Kansai Volunteer Architects

January 24, 1995 - May 1996/March 2011

Hiroaki Kimura/Ks Architects

Text by Jun Obara

Kansai Volunteer Architects


Hiroaki Kimura (Ks Architects, Professor, Graduate School of Science and Technology, Kyoto Institute of Technology)

Mr. Kimura called for help to his fellow architects in Kansai area to form a volunteer group to help victims in the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. One week after the earthquake, the group initiated a house inspection at the home of the victims and continued this activity for a few months. Mr. Kimura resumed the initiative in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and has been actively involved in relief efforts.


Architects on emergency calls

In a disaster relief, usually the first 72 hours after the occurrence of the disaster is dedicated to emergency first aid performed by medical professionals. The architects’ roles become relevant after this period, and our initial activities were mainly to provide temporary assistance to the victims, rather than offering different long-term programs.

About a week after the earthquake, we started to get a grasp of the situation of the disaster area. From there, we reached out to other architects and held meetings to discuss what we could do to help the victims.

We first carried out building inspections on the site of victims’ houses. Of course, at that point we were not able to fix the damages right on the spot. Still, we provided professional advice on the condition of the house to help the resident understand the high risk parts in their houses. For example, we would look at the house and advise the resident to stay away from the second floor as it could be dangerous. Then we held a meeting every other week for over three months after the earthquake, to explore other possible support we could provide. Later in May, we started to receive requests for house inspection directly from more victims, to which we responded by visiting and giving consultation. As we talked to the residents, who were worried and anxious, we realized that listening to their concerns itself could be a great emotional support.


Foundation of the Kansai Volunteer Architects

In the late 1990, concept of volunteer work was still uncommon in Japan and there were very few volunteer initiatives organized by individual professionals. However, many architects were more than enthusiastic when I asked for their help.

All the members were active professional architects. So we teamed members up by two or three and had each team visit the victims’ houses whenever their schedule allowed. The city of Kobe was severely damaged, but the damages in Osaka and Himeji (west of Kobe) were little, so the architects gathered to Kobe from the East and West of Kansai region. Also, most victims’ houses were located within a driving distance.

While it was impossible to visit all the houses in the area in one day, we managed to see about two houses in the morning and two in the afternoon. Soon we were flooded with more requests and we tried to visit as many as we could. I think each team has visited hundreds of houses and we visited 2000-3000 houses in total.

Whenever we visited the houses, we would stay more than an hour to talk to the residents. As most issues found onsite could not be solved instantly, our efforts were focused on providing ease of mind to the residents. Day after day, we would visit the damaged houses to give our reports about the condition of the houses to their residents, such as, “this room is very dangerous,” “this crack on the foundation is a bit concerning,” or “this retaining wall is falling down. Be sure to evacuate as soon as there is another earthquake.” Of course we could not provide in-depth analysis under such situations, but we tried to give the best advice possible because we wanted to help.

Giving professional analysis on a building is a lot of responsibility. Many architectural organizations are very cautious to receive inspection requests and provide advice fearing that something could happen after they provide their opinion. For this reason, a private, professional volunteer group like ours is very useful. I think it makes things much easier in a time of emergency if we offer input as individual volunteers with an architect license.


Supporting community building

As we all had jobs, it was impossible for us to cover the entire disaster area. So we focused on providing support to one district. After three months since our foundation, we started to provide various types of assistance to rebuild the community in Uozaki in Kobe city. This project was originally developed to help a colleague who at that time worked for the crisis center in an elementary school in the district.

The Uozaki district was one of the most underserved areas where access to public and private recovery aid was limited. So we offered help to establish a council to rebuild the community and proposed various events such as a forum to talk about the beautiful scenery that the residents want to revive. We also provided practical information such as subsidy programs offered for construction projects involving three or more buildings.

Our architects were merely trying to help, not because they wanted to pitch their business but out of their genuine desire to help. However, the residents were uninterested in our proposals. Having lost their home in the earthquake, they were more eager to make new prefabricated temporary housings as soon as possible.

