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WC Retro: 1906 Earthquake: 100 Years of Humanitarian Design

By the Worldchanging Team, posted April 18, 2006

One hundred years ago, an earthquake devastated San Francisco. In this guest post, Worldchanging ally Kate Stohr explores what the 1906 earthquake taught us about Humanitarian design and rebuilding efforts, and how those lessons need to be rediscovered today. Kate is the co-founder (along with Cameron Sinclair) of Architecture for Humanity. This piece is an exclusive excerpt from their new book Design Like You Give a Damn.

sanfranciscoburning.jpg At 5:18 in the morning on April 18, 1906, the earth heaved beneath San Francisco, California. The earthquake lasted for less than a minute, shearing façades off buildings, ripping houses from their foundations, and opening a rift in the ground 270 miles (435 km) long and up to 21 feet (6.4 m) deep. “It was as if the earth was slipping gently from under our feet,” wrote one survivor. “Ahead of me a great cornice crushed a man as if he were a maggot.”

But if damage from the earthquake was extensive, the fires that followed were catastrophic. With its rows of closely spaced wooden Victorian homes and unreinforced brick buildings, San Francisco at the turn of the century was a tinderbox awaiting a match. The fires raged for three days, charring more than 500 blocks - nearly a quarter of the city. By the time rescuers were able to sift through the cinders, more than a quarter of a million people were left homeless. Although the official death count totaled 700, it is now estimated that the earthquake and fires claimed between 1,500 and 3,000 lives.

San Francisco at the turn of the century was in every sense a modern city: it had telegraph lines and cable cars, a mix of ethnic groups, and a tremendous disparity in wealth. The earthquake marked one of the first major disasters of the industrialized age, and many of the housing strategies employed by nascent relief agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers would later be adopted by today’s relief and development agencies - strategies such as micro-credit, appropriate technology, and sweat equity. Yet perhaps the most intriguing outcome of the relief effort was the innovative marriage of policy and design that led to the construction of thousands of small wooden cottages that found their way into nearly every pocket of the city.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and fires, the US Army, a citizens’ committee made up of 50 prominent San Franciscans, and the American Red Cross, which had been established only 25 years before, were the first and primary agencies to respond. Survivors who had the means either left the city or roomed with friends or relatives outside of the burned district. Those who remained were those with little alternative, primarily the working poor and the destitute.

Initially the Army, the American Red Cross, and volunteers provided tents. But as aid workers and officials shifted their focus from relief to recovery and reconstruction, a combination of grants and loans were given to middle-class families who owned land (or could afford to purchase land) and who could demonstrate credit-worthiness to support the building of permanent housing in the burned district.

However, more than a month after the disaster some 40,000 “refugees” were still living in makeshift tent camps throughout the city. The camps posed a new worry: How long would survivors live in the city’s parks? Concerned by the possibility of permanent squatter settlements, the civilian committee charged with leading the relief efforts debated how to clear the camps. In the midst of this quandary officials noted that many of those remaining in the camps had not lost everything. They still had jobs. With these low-income wage earners in mind, the committee arrived at a novel solution, one that would provide temporary housing for the working poor while guaranteeing an end to the camps. At the center of this strategy was the design for a small wooden cottage.

Between September 1906 and March 1907 San Francisco built more than 5,610 cottages designed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The cottages ranged in size from 140 square feet (13 sq. m) to 400 square feet (37 sq. m) and cost between $100 to $741 to put up. Constructed by union carpenters and painted “Parkbench Green,” the cottages consisted of only two or three rooms and were as easy to relocate as they were to build. Families rented the small cottages for $2 a month, which went toward the full purchase price of $50. To free the city’s public parks, occupants who could purchase or lease a lot were granted ownership of the cottage and allowed to move it from the park at their own expense. Failure to move the cottages out of the camps by August 1907, a year and a half after the disaster, resulted in forfeiture of ownership.

In this way the cottages provided not only decent temporary shelter but also a path to homeownership for hundreds of San Francisco’s low-wage-earning families who might otherwise have never had the means to purchase a home. By the time the last camp closed in 1909, new homeowners had relocated more than 5,343 cottages. Some of them are still in use today.

Until recently, the great earthquake of 1906 was considered the biggest natural disaster in American history. In its aftermath San Francisco implemented safer building codes and designed a more reliable water-supply system. In addition, researchers conducted a thorough survey of the reconstruction effort. The San Francisco Relief Survey remains one of best-documented case studies of post-disaster shelter efforts to date. But if the earthquake offered lessons to future relief experts, they were lessons that would have to be relearned and rediscovered.

“Housing in the twentieth century has been one continuing emergency,” wrote Charles Abrams, a prominent advocate for housing reform, in 1946. Today these words seem prophetic. For more than a 100 years housing has been gripped by a cycle of war, natural disaster, and poverty. Slums, whether cleared by earthquakes and floods or urban planners with bulldozers, disappear only to regenerate and grow larger. Refugees threatened by ever-more deadly conflicts flee across borders seeking shelter in neighboring territories. And, whether in countries rich or poor, nature has proved that no feat of engineering can completely shield a city from the rumblings of the earth or the rising of its waters.

For decades architects have been called upon to provide solutions to the world’s shelter crises. However, as designers embraced the idealism of the machine age, the increasingly technology-driven, often utopian ideas they proposed would carry little resonance for aid workers and others wrestling with the day-to-day realities of providing a roof, clean water, and sanitation to families in need.

Over time, the worlds of relief and development became divorced from the worlds of architecture and design. What architects considered a design challenge, aid workers considered an issue of planning and policy. This disconnect would eventually lead to a crisis of faith: What role should design play in providing basic shelter? How could architects best address the needs of the displaced and disenfranchised? And, at the heart of these questions: Should design be considered a luxury or a necessity? This issue would plague not just architects but also planners, policymakers, and aid organizations struggling to balance the logistics of providing shelter with the human longing for a place to call home.


This article is excerpted from “100 Years of Humanitarian Design” written by Kate Stohr in the forthcoming book, Design Like You Give A Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises | copyright © 2006 Architecture for Humanity. Published by Metropolis Books. All Rights Reserved. To learn more about this book and the work of Architecture for Humanity, please visit

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