Indonesia Disaster Recovery Design/Build


On September 28, 2018 a 7.5 magnitude earthquake was measured 77km (48mi) off the coast of the city of Palu. The earthquake was then followed by a localized tsunami that caused the structures on the shoreline to be swept away entirely. Landslides finalized the level of destruction that befell this town with approximately 68,000 houses in need of repair or reconstruction affecting about 1.5 million people. It was the deadliest earthquake worldwide in 2018 with an estimated 4,400 people injured and about 2,200 dead. Today, hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced.

These are the facts of what happened here in Palu City, Central Sulawesi Indonesia. What these facts don’t and won’t address is the level of absolute horror the citizens of Palu had to go through. And almost one year later exactly, what everyone here continues to go through.

Palu is on a fault line. The earthquakes magnitude of 7.5 was bad but wouldn’t necessarily have caused so much damage on its own. In 2018 a 7.4 magnitude had also recently occurred in Banten on the island of Java, Indonesia and damage was not nearly as pervasive. The reasoning lies in another measurement from the MMI scale (Modified Mercalli Intensity) measuring intensity. Palu City received a rating of 9, considered “Violent with damage to even well designed structures,” with a much higher intensity and actual ground displacement. The locals didn’t understand why theirs was so much worse than their neighboring country.

The earthquake and tsunami were bad but it was the earthquakes intensity and corresponding “liquefaction” of the soil that really took out everything in its path and caused the most destruction. Liquefaction is a phenomenon where the soil is mixed with enough moisture that when its disturbed (as in an earthquake) it loses its ability to bond together and essentially acts like a liquid. As this mass moves with gravity it eats everything in its path. The people were describing it as clamping and swallowing homes, people and cars. Roads that were once straight moved tens of feet laterally and vertically. Homes ending up with the ground as their second story. There have been some heartbreaking stories told about personal experiences, sacrifices made and everything that was lost. One man in the refugee camp who has been helping us with materials and tools was out getting water, when he came back he found that his home where he had left his family had been swallowed up. Days later they dug up his car 7 meters (23 feet) under the rubble and mud to find his family in the car where they had tried to escape the liquefaction. His neighbor watched as his wife drowned in the mud because he had to hold onto their newborn child and couldn’t do anything to save her. A sacrifice, he called it. They lost everything, people they loved and their homes and possessions.

Another story was told by a friend going to the University of Tadulako here in Palu. “I was stuck inside with no space. Im hopeless at the time but the liquefaction just stopped and everything had been moved and destroyed, so I could escape from the roof. And so many people were shouting for help but they were under the ground or stuck by concrete. And many of them died after three days because there was nothing we could do at the time. I was living in a tent for 3 months. Now I have a house and I wait for a house that the government will provide.”

So we’re here, building. Architecture most of the time is a rational, straightforward process with plans, material selections, structural calculations. Nothing about this process has been like that. The emotional aspect alone has been built into this structure right along with the tangible materials. People are all over the site as we build, the children have taken to amassing around the foundation, scrambling to help wherever they can. The structure has taken on the ownership of the entire refugee camp. This is the essence of participatory design. All the community members become invested in the structure and take it on as “"theirs.”

And honestly, life here is hard, allowing to some small insight about everyday life for those in temporary housing. There are ants everywhere and in everything. Something that becomes a real problem without refrigerators. We are on the equator so its always hot and humid, even at night when sleeping outside as many people have to do there is no reprieve. The air quality is at extremely poor levels with dust mixing with the off gassing of burning trash and plastic, in piles next to peoples tents and homes. The food available is high in MSG and salt and most recently meat from a national celebration that has been going on for three days now. The festival involves animal sacrifice. One of the sacrifice sites for the refugee community was our construction site. As we were swinging hammers, five feet away the men of the village were swinging knifes to slit the throats of cows and goats. The first day was shocking. Goats actually scream, I didn’t know that until yesterday. I was about to jump in the water and take my chances on the open ocean (found out later there are actually alligators in the ocean, wouldn’t have made it very far). It was tough because I’d never been around it before, but its the local custom, the way things simply are. It’s Eid al Adha, one of the holiest holidays celebrated in Islam.

