Architect Yasmeen Lari, at the age of 82, is spearheading efforts to fortify Pakistan’s rural communities, which find themselves on the front lines of climate change. Renowned as Pakistan’s first female architect, Lari made a momentous decision to relinquish a lifetime of multimillion-dollar projects in Karachi and instead focus on pioneering the construction of flood-proof bamboo houses.
The impact of Lari’s vision is already evident in the few pilot settlements that have been built, credited with shielding families from the devastating effects of monsoon flooding that submerged one-third of the country last year.
Khomo Kohli, a resident of Pono Colony village situated a few hundred kilometers outside Karachi, expressed gratitude for the innovative houses that allowed them to remain safely in their homes while others were forced to take refuge on the roads for months until the waters receded.
Buoyed by the success of these initial endeavors, Lari is now campaigning to scale up the project by constructing one million houses made from affordable local materials, which will bring new employment opportunities to the most vulnerable areas.
Lari refers to her approach as “co-building and co-creation,” emphasizing the active involvement of the local communities in embellishing and customizing their homes to ensure comfort and ownership. Her architectural achievements in Karachi include notable buildings such as the Pakistan State Oil headquarters and luxurious residences.
Considering retirement, Lari’s resolve to continue working was strengthened by a series of natural disasters, including a massive earthquake in 2005 and devastating floods in 2010. She now dedicates herself to the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, which manages her rural projects and aims to build the capacities of people to become self-sufficient rather than relying on external assistance.
Lari’s motto, “zero carbon, zero waste, zero donor,” encapsulates her mission to eradicate poverty by fostering sustainable and self-reliant communities.
Pakistan, with its sizable population, contributes less than one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions but remains highly susceptible to extreme weather events caused by climate change.
The village of Pono Colony, comprising around 100 houses, was developed just months before last year’s catastrophic monsoon rains displaced eight million people. The elevated bamboo houses in this village proved resilient against rushing waters, with their sturdy foundations preventing them from being uprooted.
Known locally as “chanwara,” these improved mud huts draw inspiration from traditional single-room houses found in southern Sindh province and Rajasthan state in India. They require readily available materials such as lime, clay, bamboo, and thatching. With training provided to the locals, these houses can be assembled at a fraction of the cost of cement and brick structures, amounting to approximately $170.
In rural Sindh, the aftermath of the worst-ever floods is still visible, with tens of thousands of people displaced and stagnant water remaining on farmlands even after almost a year. Reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts are estimated to require $16 billion.
Lari’s architectural focus remains firmly centered on the needs of the communities she serves. The redesign of traditional stoves, for example, has become a vital aspect, with stoves now elevated off the ground to improve hygiene and safety.
Having witnessed the empowerment of women through her projects, Lari derives immense satisfaction from their newfound independence. Her exceptional contributions have earned her the 2023 Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects, recognizing her dedication to using architecture as a catalyst for positive change.
While the honor is gratifying, Lari acknowledges the challenges ahead and remains committed to delivering tangible results for the communities she serves.