Transitional Housing for Returning Refugees: Kosovo 1999-2000

Principal sponsors: Lauster Radu Architects | War Child USA

Contributing Sponsors:

French Institute of Architecture | Royal Institute of British Architects

United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) | Van Alen Institute

Supporting Sponsors:

British Broadcasting Corporation | RCN

Architecture is supposed to provide shelter. In early 1999, nowhere was the need for shelter more critical than in the war-torn region of Kosovo. Hundreds of thousands were without a place to live. Their homes in ruins and the infrastructure of the region collapsed, the returning population needed immediate and highly-dispersed temporary housing.

Architecture for Humanity hosted an open competition to design five-year transitional housing for the returning people of Kosovo. The competition’s goal was to foster the development of housing methods that would relieve suffering and speed the transition back to a normal way of life. Architects and designers from 30 different countries responded. We received more than 200 designs. From these, a jury selected 10 finalists and 20 notable entries.



The people of Kosovo, like most people, had a strong commitment to their homes. As the various relief agencies working in the area predicted, people headed home at the first opportunity. Refugee-style camps in Kosovo were not thought to be possible or desirable. With the end of hostilities, three quarters of a million people or more were spreading out to towns, villages and farms all over Kosovo. Once they had returned, they faced a multitude of conditions that made normal living impossible. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that 40 to 50% of the houses in the war-torn region were reduced to rubble. Mines and booby traps were widespread. Food was in short supply, and water systems were often either destroyed or poisoned, and electricity was unavailable in most places. The immediate challenge was to shelter families until they could make their old homes habitable.


As a result of the competition and the publicity it generated, prototypes of five competition entries have been built. Sean Godsell self-funded and built his shipping container inspired design in Australia. Mike Lawless, a partner at LDA Architects, and Mark Whitby of Whitby, Bird and Partners, built a prototype of their rubble and wire mesh-housing scheme in Exeter, United Kingdom. The project was funded by SpaceX Gallery. Another finalist, Techno Craft, also undertook and funded the building of a full-scale mockup of their inflatable hemp house in Tokyo, Japan. In 2000, Deborah Gans and Matthew Jelacic’s “Extreme House” project was awarded $100,000 by the Johnnie Walker Keep Walking fund. A full-scale model of the system was built for an exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania in 2003.

Entries were exhibited in four countries and featured in more than 30 newspapers and design publications. Designs by three teams, I-Beam, SYSTEM Architects and Shigeru Ban Architects, were selected and shown at the 7th International Architecture Exhibition at the Biennale di Venezia (Venice). Publicity from these exhibitions, as well as other fundraising activities, helped to raise more than $120,000 for War Child, an international children’s charity, which used the money to create housing, schools and medical facilities in eight countries and Kosovo.


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