top of page

‘Barefoot Architect’ Brings Sustainable Housing to Pakistan’s Poor

Over One Million Homes Were Lost After Catastrophic Flooding 



Architect Yasmeen Lari sits in front of dwellings designed by her foundation.  ©Wikimedia/BBC Urdu  (CC BY 3.0)
Architect Yasmeen Lari sits in front of dwellings designed by her foundation. ©Wikimedia/BBC Urdu (CC BY 3.0)

Designing safe, sustainable dwellings for those without means or access is beginning to have its day. One determined Pakistani architect is at the forefront of this response.


The 'Barefoot Architect'


After a storied career as a pioneering Pakistani architect, Yasmeen Lari pivoted away from designing glitzy modern architecture—with its high carbon footprint and other drawbacks—to address the plight of Pakistan’s disaster-plagued poor.

 

Lari has turned her focus to designing environmentally friendly disaster-relief dwellings for a populace that faces periodic earthquakes and flooding. 

 

Known today as the “barefoot architect” for the “poorest of the poor,” Lari repurposed her professional career—she calls her former self a “starchitect”—and set up Barefoot Social Architecture (BASA), which, according to Dezeen magazine, works to “uplift impoverished communities without impacting the planet.” 

 

Descended from a compassionate, public-minded father who sheltered Muslim refugees at the time of Partition, Lari has long been committed to the preservation of her heritage, having set up the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan in 1980 with her historian husband.

 

With the same determination that led young Lari to study architecture and succeed as the first woman to register as an architect in Pakistan, Lari’s foundation set about preserving historically important architectural treasures, such as those of the once-prosperous Sethi family in Peshawar, among many others.


A view of the Sethi Mohalla, preserved by Lari’s Heritage Foundation.  ©Wikimedia/Teseum (CC BY-SA 4.0)
A view of the Sethi Mohalla, preserved by Lari’s Heritage Foundation. ©Wikimedia/Teseum (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The foundation’s urgent work to address disaster relief housing for the poor followed later—with a particular concern for women and children whose lives in Pakistan have traditionally revolved around the home. 

 

Empowering people to create their own safe, affordable, nature-based housing and communal structures—carrying “the sweat and pride” of the community—eventually became more important to Lari than designing prestigious commercial structures.

 

Since her career pivot, considerable attention has been paid to her work. In 2023, at the age of 82, she was awarded the Royal Gold Medal, considered one of the world’s most prestigious architectural accolades.


Sustainability In Service to Women and Children


Yasmeen Lari’s designs prioritize using locally sourced, renewable materials and incorporating traditional techniques and vernacular architectural styles. In an interview with BBC Urdu in 2020, she described her design motto as “low-to-no cost, zero carbon, and zero waste.” (See video)


Houses built with support from Lari’s foundation (2020).  ©BBC Urdu/Wikimedia
Houses built with support from Lari’s foundation (2020). ©BBC Urdu/Wikimedia

Her approach is highly regarded by architects, environmentalists, and humanitarian organizations.

With many women and children in Pakistan spending much of their lives near the home, designing disaster-resistant homes with natural, nontoxic materials is a necessity. Disaster mortality rates are generally higher for women and children. [See The Earth & I, April, 2021]. 


The women and children of Sindh Province.  ©DFID/Wikimedia
The women and children of Sindh Province. ©DFID/Wikimedia

Feminist architect Nourhan Bassam, founder of the think-tank GamingX, spoke with The Earth & I about the importance of Lari’s work in addressing this need. “By acknowledging the distinct impact of these disasters on women, we understand that ‘disasters are a feminist issue’,” Bassam said.

  

“Through her foundation, Lari has not only influenced architectural practice but also inspired a broader conversation on intersectionality and cross-cutting topics of sustainability, feminism, and disaster resilience in the field of architecture,” said Bassam.


Strong Collaboration Required 

 

Providing adequate safe housing for a population as large as Pakistan’s is not easy. “Designing disaster-resistant, affordable housing from local and sustainable materials is a complex process that requires a holistic approach,” Maulik Patel, managing partner at UniquesCadd, an architecture firm focusing on disaster-resilient architecture, told The Earth & I.

 

Various stakeholders need to be involved. “Addressing these challenges requires interdisciplinary collaboration, community engagement, and innovative approaches to design and construction,” Patel added.

 

Dezeen reported that from 2012 to 2014, [Lari’s] foundation provided 40,000 new shelters that housed about 300,000 people following severe flooding in Sindh Province.

 

Lari’s track record suggests that her foundation is uniquely qualified to help address the disaster housing challenges of Pakistan’s poorest populations. Dezeen reported that from 2012 to 2014, her foundation provided 40,000 new shelters that housed about 300,000 people following severe flooding in Sindh Province.

