During last year's conflict in Kosovo, it is believed at least 80,000 houses were damaged or destroyed, as were many public buildings such as schools and clinics.
Now that most refugees from Kosovo are returning, efforts are being made to ensure that most people have a roof over their heads. But making sure every returnee has a home before winter sets in will not be easy.
What is needed is a plan that will help people rebuild their own houses quickly, cheaply and simply. Markus Mosimann, an architect from Berne, thinks he has just the scheme.
Mosimann's firm specialises in building houses from wood, and although his customers are mainly Swiss professionals who want a house that's a little bit special, Mosimann is keen to use his skills and experience to help rebuild houses in Kosovo.
"Wood has great advantages," he says. "It is durable and easily maintained, and not expensive. Above all wooden houses are suitable for building yourself."
Mosimann and his colleagues have developed a simple plan which involves taking excess wood from December's storm, transporting it to Kosovo, and using it to rebuild houses on the foundations of ones destroyed during the conflict. At the same time, the expertise of the Swiss architects will be used to ensure that the technical requirements are met.
"The way it works is that a trained person in Kosovo will measure the foundations of the destroyed houses, and then email all the information to us in Berne," explains Mosimann. "Then we will plan a new wooden house on the computer; we will work out all the necessary specifications, how much wood of what size and so on, and in two days we will have a building plan ready to email back. Then everything can be cut to measure at our workshop in Kosovo, and the beauty of it is, it only needs four people to build the house, and no lifting equipment such as cranes or anything like that."
Mosimann is already training Kosovars to cut wood to measure at his workshop in Berne; the hope is that they will then set up a workshop in Kosovo, complete with computer, so that they can keep in touch with the Berne office, and provide local people with the technical back-up they need to rebuild their houses. Mosimann estimates each house should take around four days to build, once the plans have been sent from Berne.
So far Mosimann has had keen interest from a number of aid agencies working in Kosovo, who would like to support his project. "But," he adds, "they all want to see commitment from another agency before they will commit themselves."
Still, the Swiss development agency has said it will support the setting up of a workshop in Kosovo, and Mosimann hopes his project will get off the ground, if only modestly at first.
"It's a very practical project," he continues. "It will provide durable homes cheaply and it will create jobs locally."
Mosimann's firm will not be making a profit out of his plan, however big it gets. Rather, he and his colleagues are motivated by their love of wood, and by their conviction that it is an ideal material for house building. What Markus Mosimann really hopes to gain from his project is greater acceptance for this.
"We love wood," he says, "and we know that wood makes very good houses; nearly all our employees live in wooden houses and are very comfortable. So it would make us happy if some of the people in Kosovo, after all the traumatic experiences they have had, could start their lives again in wooden houses, with a little help from us.'
by Imogen Foulkes
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