In the first days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Kyiv-based architect Slava Balbek stopped his usual work. “It was really pretty hard to focus on something you were doing before—it was basic things to help secure your family, your friends, and your colleagues,” he says. Balbek, who also co-owns two cafés in Kyiv, started working with other restaurants to prepare thousands of meals a day for defense fighters. He helped his wife relocate to Western Ukraine. Friends and coworkers asked him to drive their parents and grandparents to the train station so they could evacuate.
But after a couple of weeks, when the sound of explosions started to seem “a little bit normal,” he says, “we just understood that we should think about tomorrow.” Around half of the employees at his 75-person company, Balbek Bureau, had left their homes without laptops and couldn’t work. But others continued working on the firm’s ongoing projects in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and in the U.S. and Singapore. And Balbek started thinking about the urgent need for new housing for people who’d had to flee their homes.
An estimated 6.5 million people have been internally displaced within Ukraine. That’s in addition to more than 3 million people who have already crossed the border into Poland and other countries. In Ukraine, “a lot of my friends and the parents of my friends are just staying in a school gym or some other huge space,” Balbek says. “Others are staying in a bomb shelter.” Thousands of homes have been destroyed.
He convened a team of 10 architects at his company to start to working on designs for refugee shelters that could quickly be built. (When the team first met on Zoom, they started laughing at the tragic absurdity of the situation: all of their Zoom backgrounds were the concrete walls of bomb shelters.) They analyzed 20 existing designs for refugee shelters that could work in Ukraine’s cold climate. But they saw a need for something different. “Almost all of them are trying to fit the maximum [number of people] in the site, and they lose the idea of the comfort of the people,” he says. “In my opinion, if you have a site for 100 families, you’d better do it for 80, and leave 20 slots for comfort.”
This week, the team unveiled a design for a modular shelter that can be built affordably and quickly, but that prioritizes comfort and dignity. Small units can be arranged in configurations to house as few as 50 people, or hundreds, with some of the units used as communal bathrooms and kitchens. Outside, there’s green space and room for playgrounds and sports fields. The open-source design is available for others to use, but the firm is asking everyone to maintain the sense of some spaciousness.
“You can change the design, you can change the models, you can produce and use your own models,” he says. “But please stay in the system of comfort. We call this ‘dignity life.’ As my friend said, ‘You can take away our home, but you can’t take away our dignity.'”
The first shelters are likely to be built in Western Ukraine, where many people have fled because of the relative safety. Within a day of sharing the design, hundreds of people had reached out, offering to volunteer or invest or otherwise support the work. A company in Lithuania offered to donate building supplies. The supplies can also be sourced within Ukraine; most lumber in the country is harvested in Western Ukraine.
“Now we’re trying to manage all over Ukraine,” Balbek says. When we spoke on Wednesday, he had already had a dozen calls earlier in the day talking with potential partners. “We already have two sites in different cities, and they’re already waiting for the drawings,” he says. Dozens of architects in Western Ukraine have volunteered to help quickly modify the plans as new sites become available; the architecture firm has also designed the plans so they can be easily adapted for new locations. Builders plan to bypass the usual lengthy permitting processes because of the urgent need.
Some of the people who have left Ukraine for other countries may come back to Western Ukraine, adding to the demand. Before we spoke, Balbek had just gotten off the phone with one of his café employees who had fled to Germany. “She was calling me, ‘Please, tell me what to do. I don’t know the language. I don’t know where to go,'” he says. He advised her to come back to Western Ukraine, where it still seems to be safe, and where volunteers are ready to help.
Working on the design for the shelters has also helped the architects keep going as they deal with the reality of suddenly living in a war zone. “I remember in the first days, we were counting hours,” he says. “You’re looking for the news. And we were just sitting outside at the café, all the volunteers, and we just realized that a month has passed. It’s huge. The helpful thing is to focus on something. For me, that’s this project.”