Build Back Better Tohoku

by Architecture for Humanity

The end of July marks the half-way point for the Tohoku construction season, and we figured we could take stock of how our collaborative rebuilding projects are helping the tsunami-stricken region recover. The four featured cast a wide net of methods, materials and the unique conditions demanding their careful consideration.


(See project details & imgs further below)

Akahama Covered Alley Completed
In the beginning of May, the second phase of the construction finally started with the local community members and volunteers from Tokyo under the supervision of the master carpenter, Mr. Hoshino. In the middle of June, we mostly completed the construction. We still need to put some finishing touches after the typhoon season ends in July such as solar-powered lighting fixtures on each landing and add some landscaping around. We expect the project to be completed by the end of August.

Shizugawa Banya In Construction
The government paved the site in the end of May. It pushed back our schedule a bit, but it was good that they did before we started our construction. Building permit was finally approved on June 20, 2012. Then the pre-fab contractor started to coordinate the factory to build two units. The fabrication phase was extended because the contractor could not find a local sub-contractor to work on the interior finish, so they had to order the job at the factory instead. Due to the fact, we are expecting the units to come on site on August 20, 2012. As soon as they are delivered, we should be able to complete the project within a month to finally provide the proper workspace that these fishermen deserve. Our most urgent challenge ahead is to keep the sense of urgency and to push to better their delivery schedule.

Oshika House Completed
After three months of search for a contractor, we broke ground for the Oshika House on June 15, 2012. Even after we started the construction, challenges kept coming. Since the construction season in Tohoku is short and many reconstruction projects are going up, there is severe shortage of building materials and labor right now. The contractors had hard time tracking down necessary lumber, equipment and paint. With great help from volunteers, the team finished up the construction on July 17, and held an opening event on July 21.

Maeami-hama community house Pre-design
Professor Hiroto Kobayashi at Keio University and his students designed and constructed a similar community building in Utazu area of Minami-sanriku-cho, Miyagi Prefecture. They used plywood sheets that were washed out by the tsunami to create the structural framing. (See the photos on Page 10.) This innovative new building technique allowed them to construct the building inexpensively with much help from the community members and student volunteers during the construction.

Professor Kobayashi agreed to partner with us to design and build a community house for the people in Maeami-hama. We are very excited about this partnership.

Akahama Covered Alley sequence AKAHAMA COVERED ALLEY - COMPLETED

This is the second place winner of the first round of Build Back Better Tohoku. Akahama village lost 100 residents out of 900. Most of them moved into the temporary housing. Because of the random placement of residents and the callous layout of units, the sense of community is dissipated.

The community with the help from NPO Midorino-ie School proposed a set of covered staircases between units built on the terraced site in order to connect upper units and lower units. Currently they have to walk on a steep slope, and they are worried snow and ice on the slope in winter making extremely dangerous to walk on. The residents are encouraged to lend their hand for the construction to cultivate the sense of community. The stairs and roof are designed to reflect the traditional architecture as well as utilize local materials.

HIGHLIGHTS The first set of four covered stairways was built by the end of December 2012. The stairway was constructed with the traditional Japanese joinery.

The second phase construction began immediately after the phase one, but, due to the snowy winter weather in Tohoku, the outside construction work has been slowed significantly.

Meanwhile, the community leader, Mr. Okamoto, told us that the first set of the covered stairs has been very useful during the snowy winter. He also mentioned that everybody appreciates the high quality of work and its beauty in their dreary temporary housing complex.

Finally the residents can safely navigate through the complex, and perhaps have some impromptu social gatherings happening at covered landings. The final photos will be posted on the Akahama Alley page when they become available.

Framing on second flight; roof on third flight

The installation of the staircase with roof to link housing units on the terraced site. This will vastly improve the communication between families and provide an accessible route.

800 residents of Akahama Temporary Housing Complex in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture

Partially funded by Punkt - $51,000 construction grant (total)

Shizugawa Banya August 2012 sequence SHIZUGAWA BANYA - IN CONSTRUCTION

A group of 15 fishermen who lost everything for the Great East Japan Earthquake would like to rebuild their workplace and warehouse (called Banya in Japanese) as their new base of the town's fishing industry, which is the key industry of the area. These fishermen were used to operate individually, but now they would like to bring in each unique experience and idea to rebuild the collective aqua-farming business. They hope the return of fishing business would encourage the speedy reconstruction of the rest of the town.

