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Samoa's architects look to the past to boost climate resilience

In Samoa and other Pacific island nations, which risk devastation from gale-force winds, flooding, sea surges, and tsunamis, a return to indigenous building styles could be the key to creating disaster-resilient communities of the future.

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    A traditional 'fale' structure stands on the coast on the island of Savaii in Samoa, in the central South Pacific.
    Courtesy of Catherine Wilson/Thomson Reuters Foundation
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In many Pacific Island countries, Western-style home construction has been gradually usurping traditional architecture. But returning to indigenous practices of building and planning communities could be key to creating the disaster-resilient communities of the future, experts say.

In the Samoan community of Sa’anapu, for instance, local people, working with architects and environmental experts, are designing a new community center that will blend aspects of traditional Samoan architecture with solar energy, water tanks – and the capacity to shelter up to 200 people for three weeks in the event of a disaster.

At the new center, it will be “very easy for the village to come together and have a meeting and solve any problem, and it will be passed on that way to the next generation,” said Popese Leaana, the traditional orator of Sa'anapu.

In Samoa, 70 percent of the South Pacific island state’s population of 190,372 people lives in low-lying coastal villages, many of which face high risks of devastation by gale-force winds, flooding, sea surges, and tsunamis.

In Sa’anapu, a village of 2,000 people on the south coast of the main Upolu island, abandoned dwellings scatter the foreshore, bearing witness to the ferocity of an 8.1 magnitude undersea earthquake and tsunami in 2009. Across the country 5,000 people and 850 households were affected by the disaster, including 25 homes in Sa’anapu.

Three years later island communities were again ravaged by severe Cyclone Evan, which hit during Samoa’s November to April tropical cyclone season.

Experts predict things could get worse. According to the Pacific Climate Change Science Program, wind speeds of Pacific cyclones are expected to increase 11 percent this century, while rainfall intensity will go up 20 percent.

People here “have to live with [disasters] and [previously] they built their houses accordingly, so we need to learn from the past and offer new solutions to improve things for the future,” urged Samoan architecture graduate Carinnya Feaunati.

Solutions from the past

For centuries, she said, the Polynesian people of Samoa have built structures appropriate to the climate and put them in locations to maximize social cohesion and effective governance – attributes especially important in times of crisis.

Traditional architecture is epitomized by the ‘fale’, an oval-shaped open structure with timber posts supporting a steep domed roof. All of the building elements are "lashed" or bound together, originally with a plaited rope made from dried coconut fiber.

The fale’s open structure allows strong winds to pass straight through it, and the complex system of lashing offers flexible movement and strength in the face of ever-changing winds, Feaunati said. 

“The roof of a fale is curved, and winds which hit it will move around its surface without meeting resistance,” agreed Daniel Conley, a lecturer in construction in the Department of Applied Science at the National University of Samoa, in the capital, Apia.

The fale began to change in the 20th century as Western influences took hold. Its form became square, with solid walls enclosing the structure and corrugated iron replacing roofs of thatched leaves. Today, two thirds of the buildings in Samoa are Western-style, with only a third traditionally Samoan, according to national housing data.

But introduced building designs are not usually built for the extremes of tropical climates, Conley pointed out. Cyclone winds that meet the resistance of vertical rigid walls are directed upward and are likely to lift off the roof and even the rafters, and pull the building apart, he said.

The Samoan government estimates that housing damage and loss due to Cyclone Evan totaled 43.3 million Samoan tala ($17.8 million) with recovery and reconstruction amounting to 49.9 million tala ($20.4 million). The majority of homes damaged during the disaster were Western style, with destruction of roofs a common problem.

Samoan architect Anne Godinet-Milbank, who is also project manager of a post-Cyclone Evan housing reconstruction program supported by the U.N. Development Program, said that the traditional structure of the Samoan fale is central to “building back better.”

“The design of the fale connects the roof directly to the posts that are concreted into the ground, creating less points of weakness. It is a proven construction technique in Samoa,” she said.

Western housing designs, in contrast, are reliant on more points of connection from the foundation to the roof, leaving them more vulnerable to fail under stress, she said.

Some modern innovations, such as hurricane straps – strips of galvanized steel used to bind rafters and wall joints – make sense and can strengthen buildings, Conley said. The problem is that “these extra building items are expensive and in many developing countries, including Samoa, people often opt not to include them in construction,” he said.

Resilient village – not just homes

Besides home construction techniques, the physical planning of communities also has consequences for disaster resilience, the experts said.

In Sa’anapu, population growth, natural disasters, and rising sea levels, which have eroded the coastline one meter a year, have forced residents to disperse inland from the village’s original shoreline location. 

“When we lived in the coastal area, all the village stayed together, but we moved inland, and my village has changed. Now one chief is far away from another chief,” said Leaana, the village orator. The original settlement featured homes sited around a central area used for gatherings and meetings, he said.

Now a project focused on reducing risks through architecture aims to reunify the village by creating a new weather-resilient community hub.

Managing Risk for Adapted and Considerate Architecture, a collaborative project between the village, environmental experts, and architects from the New Zealand-based Atelier Workshop, aims to create a fale-inspired structure that will house the village preschool, women’s committee, craft workshops, and a fresh produce market. It could also be used as an emergency shelter in the event of a disaster.

“We started to imagine a place that could be used daily and weekly by the village, but could also transform into an emergency shelter with capacity to store relief supplies and even provide a landing for a helicopter,” said Cecile Bonnifait of the Atelier Workshop.

The aim, she said, is to strengthen the community’s civic life and traditional governance structure, and boost its capacity to coordinate an effective response to future disasters.

• Catherine Wilson is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia, who travels regularly in the Pacific islands. (Editing by Laurie Goering; laurie.goering@thomsonreuters.com)

 This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.

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