The £300 homes empowering people on the frontline of climate change

Marina Tabassum, a Bangladeshi architect who designed the bamboo stilt houses, is the first person from South Asia to win the Soane Medal of Architecture.

Marina Tabassum might have built her reputation on grand designs for museums and residences. The pandemic gave Tabassum an opportunity to help Bangladeshi communities adapt to the climate crisis. 

Now the architect’s entire 26-year career has been recognised in one of the highest accolades in her field – The Soane Medal – making her the first person from the global south to win. 

Tabassum shot to prominence with her award-winning design for the Bait Ur Rouf mosque in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka: a temple of brick and light which, she says, focused “on the spirituality of the space that would heighten one’s sense of being in communion with God”. 

Tabassum was unable to work due to the pandemic and turned her attention to coastal Bangladesh and the Ganges Delta region. There, quick-thinking communities have been adapting creatively to the climate change challenges. 

The village has developed flatpack homes that are easily dismantled and can be moved during floods. 

One legacy of retreating floodwaters are vast strips of sediment, known as ‘chars’, that provide fertile ground for growing crops on when the water recedes. These chars have been home for thousands of years. However, extreme weather linked with climate change means that they are becoming more inundated by unseasonal flooding.

Marina Tabassum pictured at The Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. Image by Barry MacDonald

Monsoon season has caused entire towns to move around in this hotspot of climate instability. Some families have moved four times. Others feel compelled to move to the slums for a fresh start. And the prevailing flatpack design, Tabassum learned, came at a relatively high £1,500 cost, and required a team of architects and carpenters to construct over two weeks.

Tabassum explored the idea of a lightweight, ‘space-frame’ home constructed from locally available bamboo poles connected by steel joints. The Khudi Bari was the result. Simple to construct and dismantle, a 3m module can house a family of four and costs only £300. 

A Khudi Bari – Tabassum’s vision for a modular, mobile home – under construction. Image: Asif Salman

Tabassum is a master at designing bamboo stilt homes, which cost only a few hundred dollars. Or she builds magnificent temples that take many years to build. The Bait Ur Rouf mosque is filled with light and is completely natural ventilated.

“Architecture can reinstall pride in the age-old wisdom of living symbiotically with nature,” she said. “Architecture can empower communities to secure better lives and living conditions.”