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Architects short of government support, not ideas to house refugees

by Alexander Query November 12, 2023 6:54 PM 7 min read
Part of the first section of the Re: Ukraine housing for refugees in the village of Zhydychyn, near Lutsk in western Ukraine, conceived by the Balbek Bureau along with the NGO "Algorithm of Action." (Courtesy)
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With its minimalist lines, pale wood, and clean design, Kyiv-based architect studio Balbek Bureau’s project looks like another sleek-looking interior for a cozy coffee shop in the capital.

And yet, it’s temporary housing for refugees.

In the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukrainian architecture studios conceived promising pilot projects that could be quickly built to house refugees. But more than a year into the war, only a handful of projects have been completed due to lack of funds and governmental support to scale them up.

And these projects are only a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Ukraine who need a new home.

Russia’s invasion has destroyed 147,800 homes as of September, according to the Kyiv School of Economics. Ukrainian officials in November said the number of IDPs in Ukraine had reached 4.9 million.

Housing refugees doesn’t only require temporary accommodation but a long-term strategic vision that the government doesn’t have so far, Anatoly Eksarev, CEO and founder of Odesa-based architectural firm DekartStudio, told the Kyiv Independent.

"We need to talk not only about how to handle refugees, we need to think of a completely different strategy to settle all Ukrainians," Eksarev said.

Pilot projects

Slava Balbek, 40, the head of the contemporary Balbek Bureau, started helping to evacuate refugees and provide meals through some of his coffee shops when the bombs started to fall on Ukraine in February 2022.

Part-time military volunteer, he wanted to find another way to help. Balbek says that most of his team relocated following the start of the full-scale invasion. “We were all refugees.”

That’s why he started the Re: Ukraine project, a minimalist housing development consisting of box-like communal houses.

Temporary housing is often associated with cramped spaces and poor material quality, which Balbek wanted to avoid by creating welcoming spaces with top-quality construction materials, an ambition reflected in the project’s motto: “Dignity, no matter what.”

A room being set up in one of Balbek's Re: Ukraine housing development for refugees in the village of Zhydychyn, near Lutsk in western Ukraine. (Courtesy)

The Re: Ukraine housing looks like a high-end version of container architecture with a home unit packed into a single, separate container. The concept was carefully designed, with a wide and bright interior furbished with Ikea furniture, a partner in the project.

The project has enough room for 15 families across two buildings around a courtyard. One is a communal dorm-style box with a large shared kitchen and bathrooms; the other is a single-story apartment building for families with children.

The modular construction system can be built in two to four months to house refugees quickly and has a life span of up to 15 years. Once displaced families have found a new permanent place to live, the structure can be used for other purposes, such as a recovery center for wounded soldiers, Balbek said.

“It’s important to create a space where people can communicate, can reintegrate into the system,” Balbek said.

Odesa-based architectural firm Dekart Studio picked a different solution: a round prefabricated module that can be up to 55-square meters and house refugees for up to 15 years, and can be used for commercial purposes or hotels in the future.

Dekart Studio's modular house was conceived as a concrete shell that can be easily built on-site. (Courtesy)

Thanks to an easy-to-assemble concrete shell, Dekart Studio’s domes can be built on site between three days and a week, with every material produced locally, reducing the construction costs because there’s no need for an army of contractors to build them.

"The first thing is the shell, and then you can produce concrete anywhere," he said, referring to a concrete plant in Odesa that can produce up to 400 houses per month without changing its production line.

Eksarev’s idea behind his project was to imagine another kind of Ukrainian city for the future: highly decentralized, with individual, small houses deemed safer than high-rise buildings in case of any future military threats.

Building on donations

Eksarev's first concept, a small home that resembles a shell, was deemed too expensive and shunned by local authorities in Lviv “because of bureaucracy,” he said.

The prefabricated shell-looking house costs $1,000 per square meter to build, double the price of a house built in a “traditional” way.