Three months had passed since the earthquake and we started to hear about many recovery efforts going on in the district. Massive demolition works were being implemented, tearing down the beautiful landscapes and old houses -including the ones that didn’t need to be demolished- only to be replaced with alleys of prefabricated units that looked like containers with grayish colored walls. In hopes of bringing back the familiar neighborhood to the residents, we set up a canopy in the elementary school and held a community building meeting once every one or two weeks until the following summer. In September that year when the school resumed after the summer holiday, we moved to a community center and continued to hold the meetings for about a year. The consultation was continued after we changed the location again in the following year.

The members who were involved in this project were experts in urban planning. So their involvement naturally led our group to take on the actual construction work later on. We designed one or two condominiums and developed plans for the Uozaki market, witnessing the recovery of the district until its completion.

On the other hand, some members initiated another group to organize art exhibitions and community support programs for restoring sake breweries in Nada in eastern Kobe. In this way, we allowed each member to engage in initiatives of their own interest.


The KVA Fund

In the past, we have been offered funding by Kobe city to conduct a field investigation in the Uozaki district. Additionally, we received a grant of one million yen from a local charity group called the Hanshin Awaji Renaissance (HAR) Fund. We saved the money that was left after our activities, and in 2011, used the savings to establish the Kansai Volunteer Architects (KVA) Fund for carrying out recovery activities in the areas damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

The Kansai Volunteer Architects is a private group of individual architects. As we all have jobs, we operate rather flexibly depending on the individual. There is no group pressure and everyone participates by their own will. Our activities are built upon a network and mutual trust, and I knew upfront that in no time I could get a handful of architects to join the effort if I just talked to the right persons.


The architects reunited

When the KVA was established, we mostly relied on telephone and facsimile for communication as email was still not widely used in Japan. Now our communication is rather casual. In fact when the earthquake hit Tohoku in 2011, we just emailed everyone we knew and decided to relaunch our volunteer activities.

We have always talked about how we could make the most of the money we saved, especially whenever we heard the news of another disaster such as the 921 Earthquake in Taiwan and the Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake in Japan. We had about 1.5 million yen left from the various funding, so we decided to use it for relaunching the KVA to help victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

However, with the devastating situation in Tohoku, we knew that we couldn’t just go and help victims. So we started to consider different ideas, such as things we could do in one day, or support local relief efforts. Then Mr. Katsuhiro Miyamoto, one of the volunteer architects who had already been in the Tohoku area, told us about local carpenters who lost their homes and tools in the earthquake. This had led us to support local carpenters as our initial activity.

As we shared same profession, it was only natural for us to support the carpenters. We could have donated our money to the Red Cross or other charities, but we knew that the money would end up in their account which will be distributed equally to beneficiaries. We wouldn’t know where the money is going and what it was used for. Supporting carpenters however ensured us that our money was used to extend help where it was needed. So we sent five sets of carpenter’s tools, a total of 200,000 yen worth, to the carpenters in the area. We used twitter to quickly search for locations and persons we could send the tools so we could ship them in short time.

The carpenters to whom we donated the tools had lost almost everything in the tsunami. Most of them even did not have an address. Then later on we learned that a hotel in Kamaishi city of Iwate prefecture, called Nakamuraya Inn, was offering support to the local carpenters who had lost homes and tools. So we sent the tools to this inn and had the carpenters come pick them up.

Actually, local shelters like Nakamuraya Inn were found at many parts in Tohoku after the earthquake. The innkeeper of Horaikan, a hotel in Kamaishi city, is another example. Despite being a victim herself, the innkeeper was taking the leading role in the local relief efforts looking after everyone else. I find approaching key persons like her is the most effective way in offering emergency assistance.


From one-time help to long-term support

Shortly after the tool donation, around April-May in the same year, we visited Tohoku for one night to install “Reconstruction Assistance Domes”, temporary plywood shelters developed by the timber importer/wholesaler Tetsuya Japan Co., Ltd. These wooden shelters were very helpful as plywood supply was getting scarce due to reconstruction works being taken place throughout Tohoku. Tetsuya Japan kindly suggested providing the domes for free, but we decided to pay for the plywood so that the company could offer the installation jobs to the local carpenters.

