled with the thought that I am merely a designer and that I cannot make an impact other than through good design. However, I think it's seeing examples like these ones that remind me that socially, I can do anything that I put my mind to. Certainly we all have to make money with our day jobs, but with a little ingenuity (i.e. innovation) designers can make a difference by stepping up and out of our comfort zones and doing what we're good at, for the good of others. The architects I spoke of above were not schooled in the way of relief housing. Nobody pulled Sean aside and said, "look, look at that shipping container, you could make a house out of that," they didn't read it in a book, they simply saw an opportunity to use their creative minds and their resource of education and experience to impact the way society can expect to experience disaster relief - and, compassion.
Final word from Sean Godsell:
"As architects in stable democracies our responsibilities are reasonably clear cut. Our role in those societies where freedom has been ripped away by force, or where nature has devastated whole cities, or when generations of minority groups have been forced into a life of poverty because of a political philosophy, is hazy by comparison. The need 'to house'... offers architects the opportunity to provide shelter for fellow human beings in need."