Published February 24, 2014
Victims of a natural disaster have basic immediate needs – food, water and, of course, shelter. So once a family settles into a transitional shelter, it seems it would matter little what color the walls are, or whether their eating utensils are plastic or metal.
But architecture student Brijhette Farmer posits that such design details in post-disaster housing are significant in that they affect the emotional response of the occupants, making the difference between further dejection and hope for rebuilding.
She says she was particularly affected by the experience of communities hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Haiti earthquake in 2010. From the notorious trailers in New Orleans – which housed thousands of homeless for years – to the makeshift shelters in Haiti, she saw the potential for design sensibility to ease victims’ recovery and transition.
Farmer, who will earn her Master of Architecture degree in the spring and continue next year with her Master of Science in Civil Engineering, is combining her interest in human-centered, inclusive design and structural engineering to explore this connection.
“Emergency shelters and supplies are designed for temporary situations. For instance, the trailers after Hurricane Katrina were composed of shoddy materials, and supply kits contained disposable items distributed on a week-to-week basis,” Farmer explains. “But as transitions elapse from weeks into months, people begin to look for a sense of permanence. I’m interested in exploring how people’s perceptions of their situation change when they’re handed well-designed items versus disposable junk.”
Farmer, who’s pursuing the research as part of the Inclusive Design Graduate Research Group and her Master of Architecture thesis, is taking a focused look at the question – honing in on the kitchen and its contents.
Specifically, her study will test how displaced populations, including victims of natural disasters but also refugees and those living in extreme poverty, respond to kitchen items from a standard disaster survival kit. Participants are first interviewed by Farmer about their transitional housing experience. They then are asked to evaluate utensils, pots, pans and food storage containers based on design qualities such as material composition, functionality, size and shape.
“In many ways, the kitchen is an ideal testing ground for this question. Kitchens are rarely omitted from a shelter or house design, and every member of the household uses the items within it,” says Farmer.
“I hope to find out what characteristics are desirable, why, and how the inclusion of those characteristics in future post-disaster products can improve the experience of impoverished and post-disaster populations in transitional housing settings,” says Farmer, adding that it was a building ergonomics class she took through the Inclusive Design Graduate Research Group that took her down this path.
Such insights can be applied immediately because disaster agencies such as the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency stockpile supplies as a preparedness measure. If the production models change now, agencies will have the right supplies on hand when the next disaster strikes.
In many ways, Farmer views her work – which she’s titled “Life, Limb and the Pursuit of Architecture” – as giving a voice to the voiceless. This kind of rigorous product testing and industrial engineering is usually reserved for items such as the next IPod or laptop computer, where consumers have a choice, she says. There are no such market dynamics for victims of natural disasters.
Gaps in equity and accessibility in the built environment are also what activated her interest in architecture years ago.
“I grew up in the [public housing] projects in St. Louis, but had the opportunity to attend high school in a completely different part of town, where things looked a lot different. I wondered then how much the quality of our surrounding built environment affects our attitudes about our situation.”
Soon after joining the School of Architecture and Planning, Farmer helped to found the UB chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students, whose activities include touring local architectural firms to expose minority students to the profession’s varied career paths.
Farmer’s dual degree has also allowed her to channel her eclectic interests, including physics and mathematics, toward the fundamentals of how buildings work. She spent summer 2013 interning at the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute in Oakland, Ca., building disaster simulation and data visualization models. She’s now been invited to present her thesis research on post-disaster housing this July at the 10 U.S. National Conference on Earthquake Engineering, organized by EERI and sponsored in part by FEMA.
Looking ahead, Farmer says she hopes to pursue her PhD in Computational Physics to further her technical skills, and will then take her knowledge to developing countries, where she’d like to study disaster-readiness in building engineering and design.
"Advancing natural disaster mitigation in developing countries is my professional calling and I can’t wait to dive in."
Brijhette Farmer would like to acknowledge her Master of Architecture thesis advisors for their expertise and direction: Professor Edward Steinfeld, Associate Professor Korydon Smith, and Adjunct Professor Sue Weidemann