At first the local carpenters told us they would find other professions after losing everything they had. But they were moved after seeing the gifted tools and the plywood domes and agreed to work for our project. What we did were small things like this. We are certain that we cannot make big contributions.

As a second project, the architect Mr. Yoshinobu Mizutani and Tetsuya Japan once again visited Tohoku, this time to build warehouses by the request of the local fishermen’s union. The fishermen wanted two warehouses, each about 157 square feet, so two domes were installed with a deck connecting them at the center. Of course the job was completed with perfection as it was done by an experienced architect.

I believe that supporting industries like the fishermen union is just as important as helping individual victims. What I think more meaningful are such activities that create multiple impacts, ones that would bring back jobs to the local citizens. When we formed our group to help individual victims in the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, we were constantly talking about how we could extend our support to revive local industry, such as chemical shoes (Japanese synthetic leather shoes) manufactures in the Nagata district where many houses and factories were destroyed. We felt very strong about saving the industry because it enables them to save jobs for many people, thereby saving their lives. Of course we don’t deny charity events. But it is not enough. We believe that relief efforts should be provided for the long-term.


The reconstruction project in Ashiya city of Hyogo

In Ashiya city, the public housing corporation was promoting the reconstruction of their housing in Minami Ashiya. I took charge of the design of the conference room in the new building. The prospective tenants of this new government sponsored condominium were mostly senior citizens who had lived in temporary housing for one to two years until the construction was finished. They hardly knew each other, so during the construction I organized a presentation about my construction plan and invited the prospective tenants to show them how the new conference room would look like.

Furthermore, we worked with artists to hold various art events in the new condominium, including the exhibition held at the lobby area of each building. Produced by Ms. Hashimoto, the director of Life & Culture Environment Research Corporation, these events were designed to provide to emotional encouragement to the new tenants as they start new life in their new house. We joined in these events as architects and attended the monthly event. These events were held continuously for about a couple of years after the construction was completed.


About my house

My own house was being constructed when the massive earthquake hit Hanshin-Awaji region in 1995. The foundation had been completed by the end of the previous year, and the earthquake struck just as the New Year holiday was ending. The house was built on the hill, and I still remember the view of the foot of the Mt. Rokko, with the sight of the city so flattened that I could see all the way through to the south, to the Osaka Bay. Instantly, many buildings in my neighborhood collapsed, and the town in the foot of the mountain was left severely damaged. I realized that a massive shock made the plate under the town side ground collide with the earth beneath the mountain, causing it to bounce back while gaining such intensity that it destroyed the whole area. I could also see the railway bridge of Hankyu train fallen down on the ground.

We stopped the construction for a while after the earthquake. But the construction was resumed in July that year, which was finished after one month. The contractors were very expensive as they were busy with fixing broken roofs of the victims’ houses. Nonetheless, I was very lucky to have found contractors who could work on my house. I think it was because the earthquake did not hit us as hard as the west side.

When my house was completed, the city had only started to build a few temporary housing units. So my house had become one of the very first examples of the post-earthquake buildings. Ever since then, I have been living in this house watching the city restore its life from the past.


The end of a mission

After half a year passed since the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, we were receiving fewer requests for emergency support and our activities slowed down.

We continued our activities. However, we started to hold Uozaki district meetings less frequently as time passes. At its initial phase we used to meet three times a month, then later this was changed to twice, and finally it became monthly. Although our network of architects is still present, our activities gradually diminished with lowering demand. I think it is the way how volunteer works.

When we reached to our 5th year since the foundation, the local government requested us to compile a report of our activities. This report was monumental for our group, giving us a good opportunity to review the achievements of our work.

By our 5th anniversary, I felt that the mission of the KVA has been completed. Over these years most members also had designed a few houses for the victims in Osaka and Kobe. We all contributed to the recovery of the city in our own way. I, too, had helped the reconstruction of some houses broken in the earthquake.

The volunteer activities reminded me of social responsibilities of building designers or architects. Some of us believe that our skills and knowledge are as critical as other first-responder in a disaster. In addition to providing design and consultation to reconstruction projects, it is also important for us to redefine our social and professional roles in order for our profession to thrive in society.


Running the group

Money was also a big challenge for all of us with lack of income due to many ongoing projects being suspended after the earthquake.

The KVA’s consultation to the earthquake victims were provided pro bono. A small budget was allocated to cover materials, but the transportation was paid out of the members’ own pocket. We collected a 1,000 yen donation from each member at every meeting to use it to cover phone bill and other running costs. Now there are many public grants, but at that time there were only a few.

Upon planning relief programs in Tohoku, we applied to Japan Foundation for a grant. Surprisingly, the application was accepted. We are using the money to conduct our grass root activities in the disaster area.

At its inauguration, KVA membership was solely comprised by professional architects. But after the Great East Japan Earthquake, we have started to work with local carpenters to gather ideas to develop temporary housings that only cost 500,000 yen each to make. We have also invited architect students to participate to this project. We received as much as 1 million yen for this long-term project, which was enough to build two houses. So we organized a small competition among our architects for pitching their design plans.


The network of architects in Kansai area

At KVA, architects gather here because they are interested in our group initiatives and various business opportunities, or because they just want to help. We have an email list of about 40 architects and use it to communicate with each other.

Our members do not necessary work in a group. Mr. Katsuhiro Miyamoto, for example, undertakes most activities on his own. He often emails me what he learned about the needs and situations during his field activities. So I submit a grant application to the fund and get money for his activities. This way we work as a team, though neither of us has really asked each other to be a partner.

The members have remained mostly the same as when we restarted our initiatives after the Great East Japan Earthquake. About a week past since the earthquake, a few of us met and reaffirmed that we were all on the same page- that we felt the urgency to do something. At first we developed an email list because we had a few things to discuss before using the grant from the HAR Fund. Then we invited members for a KVA meeting.

Once we go back to our office, each of us works independently. However, we are always ready to take action should something happen at any time. We fully understand the meaning of volunteer work. That is what it means to be a professional.


The earthquake and architects’ image

Mr. Shigeru Ban, who is known for his work of shelters and churches built with cardboard tubes for Kobe earthquake victims, has changed the social image of architects. Before this time, Kenzo Tange and Tadao Ando, or the stylish work of Kazuyo Sejima have represented the image of architects, and the philanthropic role of architects who serve the public, rather than private clients, was a new concept. Contribution by Mr. Ban and other architects after the earthquake transformed the image of architects. The KVA, as well, has started to engage in more projects to address public interests.

Japan has survived a number of earthquakes in the past. Community building and urban planning have always been the key topics after each earthquake.

If you think about it now, it is almost unbelievable that no one has ever offered help in the past. I am sure that people in the old times also would have wanted to lend a hand whenever a natural disaster, like volcano eruption, hit their town. The only difference from now is that they might not have had anyone who could take direct action. So we made a few phone calls and encouraged others to join us. Just a simple action like this and soon we were flooded with architects who wanted to help. This was where we started. We wanted to do something because we were guided by our spirit of volunteerism.

Initial research


January 24, 1995-May 1996; March 2011

Background & Objectives

Establishment of volunteer group of architects that offers professional assistance to post-earthquake recovery effort. Formed by 20-30 architects, the group’s initial activities were centered around the inspection of the victims’ houses to assess the damage level and provide appropriate advice.  


Dispatch professional architects to most underserved districts in disaster region.


Offered support to the projects for reconstructing public housings and market, telephone consultation for urban planning, as well as onsite housing inspections & consultation. Also was involved in the recovery effort of the Uozaki district in Higashi Nada Ward.

Partner organizations/companies

Architects in Kansai area


A help center was set up in Uozaki Elementary School with a canopy


Hyogo prefecture

Related articles: primary information

Association of restoring sake breweries in Nada
Hanshin Awaji Renaissance (HAR) Fund.