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Founded in the wake of the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, India, Hunnarshala engages in both community and artisan empowerment. It works with a network of artisans to combine traditional techniques with innovation resulting in buildings, including in post disaster situations, that are at once eco-friendly, resilient and in keeping with local vernacular. They also train and empower artisan entrepreneurs, bringing them into the mainstream of construction and participate in community-led reconstruction and planning.

The devastating 2001 earthquake brought together a group of architects, engineers, and environmental advocates who had been working in the region for years on the idea that people can be empowered by shaping their own habitats. The earthquake presented an opportunity for the cofounders to test this belief. In Kutch, Hunnarshala met with citizens, local builders, and artisans to devise reconstruction strategies that expanded upon local knowledge and the principle that homeowners were capable of replicating and updating structures for greater resilience. One conversation led to the revival of the bhunga, a traditional dwelling with a rounded shape that makes it naturally more quake-resistant than a boxy concrete buildings. Hunnarshala worked with artisans to further reinforce the bhunga’s rammed-earth construction by adding steel rings at various levels.

This community-driven process has become the cornerstone of Hunarashala’s approach. They constantly find new hybrid solutions to elevate vernacular architecture with innovation. For example, experiments have led to the use industrial waste, such as adding levigated clay (waste from porcelain factories that clog river systems) in rammed-earth construction and joining thin strips of waste wood from shipwrecks to make structural flooring, doors, and window frames.

All new materials and techniques are extensively tested in Hunnarshala’s lab in Bhuj, and the organization works with local governments to develop technical guidelines, which are added to regional manuals for new construction.

Hunnarshala has worked on disaster rehabilitation in India (Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kashmir, and Bihar), Iran, Indonesia, and Afghanistan. It has helped build more than 30,000 interim shelters and about 12,000 permanent reconstructions. The organization consulted on a program to design bamboo homes in the state of Bihar, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where 20,000 homes have been constructed using a traditional system that lashes bamboo poles together without hardware. Hunnarshala is working with the Uttaranchal government to design a social housing program in response to the floods of 2013, this time looking at ways to use local stone.

An example of Hunnarshala’s holistic approach to redevelopment work can be found in its home city of Bhuj. After the 2001 earthquake, Hunnarshala collaborated with the city government on several relocation and social housing projects, including a master plan for the sustainable, culturally sensitive relocation of 500 displaced families. On the outskirts of Bhuj, about 300 homes have been built reusing industrial waste materials; the homes can be expanded by their owners, not a typical perk of post-disaster housing. The residents are being relocated from a dense urban core, so creating public spaces throughout the town is a focus. To address water-shortage issues, partner organizations are creating an urban watershed with a decentralized wastewater treatment system. Helophyte plants filter water for use in irrigation, which stimulates agrarian activities as well as greater community self-sufficiency. The maintenance of these new elements has created jobs: Hunnarshala has trained residents to maintain the solar panels that power the water pumps in the biofilter plant.

Hunnarshala has built a network of artisans during its many reconstruction projects and this has been an ongoing source of expertise as the organization has continued work in Kutch and other disaster regions. Hunnarshala also contracts some of its artisans to work on international historical restoration projects. They also run a training program to help rural artisans understand urban business practices and how to apply their skills in an urban context. Participants get a two-year education in entrepreneurship during which Hunnarshala diverts business to them as they learn how to manage their own enterprises. Today, two hundred Hunnarshala-trained artisans are using their own knowledge systems to help build cities.

Hunnarshala demonstrates that communities given the power to make their own decisions create the best solutions. Hunnarshala understands how to revive local artisanal knowledge and skills to deliver high-quality housing that is sustainable and disaster-safe. Hunnarshala has started an ongoing conversation with artisans that continues to generate new knowledge.