design as a humanitarian action

22 June 2023

Stock photos of Yasmeen Lari

“It’s often said it’s not the disaster that kills people, it’s the buildings that kill people. We have to use materials that mean that they will be safe even when the disasters occur. My attempt today is to see how I can avoid displacement for millions of people whenever a disaster strikes. If you could build structures that are climate resilient, and if everybody learned - and we could teach them - then they will be safe. And particularly, women and children will be safe. “ Yasmeen Lari

I was so thrilled to see that the 2023 RIBA Royal Gold Medal is Pakistan’s first female architect, and zero carbon activist, Yasmeen Lari.

Now in her 80s, Yasmeen’s tireless and selfless work in enabling and encouraging some of the poorest communities in the world to become self-sufficient in their housing and community needs through self-build - with women in the lead - is truly inspirational.

What she exemplifies is how the skills of an architect can be used for humanitarian good. The power of design, the power of listening. Indeed, her work to deliver zero carbon, climate resilient buildings in huge numbers, in a time of rapid urbanisation, and to meet the needs of the most deprived communities is arguably the most important work architects can do in this decade.

In enabling and empowering communities affected by natural disasters, as well as climate and conflict refugees, to create homes and shared structures for themselves, she has made them self-reliant. Instead of operating through the traditional charity model she has shown how listening to communities about what they need, and using design to solve those problems can enable and empower them to create their own structures. Her stories of women not only building their own homes, but decorating them with traditional crafts shows the ownership and pride they feel.

It has been amazing to see her extending her mission to apply these lessons in response to the victims of the Pakistan Flood Crisis, and to seize the opportunity to simultaneously inspire students from all over the world to join in, both in Pakistan and in their own communities.

I witnessed her extraordinary ability to calmly enthuse, educate and inspire those around her – me included - when it was my honour to introduce her talk ‘Saving humanity and saving the planet’, and to chair a Q&A session, at the RIBA in March 2022. After her lecture Yasmeen answered every question from the stage with kindness, knowledge and humility, and stayed on afterwards to answer questions from all those too shy to raise their hands. Yasmeen is such an inspirational architect and human being and is selflessly and tirelessly undertaking the most important work architects can do: enabling some of the poorest people, families and communities in the world find shelter, homes, dignity, and prosperity – often for the first time in their lives.

As an architect she practices with huge talent and ability, and is a role model for us all. She is perceptive, persuasive and fearless. But, in addition she is generous, compassionate, realistic and humble.

Her work as an architect, humanitarian, activist and game-changer is truly remarkable.

We were honoured to welcome her to our London Studio just a few days before she received the RIBA Gold Medal, and it was my privilege to jointly host a stimulating discussion with Harriet Wennberg of INTBAU, where she talked about the value of architecture. “When resources are missing, you need design, but also to work with communities to see what will work for them, and this is what architecture can bring.” We have taken that knowledge back into our daily work.

Geoff Rich

Join INTBAU Pakistan

Hear more from Yasmeen Lari

RIBA talk

TEDxBath talk


1. Yasmeen Lari

2 & 3. Yasmeen Lari in conversation at FCBStudios

4, 5 & 6. Bamboo and limecrete houses, built by the community. You can see the feeling of ownership by the intricate decorations on each, Pakistan