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Right Now | Waves of the Future

Tsunami-Safe(r) Housing

September-October 2005

Last December’s devastating tsunami leveled building walls that faced the sea in Sri Lanka—but walls perpendicular to the shoreline remained standing. A group of Graduate School of Design students (who styled themselves the Tsunami Design Initiative, or TDI) used that fact and others to inform their innovative design for homes more likely to survive the next tidal wave. The TDI—Ellen Chen, Eric Ho, Nour Jallad, Richard Lam, and Ying Zhou—won a Tsunami Challenge Competition that MIT’s Special Interest Group in Urban Settlement sponsored this spring, and presented their work to the U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington in April.

Their design uses hollow-core structural elements, built of masonry units, that can house infrastructure like water and power lines. Flexible, cheap local materials such as bamboo fill in the exterior walls between the core elements. The 400-square-foot dwelling (rendered at right, with virtual “occupants”) includes a raised deck, as traditional homes do, so that seawater can pass beneath. Computer models indicate that this design would be five times stronger than a traditional Sri Lankan house (far right). “By creating moments of structural stability, you’re vastly stronger than trying to make everything rigid,” says associate professor of architecture Michelle Addington, who advised TDI. “You balance these stable elements with things that give.” Hence, a big wave can wash through the house rather than knocking it down.

The rendering of a tsunami-survivable home design shows its formal similarities to a traditional Sri Lankan residence (below).
Images courtesy of Tsunami Design Initiative

The students estimate costs at about $1,200 for a complete structure. The design is efficient enough that twice as many new-style homes as traditional models can be erected with the same resources. Construction of the first unit began in Sri Lanka this summer; the students would like to build many more and also hope to erect a community center. They will hold a conference at the Design School this November on rebuilding strategies in response to the tsunami.

~Craig Lambert

Tsunami Design Initiative website: