An Immersive approach to disaster resilience

Dr Ifte Ahmed believes that research should not be focussed solely on books at a desk, he takes a truly immersive approach to his research in disaster resilience. While he started on a traditional architectural path, Ifte soon moved onto a more interesting trajectory – disaster resilience and sustainable post-disaster housing systems.

Dr Ifte Ahmed

Mud-architecture attracted Ifte’s early interest as an architect, in fact, it spawned his first publication Up To The Waist In Mud, which explored the study of mud-architecture in Bangladesh. The book was published in 1994 and was the result of his Masters thesis from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ifte’s academic career spans the continents – a Bachelor of Architecture from IIT, India, Master of Science in Architecture Studies from MIT in the US, and a PhD from Oxford Brookes University in the UK, so it’s not surprising that his research focus is global.

A strong theme of Ifte’s academic career is that research is not something that should be conducted in isolation. A hands-on approach to working alongside communities has informed Ifte’s research and knowledge throughout his career. Working with the Housing and Hazards group in Bangladesh while undertaking his PhD inspired Ifte to transition into the risk reduction field. While his original proposition was to explore low-income housing, he soon found that most of the housing in the country was built post-disaster and disaster impacts was a significant issue.

"Comparing housing built by agencies to that by communities themselves, the resilience and adaptive capacity of these communities became clear.”

Ifte stepped away from academia for a few years and immersed himself in the field. He’d done the research, and knew what the problems were, but wanted to actually get his hands dirty and do it. Ifte worked as Project Manager with the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center in Thailand, and managed disaster risk reduction programs in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Pakistan and Bangladesh. At the same time, he was also a trainer in regional and national training courses and developed training curricula too.

Ifte also worked as a Shelter Specialist with the United Nations Development Programme in Bangladesh, building over 16,000 houses in a post-flood reconstruction program. Working alongside women who were involved in a cash-for-work program, Ifte praises the program for its ‘participatory action’. Teams would go into villages and share their technical professional knowledge, and in turn, would be informed by the local’s Indigenous knowledge.

“That’s my basic approach in life,” Ifte says. “To merge, collaborate and come up with something where one group doesn’t dominate but basically everyone has their own viewpoint and multiple perspectives are merged to come up with something unique.”

A new design parameter: designed with disaster in mind

Natural disasters dominate the news cycle: from cyclones, to tsunamis to super-storms. But are modern houses built to withstand nature’s wrath? Ifte says that building codes are usually only updated in response to a natural disaster, not in preparation for one. “For example, after the Ash Wednesday fires (which was one of Australia’s costliest natural disasters) there was no change to building laws, everything went on as usual. However after the ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires in Victoria, the BAL system (Bushfire Attack Level) codes were enforced to protect homes in bushfire-prone zones.”

“Before building, homeowners need to have their area rated for a BAL before building. High levels mean that builders have to incorporate a certain amount of bushfire-resistant elements in the design. It can be costly, say up to $10 000, but what is $10 000 versus rebuilding costs of $500 000? It’s a very small investment in protection.”

Disaster resilience - a focus at UON

His appointment at the University of Newcastle (UON) in early 2016 is the next exciting step in Ifte’s career.  Working collaboratively with the Disaster and Development Research Group at UON has Ifte looking forward to the next challenge. “It’s a fast-growing field, it’s everywhere,” Ifte explains. “It’s an issue that people will have to deal with and it needs to be dealt with professionally – it can’t just be left up to the government.”

Ifte will spend time at UON dividing his time between teaching courses and researching with partners to develop building solutions to deal with both rapid-onset disasters such as earthquakes and storms or slow-onset such as flood and drought. “Drought is often forgotten,” says Ifte. “But it is very insidious and harmful and can cause massive damage on a global scale. Some countries go through a cycle of massive flooding, followed by drought.”

If there’s a challenge in architecture and disaster resilience, you can be certain that Ifte’s got it in his sights. The students at UON are lucky to work with such a collaborative and innovative leader in this fast-growing field. We’re facing global challenges that are being addressed right here in Newcastle at UON.

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.