Addressing Pakistan’s Floods


 Catastrophic flooding in Pakistan (2022).  ©zms/iStock
Catastrophic flooding in Pakistan (2022). ©zms/iStock

Lari’s foundation was severely tested when heavy rains led to catastrophic floods in Pakistan in 2022. A third of the country was submerged and 33 million people were forced from their homes or otherwise impacted. (See video here). According to UNICEF, half of those affected were children. A total of 1.4 million homes were destroyed in what the World Economic Forum (WEF) described as a “climate-fuelled catastrophe” that claimed at least 1,700 lives.   

 

In the aftermath of the devastating floods, Yasmeen Lari and the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan launched a plan to build a million flood-resistant homes throughout the country by 2024. The initiative also aims to ensure that every affected household has essential resources.

 

While Lari’s plan addresses the urgent need to focus on disaster relief, it also emphasizes the need for disaster preparedness—such as safety shelters for communities.


Video on shelter assembly. ©2024 Heritage Foundation of Pakistan


The shelter project draws heavily on Lari’s expertise and experience working closely with local communities and utilizing indigenous, renewable materials—such as lime, mud, and bamboo—to create durable, yet easily replaceable structures.

 

In a 2023 interview with RIBAJ, Lari said the know-how to complete one of her shelters was already freely available through a YouTube channel that had over 5,000 subscribers at the time. Through the channel, anyone can learn to build one of the foundation’s houses via detailed step-by-step instructions. Lari envisions positioning shelters on elevated roads that normally are not submerged during flooding. These structures can be relocated to permanent foundations for long-term use. 


Lari-designed chulahs can be self-made from local natural materials.  ©2024 Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

Lari-designed chulahs can be self-made from local natural materials.  ©2024 Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

Durable, sustainable, personalized—Heritage Foundation shelters.  

©2024 Heritage Foundation of Pakistan


Lari said it is possible to construct 25 shelters a day wherever the foundation has people “on the ground.”

In the RIBAJ interview, Lari said it is possible to construct 25 shelters a day wherever the foundation has people “on the ground” to facilitate skill-sharing among villages. The WEF reported that about 1,000 homes had been completed in heavily stricken Sindh province as of September 2023.


In addition to providing basic shelter, Lari also aims to provide water, toilets, and Lari’s “eco-alternative” Pakistan Chulah Cookstoves, which are self-built from local mud and CO2-absorbing lime plaster.  


Lari-designed chulahs can be self-made from local natural materials.  ©2024 Heritage Foundation of Pakistan
Lari-designed chulahs can be self-made from local natural materials. ©2024 Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

The stoves, which are fueled by agricultural waste, cut wood use by 50% to 70%, Lari told Dezeen magazine. The result was a healthier cooking environment compared with the traditional Pakistani wood-burning chulah.


According to Dezeen, the health benefits of replacing open fires with Lari’s cookstoves include reduced air pollution, skin burns, and likely lowered rates of respiratory or heart diseases. The reduced need for firewood also impacts deforestation rates and time spent searching for firewood. Resting on a solid raised platform, they are also less likely to be swept away during a flood. 


Traditional indoor wood-burning chulah cookstoves.
©Claude Renault/Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)
Traditional outdoor wood-burning chulah cookstoves.
©Muhammad Amjad/iStock

Traditional indoor (left) and outdoor (right) wood-burning chulah cookstoves.


Progress and Frustration


The WEF reported that Lari’s foundation had, as of November 2023, helped 2022 flood victims build approximately 4,500 homes with the goal of doing so for “at least 350,000 households.”


According to the WEF report, Lari has been frustrated by the UN’s humanitarian system “and institutions like the World Bank” for handing out aid “without building the capacity of the people,” and for constructing concrete structures in Pakistan following disasters. 


The WEF report included responses from a World Bank representative and the Sindh People’s Housing Foundation (SPHF), set up by the Sindh government to address the province’s flood disaster housing needs.


Mariam Altaf of the World Bank of Pakistan told WEF the bank preferred permanent “brick and mortar” houses, which she said “are more resilient housing options than mud-based ones.” 


The SPHF told WEF they were aware of Lari’s work, but preferred “burnt brick and cement” structures over mud-based, which they said had been the majority of those washed away during prior flooding.

 

*Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe is a freelance journalist and editor. Over the past 10 years, Natasha has reported for a host of publications, exploring the wider world and industries from environmental, scientific, business, legal, and sociological perspectives. Natasha has also been interviewed as an insight provider for research institutes and conferences. 

 

Editorial notes

 

Sources:

Interview with Nourhan Bassam, architect, feminist urbanist and founder of GamingX, a think-tank focusing on community development and empowerment.

Interview with Maulik Patel, managing partner at UniquesCadd.

Comments


Join Our Community

Sign up for our bi-monthly environmental publication and get notified when new issues of The Earth & I  are released!

Welcome!

bottom of page