While the houses don’t require many workers to build them and cost less in the long run, local authorities don’t want to be scrutinized by local prosecutors for financing a model that may have higher upfront costs, he said.

Instead of the shell-looking module, Lviv authorities preferred a $450 per square meter wooden house project with a more classic design that looks like a box and takes way more time to build in a “traditional way,” described as "a typical American barn" by Eksarev.  

Only five to ten houses have been built near Lviv so far, Eksarev said, as the government doesn’t have a nationwide policy to house refugees. As of May this year, there were around 250,000 IDPs in Lviv Oblast, according to the Lviv Regional Administration. At its peak, that number was closer to 600,000.

Dekart Studio's cheapest project picked by local authorities is a wooden house that is cheaper but takes longer to build. (Courtesy)

"We only have a few houses somewhere to show we care about refugees, but it's not developed at a governmental scale right now," Eksarev said.

Meanwhile, Balbek already broke ground for two Re: Ukraine housing developments in the Zhydychyn village near Lutsk, western Ukraine, and Bucha, a satellite town near Kyiv heavily damaged by Russia's occupation.

At first, the bureau had ten different cities in mind, so architects prepared an ambitious master plan to lodge up to 8,000 people, meaning the project was scalable if the finances were there.

Two apartments from a residential block have been built in Zhydychyn so far. Once done, up to 860 people could live in the settlement, but no one lives there yet as it remains unfinished.

This Zhydychyn initiative is funded by an NGO called “Algorithm of Action,” which quickly gathered funding from local businesses in Lutsk to build the project’s first section.

Aerial view of Balbek Bureau's project in Zhydychyn, near Lutsk, western Ukraine. Only the first section has been built, but the work is ongoing. (Courtesy)

For the Bucha project, Balbek relies entirely on public fundraising rather than getting help from the government because he considers the state's money should go to the army first.

The bureau has raised over $300,000 out of the $2 million needed for the project in Bucha.

Balbek is confident that the first houses in Bucha could be lifted off the ground by spring 2024, but relying on fundraising considerably slows down the process because the construction entirely depends on the amount of donations.

Actor and philanthropist Serhiy Prytula’s Nest Charity also relies on donations to build prefabricated houses for refugees. The project raised almost $1 million to send 42 houses to 153 people in Makariv, a small town 50 kilometers west of Kyiv.

‘Not the right time’

Emergency solutions won’t be enough to solve the refugee crisis, Eksarev said.

"Everybody is talking about shelters, small wooden houses, but there is no main idea, no discussion about how Ukrainians are supposed to live in five, ten, fifteen years," Eksarev said.

Authorities tend to focus on small emergency pilot projects due to lacking a national legislative framework to develop social housing, Anastasia Bobrova, an expert at Kyiv-based social development Cedos think tank, told the Kyiv Independent.

And the government doesn’t bother with long-lasting projects unless they have massive funding from international partners, she said.

The ‘EU Support for Urgent Housing Needs for IDPs in Ukraine’ project, launched in February 2022, has disbursed over 19 million euros to adapt and rebuild communal housing in ten mid-size Ukrainian cities, including Chernivtsi, Ivano-Frankivsk and Lutsk.

The projects are due to be finished at the end of the year, but they only focus on repairing existing structures rather than creating something new entirely.

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“Not the right time” seems to be the government’s motto regarding social housing policy, Eksarev said. “The war is the nation’s number one topic,” he said.

“If the government put large investments right now into big construction projects, there is no guarantee that those buildings will not be destroyed the next day,” she said.

As social housing policy takes a backseat to the government’s priorities, the responsibility to house refugees falls upon local governments at the level of cities or oblasts with their own priorities, resulting in a patchy response to the crisis.

“There is no system,” Bobrova said. “And so far, it's unclear what the management system behind (a social housing policy) will be.”

Without a proper legal system to support social housing, Ukraine will have to create an entire system from scratch, which hampers the development of new projects, she said.

“So we have these patchy projects all over the place, and the strategy behind this is unclear because we don't have housing leadership on the national level,” Bobrova said.

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