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Rebuilding a Nation - Post-War Ukraine and its Forthcoming Resurrection

kyiv monument bridge, the angle shows a horseman statue overlooking bogdan

Kyiv, Monument to Bogdan Khmelnitsky, Алексей Белобородов, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Witnessing the assault on Ukraine over the past two years has been nothing short of horrifying. The fact that in this day and age, a civilized society has to fight for its very existence is shameful. Yet here we are.  

The war has stagnated. Russia has gained much in regard to support and supply, but they're reportedly wasting the newly received munitions on well-dug-in and spread-out Ukrainian positions. And thankfully, for the most part, they still fail to coordinate their assets efficiently despite having a boon in ammo. 

On the other side of the lines, many Ukrainian allies are staging to be dragged into the conflict. The French are suggesting boots on the ground, and the Germans are building factories on Ukrainian soil. Both of these moves would place EU assets in areas prone to Russian attack, which, if hit by Russians, would heighten public support for EU escalation and intervention. 

Yet, in spite of the war lies Ukraine's future–a future no doubt characterized by resilience and rebirth. The Ukrainians will live and thrive despite their proximity to tyranny. They've done it before without worldly support, and they will do it again; it's only a matter of time. 

Before the invasion, Ukraine was a flourishing nation renowned for IT outsourcing and agriculture, boasting highly skilled developers and significant grain yields. Moreover, it still has an abundance of natural resources. These minerals–coupled with the educated and skilled populace–give Ukraine incredible constructive potential. Put simply, the Ukrainians have been investing in themselves, acquiring all the skills they need to sprout from this rubble. 

The Eastern Oblasts are the Ukrainian lands most affected by the war. They will require the most effort to rebuild. The Industrial centers there are/were Kharkiv and Donetsk, and their history was shaped by urbanization. The local people traditionally favoured brick and masonry construction, reflecting both Ukrainian architecture and Soviet-era urban planning. Whether the people are eager to carry on the Soviet traditions is up for debate, but regardless of wishes or ideology, the initial work will have to be practical. 

Kharkiv building showing its wonderful round and consistent architecture

Kharkiv, Adam Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Odesa and Crimea, on the other hand, have different building traditions. Techniques such as dry stone masonry or lime mortar construction are the norm, and there are few reasons for drastically changing their ways–if any. However, due to the change in weather and even shorelines, they will need to reconsider where they build and perhaps even use stilts in some newly flooded regions.

Regional solutions aside, let's discuss potential strategy. By zooming out, we can grasp what kind of backing and support rebuilding a nation requires–let alone rebuilding a city. This broad perspective gives us a chance to look at the past and future. And we need not look far for inspiration; there are many shoulders of the past to stand on.

West Germany, for instance, did wonders with its rubble and the Marshall Plan. Its industrious people were eager to rebuild what their former Nazi leaders had gambled on the world stage. They were so eager that they surpassed the most hopeful predictions of the Allied high command.

The Germans did this by using recycled building materials and local techniques to rebuild their infrastructure rapidly. This pragmatism, combined with incredible civics, increased their GDP by 10 percent in just four years. They also developed creative investment strategies and reinvested the 1 billion (22 billion in modern currency) received from the plan into many of their industries, increasing their trade at an unparalleled rate.

Germans help rebuild their country in this old black and white image a man moves bricks with a shovel with a large smile. Rubble and destruction can be seen around him

West Berlin, Germany, Marshall Plan aid to Germany, User St.Krekeler on de.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, Ukraine's reconstruction is estimated to cost 3 trillion dollars, yet we shouldn't let this discourage us. Germany's reconstruction was also priceless when viewed from the valley. It cost an estimated 270 billion, or 4.6 trillion dollars today, to rebuild Germany into the economic powerhouse we know. 

One of the tasks baked into the estimated rebuilding cost is decontamination and ordnance disposal. Ukraine currently has 70,000 square miles of mined territory and corrupted land speckled with packaged energy. We could draw some parallels to Germany's tainted rubble, but their issue differed in some respects from Ukraine's. Ukraine has vast agricultural blasts to de-mine. It's over twice the size of West Germany. This territory compounds explosive removal issues with its distances, topography, and muddy war-churned quagmires. 

Yet, despite the gloom, the recovery process has already begun. Farmers are pragmatically clearing fields as we speak with remotely driven vehicles that take most of the risks. Life has hardly stopped for the farmers; quite the contrary, they're now needed more than ever to nourish the warriors and fund a future.  

