M.L. Varudh Varavarn's project won a Highly Commended Award at last year's World Architecture Festival.

Pordee Pordee Classroom is one of the most inspiring architecture projects in Thailand. Led by Design for Disaster and The Association of Siamese Architects Under Royal Patronage (ASA), it aims to rebuild schools that were destroyed in Chiang Rai’s earthquake in 2013. The project has enlisted the help of leading names such as Supermachine and Junsekino Architecture. Another participant, the founder of Vin Varavarn Architects, M.L. Varudh Varavarn, 44, won a Highly Commended Award at the World Architecture Festival last November. To mark the Architect Expo 2017 (May 2-7) and the third anniversary of Chiang Rai’s earthquake (May 5), BK chats to Varudh about how to best prepare against disaster.

What was your aim in building a school in a disaster-prone area? 

The first priority was getting a stronger structure within a very limited budget. I also knew the school had accepted students with attention deficit problems. So, teachers had to find ways to offer different learning environments, like sitting outside or studying under the trees. I had the idea to bring nature into the classroom, like a form of natural therapy. The location helped with this: it’s on a slope covered with large trees. We designed it so that the entrance to the classroom came at the top of the slope, with the rest of the building raised off the ground. 

What was the biggest challenge in building it?

I normally work on residential projects and resorts so this project changed the way I think a lot. I worked closely with the Engineering Institute of Thailand to make the classroom earthquake-resistant. For this, we needed to use lightweight materials to reduce the chance of injury. We ended up using insulated metal sheets. Importantly, for the foundation, we used round posts instead of square ones to make the structure stronger. 

What was the budget?

The total budget was B1.9 million and we had only two months for construction. We received donations from various segments of society, including the revered monk Phra Maha Vuthichai Vachiramethi. I don’t know how that budget compares to other earthquake-resistant concrete structures. But with such time constraints, these metal materials helped us get the job done quicker and with more flexibility. The building is capable of resisting a magnitude 7.5-8 quake. 

What was the feedback from locals?

I love that the students say it looks like a spaceship or resort. I also feel great that a local craftsman who helped me construct the school told me he used his new knowledge to improve his damaged house, too. It’s good to see people adapt like that. Too bad not everyone has access to such knowledge and techniques. 

Are you working on any other disaster-resistant projects?

I’m an advisor for the Modchanaphai Foundation, who are working on a project to design tiny three-by-three meter parsonages for monks at a temple in Chaing Rai. These may become portable earthquake-proof structures that can be easily relocated. The school project has led to several other groups contacting me, like ORU-FOGAR in Ecuador, who asked me to help design emergency houses in earthquake-devastated El Matal capable of resisting a magnitude 9 quake. But I’m not an expert. I just advised them that I think nothing can resist something that powerful unless you have a huge budget, so it might be better to build shelters that can be assembled like Lego in the aftermath of an earthquake. 

With global warming causing more natural disasters, how should we prepare ourselves?

People are slowly becoming aware of the need for better planning. But a lot depends on the costs of materials and implementation of the correct designs. While designing the school, I came across tiang na, a type of contemporary hut used in the rice fields which I think is pretty practical for our country. I actually think we can learn a lot from our traditional Thai houses, such as those raised as protection against floods. Looking ahead, we need to merge new technology with certain old designs.