This is the prevailing mindset of the island, “its the way things are, how life is”. The mindset that keeps people going and waking up in the morning. It was explained to me that Islam is less a religion than a way of life. To do no harm and act without ill intention. So even now in the the process of building everything is incorporated into religion just by way of life.


We are building a community center, right in the heart of one of the refugee camps. The site was chosen based on need. It’s called Balalora after the village where the majority of the inhabitants used to live. It was as area of highly dense living with over 1,000 homes destroyed in the liquefaction. After the disaster when everyone really requires help from one another, there needs to be a space in which to gather and make decisions as a whole for the greater good of the whole. Right now there is nowhere to plan their reconstruction, every time they want to gather they have to rent a space, further depleting funds. The site is in the heart of the camp, where it will be available to equal access by everyone, something very important after the inequality of government funds and help received. The method of construction is in the form of participatory design where we invite the community members to all help and learn the construction and assembly of the structure and also incorporating their local ways of building. In the future they can be empowered to construct their homes using the same techniques. It lends back a sense of pride and control over the situation, something that is worth more than any amount of government aid. This community center is modeled after past projects by Hiroto Kobayashi, the professor sponsoring my research at Keio University SFC in Tokyo.

It is one of his “Veneer Houses” and is a pre-fabricated plywood structure that fits together with traditional Japanese joinery methods to allow for construction without any hardware (nails or screws). It is all precisely cut on the CNC machine and flat shipped to the site where assembly of the structure can take just a few days after the foundation is built. The lack of hardware means that the structure can also be disassembled easily and moved to a new site when its needed elsewhere or the people of the village are relocated. The construction is intuitive allowing all members of the community to be involved, even (and especially) the children who are more than excited to help. The main material is plywood, something that is affordable, rigid, uniformly strong and light, renewable and also widely available. The local residents are wary of concrete after the disaster and are hesitant to rebuild with it as the main material. They prefer wood for its inability to trap the residents as extensively if the liquefaction were to happen again. The government in Palu said 40 million rupiah (IDR) would be feasible to implement as a transitional housing structure so that was goal budget. It’s why the shape is triangle (less material) and why there are openings as well as to allow wind through.

The Veneer house was created as a potential solution after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, which also left a lot of destruction in its wake, a 9.0 magnitude. It’s considered “Creative Destruction”- modeled after the Ise Shrine rebuilt every 20 years, to keep the knowledge of construction alive. This “Self-build Construction Method” becomes a puzzle that anyone can solve. Once there is a solid foundation on which to build, the Veneer House is just a matter of assembly.


We started the project by digging holes for the foundation. Concrete footings can’t be transported though or easily disassembled. It is perhaps the only the fault in the design, although easily solvable with local tools and technology. Having a local liaison to translate and explain is beyond important. Showing the refugees what we’re doing and having them excited and wanting to help is paramount to the success of the concept and adaptation of the structure to fit local needs and skills. It is the core of participatory architecture. And actually, what really happened is the locals showed us up big time. They ended up teaching us more then we taught them at the onset of the project. Using a simple clear water hose to calculate if long spans are level and the preciseness of their construction in concrete was amazing to learn from. Concrete ratios consist of the following: 1 rock 4 cement 4 sand 7 water. They were laughing at us. One of the locals actually stopped helping us after his friends told him to stop. When translated it was said that we were a mess so he shouldn’t help us. When inquired about the fact that we were building for them he said they don’t understand the urgency, they just make do with what they have. This has been the pervasive attitude so far its very different from the U.S. There is no self-pity that we’ve seen really, everyone helps each other and really just focuses on moving forward. This changed a few days later when everyone became really excited about the possibility and realness of the project and started to learn from us, the tables turned on the back end of construction.

Morgan MarzoComment