The project provides a storage and workspace for local fishermen, and will help them build back their business and boost morale of the community.

• 15 Motohama fishermen and their families
• 6,800 residents of Shizugawa who would benefit from their aqua-farming business and products directly and indirectly

8,993,250 JPY construction grant (approx. 114,000 USD at exchange rate of July 16, 2012)

Oshika House August 2012 sequence OSHIKA HOUSE - COMPLETED

This is the first place winner of the first round of Build Back Better Tohoku RFP (Request for Proposal) program. Women’s Group of Oshika Peninsula Fishing Union in Ayukawa-hama in Ishinomaki has been making and selling woven bracelets with strings that fishermen use to fix fishing nets since a few months after the earthquake devastated their village. After the earthquake, they realized that they would need to diversify their economic structure in their village to build back their society, and become sustainable. Therefore they proposed to create a space for bracelet making and community gathering as well as serving prepared food to the community and tourists using local produce and seafood.

Oshika House build sequence
Oshika House build sequence

IMPACT Installation of a work space / café will allow the Women’s Group to empower them to become financially independent, and contribute to build the sustainable economy of the community.

• 7 Mermamaid members and their families
• Approximately 1,000 Ayukawahama residents CONSTRUCTION COST $51,000 construction grant (final)

Community house site sketch MAEAMI-HAMA COMMUNITY HOUSE - PRE-DESIGN

Meami-hama is located on the Oshika Peninsula – about ninety minutes east of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture. People have to drive a long narrow and windy road, which is still left scarred by the earthquake-led landslides. The government aid hardly reaches the remote villages like Maeami-hama because the repair of damages in larger towns’ infrastructure gets more priority.

The earthquake and tsunami wiped out almost the whole village of Maeami-hama. Only five houses out of forty survived. The Maeami-hama Reconstruction Project Team has established in May 2011 after the residents lamented the government's slow response to the reconstruction of their village. The team has the total of nine members, and leads the community of eighty people.

Most of residents works for the aquaculture industry, and used to live on the water. The government laid out the no-build zone along the coast, and built a temporary housing complex for the residents of Maeami-hama on a higher ground, away from the coast where they work. It takes them about five minutes by car to commute now. The peninsula is mountainous with very limited flat land to build. Hence their temporary housing complex does not have an enough community space to have family gatherings such as weddings, funerals and other community events. Architecture for Humanity will design and construct a community house with the Meami-hama Reconstruction Project Team. The site is located at the entrance to the village, and owned by the fishermen’s union whom generouslydonated the land for the community. It is on the higher ground, so hardly gets under water.

Construction method as implemented on the Tokyo Chapter's Veneer House in minami sanriku

The project will allow the community member to have a large gathering such as annual festivals, weddings, family reunions and so on.

100 community members of Maeami-hama

$100,000 construction grant (estimated) / $40,000 (secured)


"Ishi" in Japanese means "stone," and you don't have to go too far to see how closely Ishinomaki is tied to the stone upon which the city was founded 80 years ago. The tsunami has made this connection even more apparent. The streets have in recent decades been paved over with asphalt for the benefit of a comfortable commute. The powerful waters of last year's tsunami has torn some of this asphalt away - bringing daylight once more to the original stone pavers.

It's details like these that bring a new layer of complexity and understanding to the residents of Ishinomaki. The economic hardships the city has suffered since the 80's and the destruction wrought by the 3/11 tsunami have tested the resolve of this industrial city's inhabitants -- whose response to such tests was to come together and help rebuild. Naomi Sato, an accountant in the community of Kitakami, has found herself as a leading player in her city's 'building back better.' The tsunami changed the direction of her life, as it has in the case of so many others, and Ms. Sato now counts herself among a growing field of dynamic players rebuilding the services and stability a town needs to make a rock-solid comeback.

Damage in Ishinomaki

Damaged storefronts in Ishinomaki, May 2012

Temporary housing (May 2012)

Temporary Housing, May 2012

Before the earthquake, Naomi kept the books at a local general contractor’s office. In 2009, she joined the Kitakami Redevelopment Committee for the city of Ishinomaki. Naomi lost her husband to the earthquake, and now is the sole caretaker of their three children. She got depressed following the disaster, but quickly realized she had to move forward with her family.

