Over the last year and half, united➃design has been working with the aid organization Sahar on the Gohar Khatoon Girls’ School, which is currently under construction, and we are also planning a boarding school for rural women and girls–both projects are located in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth largest city. Working in a place like Afghanistan has made us acutely aware of resources and how material flows can reflect the country’s recent history.
Scarcity and Building Materials in Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, natural resources have either been stripped away, or are currently inaccessible. The availability of building materials in the country is affected by many factors such as environmental degradation, transport connections, and conflict. For example, the raw materials used for making cement are readily available, but cement production requires a substantial and continuous amount of power, which the country’s current infrastructure can’t support. Reconstruction has increased demand, and Pakistan is one of Afghanistan’s largest suppliers of cement. But the supply is inconsistent; inclement weather or conflict on the border can cause the material’s availability and price to fluctuate dramatically. Another material with a fragile supply chain is wood. Much of Afghanistan has suffered from large-scale deforestation, which is the result of drought caused by climate change. In addition, timber smuggling is common, and much of Afghanistan’s old growth forest has been logged by the Taliban and traded for weapons.
Abundant Resources from the US
Since the US-led invasion, nearly 400 US and coalition military bases have been built in Afghanistan, fueling the largest construction boom the country has ever seen. Rather than investing in local infrastructure, the US military has imported almost everything it has needed over the past 13 years. Ironically, one of the most ubiquitous components of military infrastructure–the “B-Hut”–has required vast amounts of lumber to be brought into the country. Plywood has become so prevalent on bases that General Stanley McChrystal even coined the phrase “plywood is a state of mind.”
In terms of material consumption, military barracks are just the tip of the iceberg. Millions of tons of military hardware now stands in retrograde yards, ready to be shipped back to the US, or to be scrapped in preparation for the drawdown, which is threatened to occur later this year. According to military planners, $7 billion worth of equipment will be destroyed and sold at pennies on the pound, and material that is deemed worth saving will be transported out of the country at a cost of another $6 billion.
Designing with the “Leftovers”
This display of excess in a country where people that have so little, gives us pause. As architects, what we can do seems so insignificant, but we can consider the repercussions of material choices while working in Afghanistan. We can also examine what’s been left behind to see if there is anything worth using. We’ve often thought that the B-Hut plywood could be reused for concrete formwork, for example–something that was scarce on the Gohar Khaton School project. UPDATE: NPR publishes story discussing the reuse of B-hut lumber from Bagram Air Field. Oddly enough, united➃design was recently asked by Ayni Education International to consider repurposing shipping containers left by the US military. The shipping company, American President Lines, has around 5,000 containers in Kandahar that they are donating to aid organizations active in Afghanistan. It would be too expensive for the company to ship them anywhere else. Although we feel that the concept of the “shipping-container-as-architecture” has been overused in recent years, it’s difficult to ignore their suitability as dorm rooms for the boarding school we are designing. One of the options we are currently considering is to add container dorms to an existing school, which would save a lot of money. We are inspired by this student housing project in Amsterdam called Keetwonen.
There are several issues for us to consider–most importantly, how to regulate user comfort in a metal box. This will present a challenge given the fact that mechanical heating and cooling are luxuries that will most likely be out of reach for this project. We will keep you posted as the design of the boarding school progresses.