At the age of 82, Yasmeen Lari, Pakistan’s first-ever female architect, is working towards fortifying the country’s rural communities against the impacts of climate change. Rather than pursuing multi-million dollar projects in Karachi, Lari is focusing on developing innovative bamboo houses that can withstand floods.
The few pilot settlements already constructed have reportedly helped families stay safe during catastrophic monsoon flooding that submerged one-third of Pakistan last year.
“We continued to live in them,” said Khomo Kohli, a resident of Pono Colony village, a few hundred kilometers outside of Karachi. “The rest of the residents had to move onto the road where they lived for two months until the water receded.”
Lari now seeks to expand the project to build a million flood-proof houses using affordable local materials. This will aid in generating employment opportunities, especially in vulnerable areas.
Lari refers to her methodology as ‘co-building and co-creation,’ because the people have an equal role in embellishing and creating comfortable living spaces. With training to the locals, they can build these houses using locally sourced materials like lime, clay, bamboo, and thatching. The new houses cost around $170 to build, which is one-eighth the cost of a cement and brick house.
Lari’s rural projects are managed by the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, and she was inspired to pursue this work because of several natural disasters, including a massive earthquake in 2005 and floods in 2010. She believes that “zero carbon, zero waste, zero donor” leads to “zero poverty.”
Monsoon rains in Pakistan are becoming heavier and more unpredictable due to climate change, making it urgent to flood-proof the most vulnerable areas, particularly where the poorest people live.
Pakistan is responsible for less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions; however, it is one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of extreme weather. Pono Colony was developed with its elevated bamboo houses just months ahead of the catastrophic monsoon rains that displaced eight million people last summer. The bamboo skeletons of these houses, dug deep into the ground, can withstand the pressure of water, thereby ensuring the safety of residents.
The homes, known locally as “chanwara,” are an improved version of traditional single-room mud huts found in southern Sindh province and Rajasthan state of India. They require only locally available materials and can be assembled quickly with minimal training to locals.
Tens of thousands of people in rural Sindh are still displaced, and stagnant water still engulfs large swathes of farmland, almost a year after the worst-ever floods in the country. According to a joint study by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, Pakistan sustained $32 billion in damage and economic losses during the floods and would require $16 billion for reconstruction and rehabilitation
When Lari worked on a social housing project in Lahore during the 1970s, local women showered her with questions about where their chickens would live. She stated that these questions influenced her practices, and she always considers women’s needs when designing her structures. In her recent projects, Lari redesigned traditional stoves by lifting them off the floor to improve hygiene.
This year, the Royal Institute of British Architects recognized Lari’s pioneering work and awarded her the 2023 Royal Gold Medal, an honor bestowed upon architects who have dedicated their lives to changing people’s lives through architecture. “An inspirational figure, she moved from a large practice centered on the needs of international clients to focusing solely on humanitarian causes,” stated RIBA president, Simon Allford.
“This is an incredible honor,” Lari said. “But, of course, it also makes my tasks harder. I have to ensure that I now deliver.”