Determined to help her family and community rebuild after the earthquake, Naomi organized a group of local residents. The "We Are One" Market planning committee was founded by Naomi and four other mothers living in one of Ishinomaki's new temporary housing complexes. The committee's goal: to found a place for the residents of the housing complex to buy fresh food and for their children to meet after school. The vision, called Kitakimi “We Are One”, is to build a community center and market where mothers can work and watch neighborhood kids after school at the same time.

"We Are One" organizers and Architecture for Humanity staff meet with Kitakami officials to discuss the project.

Members of the "We Are One" team, including Naomi.

The site of the future market. Currently, Naomi and "We Are One" are selling fruits and vegetables from a small temporary market located there.

Inside the temporary market

Inside the temporary market. In May, Naomi reported that the temporary market was doing well - there are many locals and contractors who are working on reconstruction projects that stop by every day, she says.

After Disaster, “We Are One”

Life in the isolated towns and villages of Tohoku has changed drastically since 3/11. Kitakami once had three elementary schools, but two of them were severely damaged by the tsunami and all students have been forced to attend the single surviving school. As a result, 250 students have been sharing a school designed for about 100 occupants. Not only were classrooms lost: Kitakami's public library, computer lab, and other after school meeting spots were destroyed as well. In the year following the earthquake, finding space for students to meet and study has been a priority for Kitakami residents.

The town also lost their closest market, meaning that residents living in the temporary housing complex have to drive about 15 miles to purchase fresh food. Folks without cars or who are too old to drive themselves have to rely on the generosity of their neighbors to buy fresh food, and the organizing committee wants to ensure that these community members can regain their independence and access to healthy eats.

Out of the scarcity of the life in Kitakami, community members have collaborated to identify how they can make the most out of a small piece of land they have near the temporary housing complex by building a joint community center and marketplace.

Architect Fumihiko Sasaki (see his firm's work) was introduced to the "We Are One" committee last fall. Given the community's limited financial resources (but unlimited resolve), Mr. Sasaki has proposed an innovative design. The building has been strategically pieced together from several prefabricated structures (which are substantially cheaper to 'build') and adorned with an inviting, lively facade. The financial sustainability of the market has been kept in mind, too: in addition to providing fresh food for nearby residents, "We Are One" organizers hope to entice travellers using the nearby highway to stop and shop the market.

Final elevation drawings of the market

A plan view of the proposal for a joint community market and youth center

Mr. Fumihiko Sasaki presents the designs to Naomi

Mr. Fumihiko Sasaki presents the designs to Naomi

Mr. Sasaki presents a model of the project to town officials

Mr. Sasaki presents a model of the project to town officials

"We Are One" Market & Youth Center model

"We Are One" Market & Youth Center model

Model interior

Model interior

June 17, 2012, traditional Shinto groundbreaking ceremony

June 17, 2012, Shinto groundbreaking ceremony

Ms. Sato participates in groundbreaking Mr. sasaki participates in groundbreaking

Ms. Sato and Mr. Sasaki participate in the groundbreaking

On July 17, 2012, the "We Are One" Market permanent building broke ground. Design Fellow Akinobu Yoshikawa follows up on last week's groundbreaking ceremony:

"[The ceremony] was held on a warm but cloudy (partly raining) morning on July 17th, 2012...with children going to school and commuting workers passing by with amused eyes.... An old lady taking a walk from the nearby temporary housing complex, came to me asking what is going to get built. After explaining the project to her, she said it will nice to see something going up, and looks forward to the completion.

"This Shinto ceremony is a custom here in Japan and held regardless of the project type or scale. The first ceremony is this ground breaking ceremony. Fruits, vegetables, fish, and sake is presented to the gods (the items varies a little per location). The ground breaking ceremony is held in Japan to pray for the safekeeping of the workers and others involved while in construction. Next ceremony will be the framework completion ceremony when all the timber framing is completed. And at the end another one, the building completion ceremony will be held."

Construction will begin soon following Japan's Bon Festival. The goal is to wrap up the building process before the local ‘building season’ ends in October or November. (Tohoku's cold winters make it very difficult to keep building later in the year.) The completed market and youth center will serve 40 families – including over 350 students – in the nearby temporary housing, plus travelers using the adjacent highway. Stay tuned - we'll be providing updates as the "We Are One" market and youth center moves closer to completion!

