Living lightly on the land: ‘barefoot social architecture’ for the 99%

Yasmeen Lari’s work as an architect totally changed after the devastating 2005 Kashmir and Hazara earthquake. One of the most destructive earthquakes of modern times, it killed more than 80,000 people and left 3.5 million homeless. And her work became green design for the 99% – the poor who can’t afford to hire an architect.

This work offers lessons for how to rebuild after disasters in ways that support people and communities in ways that help prevent the future disasters that may come from climate change. Like a program in Nepal, it uses locally-available materials and teaches people to rebuild by themselves.”Yasmeen’s pathbreaking work on zero carbon, eco-friendly and sustainable shelters may just show the way forward,” said StirWorld in a 2020 profile.

When there wasn’t enough aid money to rebuild in Kashmir, Yasmeen developed a simple blueprint for a shelter, KaravanGhar, that anyone could build using mud construction. As experimentation continued, this became GreenKaravanGhar, built without cement, steel or wood. 

More than 45,000 homes have been built from mud, lime and bamboo via Shelter for All, “the world’s largest zero-carbon shelter programme.”

By BBC News اردو – World Environment Day: Pakistani architect who builds houses in just Rs. 50,000, CC BY 3.0,

Yasmeen, who is now 80, has trained thousands of local people in how to build these shelters through the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, which she co-founded with her husband, Sohail Zaheer Lari. She also shares the knowledge via open-source YouTube tutorials.

The low carbon, low cost buildings are drawn from Pakistan’s cultural heritage, in what she calls ‘barefoot architecture’ or even ‘anti-architecture’. “Every family in Pakistan can do it, even below the poverty line,” she said. “And we have more than 50% of our population living below the poverty line.”

She works with local, natural materials such as earth and lime.”And it turns out that they’re all pretty good from [a carbon] point of view. This helps to create buildings that can withstand the effects of global warming without further contributing to it.”

These sustainable green construction methodologies have now been used, not just in disaster-affected areas, but all over the country. “This approach makes people part of working out their own solution with added benefits in fostering pride and encouragement to take charge of their own lives,” says the foundation.

By BBC News اردو – World Environment Day: Pakistani architect who builds houses in just Rs. 50,000, cropped, brightened, watermark removed, CC BY 3.0,
  • Using indigenous materials or locally produced items results in quick economic regeneration within affected communities;
  • Clay is abundant, free and can be used either as layers of mud or sun dried brick.Lime is available in abundance.
  • Bamboo for DRR-driven KaravanRoof is fast growing and widely available at reasonable cost. Training local artisans to produce these roofs provides local livelihoods.
  • Mud structures are well insulated and provide comfortable habitat
  • Using local materials ensures that women can continue to contribute in home-making.
  • Extensive use of lime, bamboo and mud provides eco-friendly habitat, providing comfort in extreme climates.

Larger green community structures also were built. In Khairpur, two-storey floating bamboo structures on stilts were built, first as women’s centres and later for school and health facilities. During the 2011 floods, these buildings provided refuge to the community on the upper levels while the waters flowed through the stilts.

Yasmeen Lari qualified as an architect in Pakistan in 1963, the first woman to do so. She designed many of Pakistan’s modern commercial buildings before retiring in 2000. Then, after becoming a national advisor to UNESCO in 2003, she became renowned for her work with communities living in disaster prone areas of Pakistan.

The foundation doesn’t just focus on housing – it also helps people make low-cost quality products, such as the Chulah, a stove made from earth and lime that won the World Habitat Award in 2018.

Yasmeen talked about her philosophy in an interview with DeZeen magazine recently, as it celebrated its 15th year of publication with a digital festival. In a manifesto, Lari wrote: “The disadvantaged and those that live on the margins need more, not less, design to achieve a better quality of life.” Dezeen published a range of her projects as part of Dezeen 15, including the smokeless stoves, a bamboo community centre and terracotta tiling for a street in Karachi.

The Zero Carbon Cultural Centre, a giant pavilion in Makli built by local people together with the foundation, hosts hands-on workshops for local people to strengthen their skills and help them live better-quality lives. The centre, completed in 2017, is the biggest bamboo structure in Pakistan and one of the largest in the world. It is near the Makli Necropolis – a UNESCO World Heritage site.


Sustainable green construction. Heritage Foundation of Pakistan.

Prefabricated bamboo community centre in Pakistan built by local people. DeZeen, Nov. 5, 2021

Using “ancient wisdoms and techniques” can lead to carbon-neutral buildings says Yasmeen Lari. DeZeen, Jul. 1, 2021

Luminaries of our Times – Yasmeen Lari. StirWorld, Jun. 25, 2020