Disaster ready: Vanuatu safehouse to blend Western and Indigenous engineering

Photo: Eric Byler / ANU Traditional Vanuatu home
2 February 2024

Vanuatu is no stranger to disasters.

It suffers 20 to 30 cyclones per decade, regular earthquakes, tsunamis, and ashfall and eruptions from the nine active volcanoes in the 83-island archipelago.

When Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu in 2015 with winds of 250 kilometres per hour, thousands of homes were destroyed, including many concrete buildings with iron roofing, with tragic results.

In remote areas, most people sought refuge in traditional structures. These buildings withstood the historic cyclone and many who sheltered in them survived.

When David Nalo proposed a disaster safehouse combining Western and traditional engineering in Vanuatu, he found willing partners at the Bandalang Studio, the new Indigenous engineering hub at The Australian National University (ANU).

Deadly lessons

The design for the safehouse will draw from the time-honoured knowledge of Vanuatu master builders, while ANU experts will contribute satellite communications and renewable energy expertise.

“Before, during and after natural disasters, communications can save lives,” Nalo, a 2023 Bandalang Resident, says.

“Our people have developed building techniques that have helped them stay safe in times of disaster.

“The thatching of Natangura Sago palm fronds and wild cane is impermeable to water, but can open up to let the wind through.”

Roof and wall structures are made of bamboo, which is as strong as timber with the advantage of being lighter in weight. In some areas, a certain type of palm is used for posts that are naturally designed to anchor structures to the ground.

Instead of nails, the structures are fastened by vine cordage, treated with water to increase durability. The lashing creates a solid structure, but “retains some flexibility which is better for high winds”, Nalo explains.

Flexibility also makes the structures more resistant to earthquakes, while steeply slanted roofs prevent the accumulation of volcanic ash. 

Nalo points out that none of these innovations were taken into account as Western-style buildings popped up, without proper building codes, throughout Vanuatu.

“We need to look back on what we can do for ourselves, using our own knowledge, recognising the good and the bad in external knowledge, and being able to make our own decisions,” he says.

A major engineering challenge

The traditional safehouse will be built on the island of Gaua. 

“Gaua is in the Banks group of islands. They are usually the first to get hit by cyclones and the last to get relief because they are isolated with small populations,” Nalo says.

Less populated islands can be without communications for months at a time. High winds then knock down cellular towers, complicating relief efforts, and when cyclones develop, monitoring is difficult.

The safehouse will combine Indigenous and Western design principles. Photo: Eric Byler/ANU

Nalo’s plan is to have a satellite communication dish at the safehouse to allow consistent communications throughout disasters.

However, satellite installations require electricity and more than 70 per cent of Vanuatu’s people live beyond the reach of electricity grids.

Solar energy would require battery storage to supply electricity when cloudy skies or volcanic ash obscure the sun. Wind resources are abundant but gusts of 90 kilometres per hour or more can damage turbines.

With Vanuatu’s largest waterfall just three kilometres from the proposed site, the Bandalang Studio design team is exploring hydro-electricity in its renewable energy plan.

Pillars of resilience

Nalo hopes this project will become a model that spreads throughout Vanuatu. His goal is to help his community restore self-reliance and provide a space to share cultural practices.

“Prior to colonisation, if a cyclone hit one island, that island already had in place trade routes and systems of barter. So if one island was badly hit, it could use those networks to get what it needed from other islands that weren’t hit. It was very effective.”

In recent decades, the Vanuatu government has struggled to provide adequate disaster relief as the severity of cyclones has worsened due to climate change.

Nalo feels his country has become overly dependent on other nations for food supply, an important part of disaster relief.

“The tendency nowadays in Vanuatu, as in a lot of Pacific Island countries, is to look toward canned, processed food, whereas we have organic foods with complex carbohydrates right there growing out of the ground,” he says. 

The gradual shift to imported, processed foods has led to climbing rates of diabetes, cardiovascular, and respiratory disease in Vanuatu. 

“In normal times, when we are not facing a disaster, we will be using the safehouse to work on food preservation,” Nalo says.

“We have different methods of food preservation that we have used in the past such as drying, smoking, fermenting, using fire, also burying under the ground. We will research these methods and encourage their revival for both public health and disaster resilience.”

Experts contributing to the project include fellow Bandalang Resident Dr Cat KutayDr Jeremy SmithDr Chris BallardAndrew MearesBrad Riley and Dr Wendy Christie of Monash University.

This story was co-published with ANU College of Engineering, Computing and Cybernetics and originally published by Eric Byler - ANU Reporter.