About Paper Cranes for Japan

This 4-minute film tells the story of Paper Cranes for Japan—including the unveiling of a massive sculpture in Sendai Train Station using 100,000 of your paper cranes—and how it inspired a global movement that mobilized thousands of young people in 38 countries and all fifty states to support their Japanese peers following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. All told, Paper Cranes for Japan participants folded and shipped over 2 million paper cranes as a symbol of hope and healing for Japanese youth, raising $500,000 for Architecture for Humanity's Tohoku Rebuilding Program and projects like this!

Paper Cranes for Japan has been nominated for a CLASSY Award! If you like how this unique Awareness Campaign has supported Architecture for Humanity's work in Japan, Vote for PC4J Before JULY 26, 2012.

As of May 2012, five projects are currently underway in Tohoku, managed by Architecture for Humanity design fellows.  Each project addresses an "urban acupuncture" approach to reconstruction: precise public or community interventions that create a ripple effect to entire towns and regions. Our Japan team is working directly with communities to first assess their needs and then oversee development of buildings and structures seen as vital for communities with few other accessible design resources.

Otsuchi-cho, Kamihei-gun, Iwate

Designed by Shizuyo Shiba

The first set of four covered stairways was built by the end of December 2012. The stairway was constructed with the traditional Japanese joinery. The quality of work granted them the second phase of the project to complete all covered stairs, connecting all five buildings.

The second phase construction began immediately after the phase one, but, due to the snowy winter weather in Tohoku, the outside construction work has been slowed significantly. The carpenters have been working inside cutting lumber and preparing for the second phase of work. As soon as weather permits, construction will recommence on the remaining stairs.

Start of construction is forecasted to be: End of June 2012. Construction duration forecasted to be: 6 to 8 weeks

• 800 residents of Akahama Temporary Housing Complex in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture

Shizugawa, Minami-sanriku-cho, Miyagi
Designed by Takaharu Saito

After a long negotiation with the design/build firm, and design workshops with the fishermen we are finally in the construction phase. The pre-fabricated structure will be delivered in late-May, and the construction is scheduled to be completed by June 30, 2012.

• 15 Motohama fishermen
• 100 community members

Beginning of April 2012 – Construction documents, Building permit
Mid-April – Mid-May 2012 Fabrication
Mid-May – End of May 2012 Site work
June1, 2012 – June 25,2012 Container installation
June 30, 2012 – Construction complete

These fishermen are desperately in need of the banya because of the harsh weather. We are monitoring the schedule and the cost closely in order to provide the structure as soon as possible.

Ayukawa-hama, Ishinomaki, Miyagi
Designed by Doogs Design

The community partner called “Tumugiya” and the Women’s Group of Oshika Peninsula Fishing Union in Ayukawa-hama named “Mermamaid” have been facing challenge after challenge.

First, the local government told them that the road in front of the planned construction site might be raised in future. Therefore they have to find the solution so that the building can be easily dismantled and reassembled if they need to relocate.

Their next challenge was that a local carpenter in Oshika Peninsula whom they would like to work with became unavailable for this project. They have to expand their search for a new contractor to Tokyo, because there is a serious shortage of labor throughout Tohoku. Finally they found a builder in Tokyo to take on this project.

• 7 Mermamaid members and their families
• Approximately 1,000 Ayukawahama residents

Mid-March 2012 - Construction Document completed
April 2012 - Final cost estimate and adjustment (if necessary) by the selected contractor, Building permit
May – July 2012 - Construction
Beginning of August 2012 - Construction complete

Hikado Marketplace


The covered wooden deck made of salvaged timber from the tsunami was completed in June 2011. The owner, carpenters and all parties involved making this a reality had a big opening celebration in July. In the beginning of August, people from three neighboring communities had a very successful annual summer festival. Now, people that have moved into nearby temporary housing come and enjoy a bowl of ramen noodles for lunch and a glass of cold beer after work.

• 3 shop owners
• Community members of Motoyoshi (approximated population of the town is 12,000)
• Tourists

$9,100 construction grant

AfH architects and staff discuss plans
AfH architects and staff discuss plans

Architecture for Humanity is bringing architects, and other design professionals, together with communities to rebuild Tohoku after last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami.  On April 6, I was lucky to be invited to join the Architecture for Humanity staff in a planning meeting to see how the process actually works.   On the drive to the meeting in the local city hall in Kitikami, AfH staff Takaharu Saito, explained to me a little bit about the project that would be discussed.  He explained that a group of mothers living in nearby temporary shelters had proposed the idea for the “We are One” Market – a central space where elderly and others living in the temporary shelters could shop for groceries, where students could study and children could play, and where community members could come together as they plan rebuilding their lives.  AfH is working with the mothers to design and build the building they need to make their dream a reality.

