Architects & Settlement Experts Provide Global Perspectives on Refugee Housing

June 9, 2022
The participant panel for Adaptive Refugee Housing event.

In the spring term, the College of Design’s Department of Architecture welcomed the Adaptive Refugee Housing group for a week of activities on refugee settlements. They brought perspectives from Europe, the Middle East, and the United States to the University of Oregon for a panel discussion, a faculty and grad student seminar, and hands-on Adaptive Shelter Workshops.

Associate Professor of Architecture Nancy Cheng hosted the discussion panel between four visiting architects and UO refugee settlement specialists Kory Russel and John Arroyo.  They offered personal connections to the topic of migration and addressed the importance of providing agile housing solutions.

Giang Phung's adaptive refugee housing concept from Earl Mark's studio class.
Giang Phung’s design of an emergency settlement for a climate refugees, supervised by Visiting Prof. Earl Mark

Giang Phung’s design of an emergency settlement for a climate refugees, supervised by Visiting Professor Earl Mark

“My life experiences have led me to focus on the impact of society on place, and place on identity. When it comes to intangible concepts like identity or belonging, or sense of inclusion or exclusion, every individual can find themselves within that narrative and identify significant moments in their lives where they were faced with a sense of being excluded or overlooked. I have learned that design which strives for including everyone within the narrative of a space can provide opportunities for social transformation and a sense of value and wellbeing,” explained Marziah Zad, Adaptive Refugee Housing group member and architect based in Tehran, Iran.  “Through the panel, I attempted to connect this experience with the importance of creating a platform for displaced individuals to feel agency and empowerment in the shaping of the spaces they will need to occupy, regardless of temporality.”


The panel discussion and the workshop really resonated with students, especially international students, who were eager to share their own challenges. Along with initiatives such as the Design for Spatial Justice Fellowship, the Department of Architecture is offering these experiential learning opportunities to prepare professionals who can meet the diverse challenges of the future. University of Virginia Professor and Adaptive Refugee Housing group member Earl Mark is encouraged by UO's curriculum and is eager to see architectural education change to promote an empathetic and empowering ethos.

A student studies natural shapes during Earl Mark's workshop on the Oregon coast.

"UO has it in its DNA to meet those challenges in ways that few institutions do. And the students here have presented to me a very encouraging sign of a mindset that can do a lot of good,” said Mark. “We won’t solve the problems of adaptive housing with one grand idea, but it may possible to intervene in ways that begin to make circumstances slightly better, and design education may need to humble itself to this constraint. "

Cheng brought together the architects in January 2020, originally to work on flexible emergency building systems that could be crafted from any local materials. The project was inspired by Mark, who after encountering the 2015 flood of Syrian refugees in Europe, reframed his fabric design work to focus on rapid shelters for refugees. In addition to Mark, Cheng, and Zad, the group includes 2020–21 Design for Spatial Justice Fellow Grace Aaraj and Hochschule RheinMain Professor Joachim Kieferle.

Read more about Adaptive Refugee Housing and the past event in Global Perspectives on Adaptive Refugee Housing