From Ebola to COVID-19 – Addressing Urgent Societal Needs

A Conversation with Verónica Sanchez Carrera

Verónica Sánchez Carrera is an architect and independent researcher. She has been working with various organizations in the Humanitarian Aid field and is an expert in the development of human settlements in developing countries, as well as in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in international development and emergencies. She is the co-director of Proceso de Proyecto Atelier and co-founder of n’UNDO. Some of her research topics include refugee camps and informal settlements. In 2020 she presented her doctoral thesis “Emergency Architecture for Infectious Diseases. Critical Analysis and Comparative Study of the Infrastructures Built in Africa during the Ebola Crisis from 2014 to 2019”.

In respect to Verónica Sánchez’s collaboration with our Master program, specifically in the Humanitarian Shelter & Settlements Workshop, our director Carmen Mendoza Arroyo explains, “the philosopher Karsten Harries manifested that architecture matters because it has responsibilities to society that are far broader than the making of beautiful forms and shapes. He claims it can provide a model for a way to live, be a source of solutions for social problems (Harries, 2000). Our Master follows this perspective as a core philosophy, but also strives for this to be a reality by giving students tools for applying it in practice. In this light,  the work, experience and methodologies that a professor like Verónica Sánchez bring to the classroom are at the core of our program. Her work and research are addressing urgent societal problems and showing the importance of architectural practice in complex fields, through which design, technical knowledge and a propositive approach can really make a difference.”

We spoke to Verónica Sánchez about her career and how her previous work in the humanitarian field in Africa during the Ebola crisis has led her to design treatment centres for patients with COVID-19.

You worked in the humanitarian field in many countries as a technical adviser and coordinator – an experience you also draw on for the Humanitarian Shelter & Settlements Workshop as part of our Master’s program. Can you tell us what attracted you to work in this field and how it shaped your career as an architect?

VSC: When I finished my degree there was a lot of work around, so I set up my own studio and I was lucky to be able to work for different clients. One afternoon, after I had spent several hours trying to convince a client to move around her kitchen furniture so that she could enjoy the morning sun during breakfast, I returned home frustrated, thinking that my education should serve some other purpose. But then fortunately I found the ICHaB (Instituto de Cooperación y Habitabilidad Básica – Institute of Basic Habitability and Cooperation) at ETSAM, the Madrid School of Architecture, which opened a whole new world to me. After I finished the course, I was offered to work on a school building project in a refugee camp in Sudan. Upon my return to Spain after spending a year in Sudan, I had become aware of how useful our profession really can be and the lack of architecture professionals in other fields of work. Therefore, I continued my professional training and completely redirected my career.

Ebola treatment centre by the Spanish Red Cross, Sierra Leone, 2011, courtesy Verónica Sánchez

As a guest professor, you teach our students how international agencies and humanitarian workers respond to displacement crisis through the design, construction, improvement and management of refugee and IDP camps, and Ebola centres. “Emergency Architecture for Infectious Diseases” is also the topic of your PhD research. Undoubtedly, this is an urgent topic these days as we are witnessing a global crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, it is an area often disregarded by the architecture profession and – up until now – has not received much publicity. What lessons can we learn from the Ebola crisis and experiences from architects, who like you have worked in the humanitarian field dealing with infectious diseases?

VSC: Indeed, until a few months ago, the design of Ebola centres design was regarded a very specific topic with little visibility. During the great Ebola crises in 2014 and 2019 in Africa, numerous centres were built. The major humanitarian organizations and the WHO learnt important lessons during the Ebola crises, many of them applicable to COVID-19, as there are many similarities regarding prevention and treatment. One of the things that surprised me most was that many of these centres were set up without any architects being involved. It was quite obvious that centres of higher design quality were safer, more efficient and contributed to a better treatment of patients. This is, in short, the essence of the research findings that I laid out in my doctoral thesis.
Fortunately, there are more and more architects working in the humanitarian field. Here, the approach to construction, influenced by the dynamics of emergency response and –  predominantly medical – humanitarian organizations, is very different from common architectural practice in countries with greater economic resources.

Design proposal for a treatment centre for COVID-19 patients inside community facilities realised by the Emergency Medical Teams (WHO) and UK-MED, courtesy Verónica Sánchez

You currently work as a WASH expert to assist with the assembly of COVID-19 Treatment Centres. Can you explain a bit more about your work and how architects can assist with the medical and humanitarian effort to cope with this crisis?

VSC: I am currently working with UK-MED on the design of COVID-19 centres, a collaboration with the WHO Emergency Medical Teams, carrying out both the design of the centres and the preparation of the associated guidelines. As an architect, my job is to integrate the various requirements in the design layout that at the same time has to provide enough flexibility to adapt to different circumstances and emergency conditions, which are highly variable.
In addition to the design of new centres, we architects have a fundamental role in adapting existing spaces to serve as COVID-19 treatment centres. The conversion of existing spaces in general is complicated due to their constraints and the complexity of the routes between specific zones as well as other issues regarding Infection Prevention and Control that affect the whole space and its facilities.

In recent weeks, we have also seen many scientists draw parallels between the pandemic and the climate crisis and calls for a “new path” towards sustainable development can be heard. At the same time, we see air pollution levels drop in cities to unprecedented levels. You are also the co-founder of architecture firm n’UNDO, which defines itself as a think tank and an urban experimentation centre based on the idea of no intervention or minimum intervention with a maximum positive impact. De-growth, equity and sustainability are increasingly seen as the most urgent issues to tackle, specifically by young architects and urban designers. Where do you see the profession heading in light of these crises – COVID-19 and the climate crisis? Could this be a turning point to push the concept of “de-growth” on a larger scale?

VSC: As you point out rightly, everything is connected. In fact, n’UNDO emerged as a result of my experience of working in countries with very limited resources, and the desire to propose another way of doing architecture – without the need to continue to build. COVID-19 has highlighted many of the problems that exist in our cities, and the challenges of future generations. We have to make changes and improvements, and the concept of growth certainly does not seem to offer an answer to the current needs.
Our profession has to respond to the problems that affect our planet and humanity. And it must do so with real, local and sustainable solutions. Of course, by continuing to do megalomaniac projects, we will only even further disconnect ourselves from the real problems of society.

The Humanitarian Shelter & Settlements Workshop is a vital component of our course, yet – as mentioned – this topic is often treated as a marginal niche by the architecture profession. As the current pandemic has shown, we are dealing with a global crisis that will be affecting both developed and developing world over a long period of time – though not to the same extent. In your opinion – what changes would be required to the education system and the politics of our architecture institutions to prepare the profession for the challenges ahead?

VSC: If we would attach importance to subjects related to humanitarian aid and international development according to the overall global population they affect, then they would make up 90% of our architecture programs. I think this gives some food for thought.
Academic institutions are obsolete, and traditional degrees that claim a certain uniqueness lose value compared to the plural and transversal education available now. Architecture is a broad education in itself, which furthermore can be advanced in many directions. Therefore, alternative and complementary models of professional training are essential.
I think it is as important to study Le Corbusier and learn to design a floating museum as it is to understand the problems that surround us at a global level, and to be able to give practical, simple and immediate answers. Universities should introduce subjects that open up a range of possibilities for students, so they can later choose what to specialize in.

 

In this video below, Verónica Sanchez explains her treatment centre design for COVID-19 patients.
Video courtesy of UK-Med.

Feature Image: Adam Nieścioruk @adamsky1973 via Unsplash

 

 

 

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