Wanted: one school, must be prepared to travel

How did an article in The Independent lead to the creation of a portable school for Burmese refugee children?

When David Cole and Louise McKillop travelled to the Thai border and visited schools set up for the children of Burmese refugees, they were not entirely sure what they would encounter. They had read about the cramped conditions and lack of resources, but what they could not prepare themselves for was the emotional impact. As McKillop later explained, they rapidly found themselves becoming attached to the children and the schools.

The pair, who work for the charity Building Trust International, also saw the potential of both the schools and their pupils, eager to learn and optimistic despite the hardship they face. After visiting various facilities in the town of Mae Sot in western Thailand, next to the border with Burma, and hearing first hand of the pressure on resources because of the constant drip of new arrivals, they hit upon the idea of coming up with a better classroom for the children.

They wanted something that felt sturdy and permanent and yet could be easily moved to another site – even taken inside Burma – if the need arose. They launched an international competition to come up with the best design.

The competition drew more than 800 entries from around the world, manyof them remarkable for both their style and utility, and recently the organisation announced the winners. Those who came out in overall first position – and whose design will now become a reality – were Amadeo Bennetta and Daniel LaRossa, of Berkeley, California.

The judges said it was the sheer flexibility of their design, which uses a prefabricated framework and waterproof fabric along local bamboo panels, that was the determining factor of the entry's success. "The process of creating a building while intentionally setting the specifics of a site aside was very unusual for both of us," the pair of winning architects, said in an email.

"As such, we chose to address the unique situation that this displaced population faces, especially in regards to producing durable, affordable building stock within the limited land rights afforded the Burmese population. To provide a design that satisfied the paradoxical requirements of affordable, demountable construction and a sense of safety and permanence, we looked to the existing refugee housing community for cues."

The pair, whose design bears the title Burma [Re]Framed, said their knowledge about displaced populations related mainly to the US-Mexico border, but as they researched their brief they discovered more about the difficulties faced by the refugees, forced out of Burma by decades of conflict.

"We found that the duration of displacement of entire families necessitated designing not only for children, but the community at large," they explained.

There are an estimated 140,000 refugees living in semi-permanent camps that dot Thailand's western border with Burma and which are overseen by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium. The refugees, many of them ethnic Karen, have been driven out by military operations by the Burmese army that continue today despite the recent flurry of political reforms inside Burma.

The refugees have no legal status in Thailand. Cole and McKillop first read about the plight of the children and decided to visit the schools after reading a report that was part of The Independent's 2010 charity appeal.

The competition also drew many entries from design colleges, as students enthusiastically took up the challenge. Among the student entries, the first-placed design was produced by Gauri Satam and Tejesh Patil, who are students at the Sir JJ College of Architecture in Mumbai. Their design was said to have used the basic principles of "scale along with simple striking colours – naturally creating a welcoming feel".

The students said their work had been inspired by the late Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, whose work includes the country's parliament building, and the Indian architect Charles Correa. "We believe architecture should be a backdrop to life, instead of being a masterpiece. It is meant to be inhabited and not worshiped or adorned," they said.

In regard to the plight of the people they were designing a classroom for, the students said: "Our country has also had a history of refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Evolving a solution that is truly independent of external forces is the key. Thus, using natural locally available materials, harnessing the local labour, with some advanced technology, would not only make this community of refugees independent but would add a skill set to their lives."

The next challenge is to transform the winning design from something set out on a computer screen to real wood and canvas in Mae Sot. David Cole said Building Trust International would be working closely with one of the town's best known schools, Kwe Ka Baung, along side community leaders and other aid agencies to ensure there is collective input to the project.

The charity has funds to develop the winning design, but is looking foradditional funding that might be used to develop some of the other design entries for other schools in the region. Cole said: "The competition has been a great success and highlights the key role that architects and designers have in tackling global issues."

The materials

The school is made from a prefabricated framework with a waterproof fabric roof. Locally-crafted bamboo panels form the walls and divides

Drainage

The whole building is elevated from the ground to facilitate natural drainage

Flatpack building

It can be easily loaded on to a flatbed truck, taken to a site that needs a school and reassembled as a courtyard school; a single building or separate units

Playground

This section of decking provides a communal, multi-use exterior that can be used for anything from breaks to assemblies

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