The 3 units of the housing complex, designed as the white pattern of the Artsakh flag

WPI Architectural Engineering Students Design Modular Homes for Artsakh Refugees


WORCESTER, Mass. — Last April, three architectural engineering students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) submitted their design for a modular home project for Artsakh war refugees as their major qualifying project (MQP), the capstone project needed for graduation. The work was impelled by the concept of “humanitarian architecture” as the Artsakh war began in 2020.

Students James Valentine, Katherine Bishop and Lara Varjabedian worked for one year with help from the WPI Armenia Project Center, professors, and various professionals in different fields.

Concerned by the effects of the war, Varjabedian, the only Armenian on the team, initiated the concept and the trio began their year-long collaboration. “I started to think about this the minute the Artsakh war began,” stated Varjabedian, who graduated from WPI in May 2022.

Valentine and Bishop, both architectural engineering students, had only heard a few things about the situation in Artsakh. “It was pretty insane to me that something like this could be happening in the world, and it wasn’t making mainstream news,” Valentine recalled. “But I also felt hopeful that we would now have an opportunity with our project to maybe make a real impact in helping those that were hurting and being displaced,” he added.

“Having two non-Armenian students committed was even more significant. They did their own research about the situation. It was very heartwarming that non-Armenians were actually very curious to find out about what was happening and wanted to help,” Varjabedian said.

From left, James Valentine, Katherine Bishop, and Lara Varjabedian after the submission of their project and the presentation, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), April 2022

Humanitarian Architecture

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Their project’s humanitarian concept was designing and building a housing complex for Artsakh refugees. Since so much of Artsakh was taken over by Azerbaijan, the trio envisaged that the execution would take place in Armenia. Their view was not solely from an architectural perspective, but also inspired by the social aspect of providing housing for those in need. Considering the economic challenges, availability of materials, and climate, they chose to follow the design of modular homes, using shipping containers as the main structural component. They envisioned three types of units: a two-person unit, a single-family home and a multi-generational family home, a common household composition in Armenia.

The design was aimed to be powerful. Looking down on the complex, its layout represented the white pattern on the Artsakh flag: “The idea was to create a connection between the design and the symbolism of the Artsakh flag,” Varjabedian said.

They incorporated a lot of arches, outdoor living space and rooftop patios. They used volcanic tuff, native to Armenia, for the exterior and façade of the building. The team conducted several structural analyses to assess the complex’s feasibility.

“It was also important to make this place environmentally friendly and sustainable, rather than using a traditional way of building homes,” Varjabedian noted.

To implement this project, they have found many sites for sale in Yerevan, but their preference is in the residential neighborhood of Nor Arabkir. This location was chosen principally due to its prime location, residential area, and proximity to commercial establishments, as well as a hospital and an elementary school. Yerevan’s center is only one mile away and can be reached via public transportation, including a bus stop in the area. No contact has been made yet with the sellers, but the team is keeping this location top of mind.

The overall view of the housing complex

Raising Awareness

Upon initial concept presentation, the team was directed by their professors who advised them to learn more about “humanitarian architecture.” This concept is based on improving society and living in appropriate housing. It incorporates consideration of the psychological aspects rather than solely the building and construction. This MQP team at WPI was the only one to choose a “humanitarian architectural” project.

After the submission of the project, they made a five-minute presentation to the WPI community. It was an opportunity for the team to explain the background and driving factor of the Artsakh war to students who were vaguely aware of what was going on in Armenia and Artsakh at the time.

“I would say that our project was a good template or baseline for similar necessary projects that could be completed in Armenia. Small, affordable, easily assembled units that can be built to house those who were caught in the cross-fire of the conflict,” Valentine said.

From Plans to Action

Since the end of April, Varjabedian, Bishop, and Valentine have been seeking professionals and organizations to support them and execute their project. During their research, they discovered a few associations already working in Armenia, such as the Artsakh Relocation Project. This youth diasporan organization assisted Artsakh refugee families and provided them with housing and food.

The trio are now looking forward to collaborating with Armenian organizations or individuals. The team aspires to build the complex within two or three years. They can’t yet estimate the cost of their project since the team still requires professional advice and more specific work on the concept. But as young professionals, their commitment to this project continues as the need is escalating globally.

According to the Artsakh’s government, 91,000 individuals were displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia as a direct result of the 2020 conflict and 36,989 persons in a refugee-like situation in Armenian were a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the UN Refugees agency (UNHCR) said on their report of July 2021.

Their entire project is available on line and can be downloaded.


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