The goal for the day to go over the preliminary plans and make any final suggestions and changes to the plan before the architect started on the final blue prints.  Attending the meeting were two women initiating the project, three AfH staff, the (pro-bono) architect, and a local government official.  It was amazing to see the various stakeholders working together for a common goal.  Each had been affected by the tsunami in his or her own way.  They had lost homes and friends and communities, but they were coming to improve their situation together.

Throughout the course of the next few hours much was discussed: Should the building be one or two stories?  Who would be the primary users of the building?  Did it make more sense to build a children’s center or a general meeting room?  Should the commerce section have a difference entrance than the community center section?  All voices were listened to equally and in turn and a few hours later, there was a design that incorporated ideas from each person in the room. 

The mothers are eager to get started and aren’t waiting for the completion of the building to get their business and community center running.  They’ll be operating out of a temporary structure while construction starts alongside them in the permanent structure.  On April 14, the “We are One Market” launches as one step closer to rebuilding the community so many lost in last year’s disaster.

"We are One" Market launches on April 14
"We are One" Market launches on April 14

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake struck the Tohoku region of Japan, resulting in a tsunami that ravaged 550 kilometers (340 miles) of Pacific coastline. Any country would have been devastated by such a disaster – Japan was better prepared than most. However, it is in the event of disaster that communities need assistance in rebuilding. Since Day One, Architecture for Humanity has been working with local partners such as ArchiAid and AfH Tokyo Chapter, communities and local design and construction professionals to build back better Tohoku.

We're focusing on three branches of community reconstruction: economic development; access to sport; and support for elderly and young people in need. We are helping local shops and small businesses recover, reopen, create jobs and collectively provide a financial future for affected communities. We call these sorts of interventions "Urban Acupuncture." Localized improvements affect the health of a community much like each acupuncture needle influences the overall health of a body.

As the first year response, we started our program by listening. We enlisted design fellows from Tohoku to ask the locals directly what they needed. By listening to them and reacting swiftly to their needs, we built trusting relationships with communities. This was a very important step for us as a foreign NPO (Non-Profit Organization) before discussion of rebuilding could begin. Programs such as Honyaquake and Road Home were our responses to immediate needs.

We have completed five projects in the first nine months after the disaster, and currently several more are in design or under development for the second year of reconstruction. The following is the list of reconstruction projects that we have been working on. There were many bumps on our way, from typical bureaucratic issues to post-disaster stress within some communities, but our goal has always been the same: to rebuild sustainable communities and economies in Tohoku.

Although this was an earthquake of unprecedented magnitude, it was certainly not the first time Tohoku suffered from a tsunami. Their resiliency will certainly help the reconstruction of the region. Architecture for Humanity is honored to be able to support such an endeavor, and would like to continue working alongside the community every step of the way.

Completed Projects

Hikado Marketplace

Ohya Green Sports Park

Shizugawa Judo Juku

Paper Crane Sculpture

Akahama Covered Alley – Phase One

Current Projects

Shizugawa Fishermen's Workplace "Banya"

Deck at Kashiwagi Daycare Center

Oshika House - Women's Cooperative

Akahama Covered Alley – Phase Two


Architecture for Humanity: Tokyo Chapter

What's Next

In 2012, the Japan Team continues to work with local communities to support their economic and social recovery.

People are still clearing rubble in some places. The extensive damage caused by the tsunami still prevents the national government from funding various projects. It is also affecting prefectural and town governments trying to assist to their residents in need. Architecturefor Humanity has been finding ways to work around these difficulties.

The Japan Team identified several smaller communities to collaborate with. For months after the disaster, thousands of volunteer workers and skilled laborers and tons of food and supplies from NPOs and governmental agencies poured into Tohoku. However, most aid stayed in major cities and towns. Small villages were not prioritized because many are too remote, connected only by long, winding roads along the jagged coastline. These are the areas we have reached out to assist the rebuilding of lives and communities.

The following are potential projects in such areas. With your help, it is possible for us to continue working for these people who lost a lot of things but keep their heads up toward their future. Thank you.

For the full Report, see Build Back Better Tohoku - One Year Later



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Organization Information

Architecture for Humanity

Location: San Francisco, CA - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Architecture for Humanity
Project Leader:
Hiromi Tabei
San Francisco, CA United States

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