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'Butterfly Houses' showcase the caring face of architecture

By Matt Ford for CNN
  • Concept for orphans' homes in Thailand won Social Justice category at Earth Awards
  • "We have searched for a deeper meaning in our profession," said architect Andreas G. Gjertsen
  • Gjertsen believes his project represents a shift in emphasis among some architects
  • Architecture for Humanity is helping to rebuild Haiti

(CNN) -- A new generation of architects seems determined to use their skills for the greater good, producing buildings that are ecologically and socially sustainable.

A remarkable design by Norwegian firm Tyin Tegnestue to build and manage a sustainable community project that will give 50 Thai orphans their own individual homes -- the so-called "Butterfly Houses" -- won the Social Justice category at this year's Earth Awards and nearly took the top prize.

The Earth Awards celebrate creative ideas and link designers, architects and others with the investors who can make their ideas happen.

Andreas G. Gjertsen from Tyin Tegnestue told CNN he believes his project represents a shift in emphasis among some architects.

"I guess the combination of focus on ethical and aesthetic values makes the project interesting," he said.

"We want to address basic challenges and find answers to these through logical, socially sustainable and beautiful solutions."

The architects say the aim of the Butterfly Houses was to recreate what the children would experience in a more normal home. Every child has a private space collectively organized into neighborhoods where they could live and play together.

"We have searched for a deeper meaning in our profession, and find it in building projects for people that really benefit from improved physical surroundings," said Gjertsen.

For us this motivation to 'do good' is empty if we don't bring our interest and love for architecture into the mix.
--Andreas G. Gjertsen, architect

The houses have foundations made from recycled tires to prevent rot, while the walls were built using a local bamboo-weaving technique, with most of the bamboo harvested within a few kilometers of the site.

The specially shaped roofs act as a conduit for ventilation and have a rainwater harvesting function.

"For us this motivation to 'do good' is empty if we don't bring our interest and love for architecture into the mix."

Gjertsen hopes that knowledge of the project will spread locally in the village, and inspire similar projects in the local community.

"[Now] we are pushing forward towards new projects ... There are thousands of projects that can change people's lives and literally millions of clients, if architects and other experts just lower their fees."

We may think of disaster relief as providing food and water, but shelter is also vital, especially over the long term -- and nowhere more so than in post-earthquake Haiti.

Tyin Tegnestue is currently working in the country offering advice to a group of architecture students in Port-au-Prince.

"This [is] without a doubt the most challenging situation we have encountered until now, and even though it might seem hopeless, we will try to use all our experience to provide a better physical framework where people in poor communities might improve their lives."

But Tyin Tegnestue isn't alone.

Architecture for Humanity (AFH) employs "design fellows" for six to 12 months to work with local architects and builders in developing countries to realize a project.

"Over the years we've built a community of such generous folks and their peers who see Architecture for Humanity as a tremendous resource for executing humanitarian architecture and design," said AFH design fellow Karl Johnson.

"Architecture can enable the provision of human rights such as shelter, water, privacy and stability.

"It's important to incorporate all these aspects in every kind of shelter, that the residents might attain some self-sufficiency and retain self-worth."

For example, AFH has just completed the Mahiga Rainwater Court in rural Kenya, which is a set of basketball courts covered with a rainwater-collecting roof.

"The design is both elegant and functional, and is a perfect example of what we do," said Johnson.

"But perhaps the most exciting project on our 'boards' at the moment is the Haiti Reconstruction Program.

"Following the earthquake last January we saw a need for a facilitator in engaging and empowering the Haitian architecture and construction community to help rebuild their nation."

AFH established an office in Port-au-Prince to coordinate five on-the-ground staff members and a team of volunteers working with local professionals to help in the design and construction of permanent schools around the country.

"For many reasons Haiti is the most ambitious and difficult project we've ever engaged in," said Johnson.

Where possible the buildings use extremely local materials and employ local labor in construction.

"This way there is a double benefit," said Johnson. "The buildings are cheaper -- saving on transportation costs, to say the least -- and the local economy is stimulated.

"Appropriate architecture not only pursues ecological sustainability, but economic and cultural sustainability as well.

"There are huge challenges, an incredible need and an opportunity to showcase the best of what ... sustainable architecture can offer."

For Tyin Tegnestue, finding a way to use their skills for the greater good has been a tremendously empowering experience.

"All in all the most important mantra for us is: Do it! There's a lot of talk, and a lot of plans, but we find that practical exercises and tests give much more results than all the talk and planning," said Gjertsen.