TEXT Alexandra Shimo
PHOTOS Prithula Prosun

The pair of bamboo houses might look old-fashioned with wooden shutters and a red brick core, but don’t let appearances deceive: in concept and design they offer a radical solution to the problems of climate change. These LIFT (Low-Income Flood-Proof Technology) houses are the brainchild of 26-year-old Prithula Prosun, who is currently completing her Master’s degree in Architecture at the University of Waterloo. Designed for low-lying areas that will be hard hit by climate change, they offer a groundbreaking idea: instead of trying to damn the floods, the award-winning houses rise with the flood water. Currently, two families are living in LIFT houses in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and talks are ongoing with the Bangladeshi government and private interests to build many more of this prototype.

Prosun, who came to Canada from Bangladesh at the age of nine, was interested in providing housing for a demographic that is often ignored. Visiting several slums in the summer of 2009, she found the lower classes were being pushed out of the city: the cost of rent in Dhaka has spiked 1,200 percent in the past 20 years, and developers would rather build for the upper classes, she says. Slum-dwellers still pay rent, but sometimes live knee-deep in water during monsoon season. “They told me about experiences where the water went over their chests,” says Prosun, “and they had tried to get their possessions and they couldn’t, so they lost all their belongings.”

The problem is expected to get worse as the Himalayan glaciers melt and sea level rises. Eager to help those she met, Prosun designed an affordable house with a projected cost per unit of $4,000 made from sustainable and recycled materials such as bamboo. A local material, the bamboo derives its buoyancy from recycled plastic water bottles that are attached to the inside. These bottles are plentiful; in fact, they litter the city and cause drainage problems. Electricity is derived from two 60W solar panels to power lighting and fans. The houses are served by composting toilets, and urine is directed to the garden through an underground pipe system. The central brick portion of the house doesn’t rise, but during floods, it collects and filters rainwater for use during the rest of the year.

Built with construction workers and volunteers from the local area, Prosun says the experience was deeply rewarding, but it was challenging to be taken seriously in a country where young women have fewer rights and are not expected to lead a construction team. “It was difficult to be seen as a person of authority and to get to people to listen. I was the only female on the construction site and I had to work twice as hard to gain their respect.”

Nevertheless, her efforts paid off, explains Srabanti Datta, a Dhaka property developer. “We were very fascinated and excited about the concept and utility of this project, considering the awful flood situations and helplessness of impoverished people in Bangladesh. The LIFT house has the potential to help thousands of people.” CA

Alexandra Shimo is a Toronto-based author, journalist and media consultant who writes mainly about architecture, art and design.