Emergency shelters or live shelters with Navajo willows ?



Leonardo da Vinci inspires emergency shelter


Imogen Mathers

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Leonardo da Vinci, the original ‘Renaissance man’, tends to be better known for his drawings of human anatomy and the animal kingdom than buildings. But his architectural designs were no less pioneering in their fusing of imagination and practical ingenuity. Now, almost 500 years after Leonardo’s death, a ‘reciprocal’ floor design — a self-supporting arrangement involving three or more poles overlapping in turn — could transform shelters for people affected by disasters.

In this audio interview, we speak to Shaun Halbert, director of charityReciproBoo about the use of Leonardo’s reciprocal frames in humanitarian response. “Essentially what we’re doing is taking what Leonardo da Vinci did … and asking the question: ‘Well, if it’s strong enough for a floor, why not use it for a roof?’” Halbert says. The result is a strong roof that can support the tarpaulins that people displaced by emergencies are given in the days immediately following disasters — replacing the weak structures people have tended to fashion in the past from whatever materials are to hand.


My comment (Willem Van Cotthem – Ghent University, Belgium)

Maybe you are interested in my ideas on building live shelters, using the drought-tolerant Navajo willow (Salix matsudana var. Navajo) ?  Please have a look at my video:


No more plastic greenhouses or tunnels needed : grow your own live greenhouse (a tipi or a tunnel) with branches of the drought-tolerant Navajo willow, also globe willow, or the Chinese willow (Salix matsudana). One can grow these willows with a minimum of water in the drylands, even in the desert.

Such a live greenhouse offers remarkable advantages : natural shade and higher air humidity inside because of the transpiration by the leaves.

In drylands or deserts people can easily grow plants, e.g. young fruit trees and vegetables, inside the greenhouse, which can also offer shelter against the sun heat.

Outgrowing branches of the willow can be pruned to construct progressively new greenhouses.


Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.