The 2014 Mae Lao Earthquake destroyed 8,509 houses and 46 schools in Thailand’s northern provinces, with its epicentre the Phan district of Chiang Rai. Fortunately the quake led to few deaths, but the destruction left in its wake displaced many, particularly among the hill tribes of Chiang Rai province.
Design for Disasters (D4D), a non-profit network established in 2010, was formed to both limit the damage caused by such events, but also to provide relief after they have struck. Thai practice Vin Varavarn had just one week to produce designs and construction drawings to raise funding for the project as rapidly as possible.
The school needed to provide three classrooms for secondary-school chidren from hill tribe families. It needed to be low-budget and draw on local materials and labour, but also ensure it would be resistant in the event of future earthquakes. In such challenging conditions – where the design of the school may one day be responsible for the survival of the children inside – striking the balance between cost, time and effectiveness requires streamlined, considered design.
Vin Varavarn’s solution is an almost triangular prism, divided simply into three classrooms, a foyer between each, and balconies at either end. The lightweight steel construction uses standardised 6m lengths to reduce costs and reduce horizontal momentum in the event of an earthquake.
Sitting on a slope, the long structure floats just shy of the ground at one end and is raised on steel stilts at the other to protect it from floods. On either side, bamboo shelves support colourful pots of plants, creating makeshift walls and bringing charm to what are otherwise starkly functional spaces.
Vin Varavarn’s simple design not only recognises the school’s role as a safe haven in times of crisis, but also its vital place at the centre of a recovering community.