Like the farmers, Ukrainian officials are embracing the new to prosper. Tasting the fruits of a free economy, they are exporting anything and everything they can under these dire restrictive circumstances. This is essentially what they need to do to survive: build, produce, sell, and ultimately prosper. But not necessarily in that order. The West Germans consistently built everything up and used each discipline to support the other:

  • Infrastructure to support industry

  • Industry to support trade

  • Trade to refinance infrastructure 

Now, WWII solutions are a great inspiration, but they're nearly 80 years old, and much has been invented since. So, what can Ukrainians use today to rebuild their infrastructure? For these highly specialized answers, I went to the University of Toronto's Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. There, I spoke with architect and urban designer Craig Applegath (partner at the integrated design practice DIALOG), and building science consultant and professor Alex Lukachko. Seeking potential, the first question I asked was: 

Jordan: Are there new building materials or systems Ukraine could use to ease their burden that weren't available during the Marshall Plan? 

Craig: “As they say, ‘What's old is new again!’ I would suggest that many of the traditional Ukrainian construction methods, including stone, brick, clay tile, and timber frame construction, will be as effective now as they were 100 to 200 years ago. The brick buildings could use recycled materials from the many neighbourhoods the Russians have criminally bombed to the ground.

However, you asked about new kinds of building materials that weren't available at the time of the Marshall Plan. Well, I can think of one new structural system, one new power system, and one new heating and cooling system that are improvements on mid-1940s systems. 

Mass Timber is a new structural system that is quite recent. Mass Timber is a structural building material fabricated from wood pieces or “lamella” glued together under pressure to form larger structural elements such as floor or roof decks as well as structural columns and beams. Given Ukraine's significant forest industry, mass timber could be an excellent structural system.  

The new power system is photovoltaic power, which uses sunlight to generate zero-carbon electrical power for buildings below the cost of coal, natural gas, or nuclear power. 

Heat-pump systems are also much more efficient than 40s solutions to heating. They allow users to leverage electrical power to both heat and cool their buildings. This is certainly a game-changer.” 

Alex: “I'd agree with what Craig has said here. In pretty much all parts of the world, there is a resurgence of interest in both "old" materials–because of their durability and, in many cases, local sourcing–and the reuse of materials in general. Europe has been ahead of North America in establishing a circular system for the reuse of materials. And I'd expect that these trends would connect in rebuilding communities in Ukraine to their long-term advantage.

Photovoltaic panels to generate electricity would go hand-in-hand with the establishment of a decentralized power grid. This is another trend that has obvious benefits for building resilient, independent communities, and aligns with the direction that we are moving globally to reduce environmental impact.”

Jordan: As unfortunate as it may be, Ukraine will have a clean slate to create something new in many areas. What sort of new techniques and designs can we apply in Ukraine that would be impossible in built-up urban centers in other parts of the globe?

Craig: “In addition to looking for ways to use building materials left behind from buildings destroyed in the war, I think that Ukrainian towns and cities have an opportunity to explore how to design mid-rise buildings to recreate the traditional urban structure of their towns and cities. This is not just for aesthetic or historical reasons, although those are themselves important reasons, but because 4 to 6-storey buildings are much more resilient to the shocks and stresses that come along with severe storm events and heat events than taller buildings. For example, the increase in the number and intensity of severe storm events that will come with a warming climate will put significant stress on Ukraine's electrical grid, with a greater likelihood of power outages. Power outages are a problem for tall buildings because outages shut down elevators and domestic water pumps. This means people living on the higher floors are cut off from the ground and without water. Whereas, in medium-rise buildings, five or 6 stories, using the stairs is not that difficult, and typically, the water main service will provide enough pressure to get water to the upper floors without electrical pumping. These mid-rise buildings can also be provided with operable windows and be designed for cross-ventilation, which will provide ventilation if there is no power for the air-conditioners.”

Jordan: Are there new issues that weren't apparent during the Marshal Plan that the Ukrainians need to consider in order to guarantee support, supplies, and smooth investment by multinational firms? 

Craig: “Unlike the reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War, Ukraine, like the rest of the world, now faces the existential challenge of climate disruption caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This means that not only will Ukraine have to rebuild all of the buildings and infrastructure damaged or destroyed by the war, but they should do it in such a way that prepares them for the escalating impacts of climate change.”

Alex: “But as they say, the devil is in the details, so I want to insert a cautionary note here on rebuilding with outside help–however well-intentioned. In the late 2000s, I worked on a couple of long-term recovery efforts for communities in the United States that had been affected by weather-related disasters. There was strong interest at the time–from people and agencies external to the community–in rebuilding with the best possible sustainable building practices, using new materials and systems, and new design and construction techniques. What ended up happening is that these outside interests effectively paused the most immediate need for the community: to rebuild, to recover, and to resume their lives. 

I think that it is really important to have community-led efforts… or at least very strong engagement by external partners with understanding both the community needs, but also the preferences and local capabilities around materials and techniques. But I think that as we learn more about how we need to build to address the long-term–community wellbeing and climate adaptation–doing it locally is a big part of the solution." 

Jordan: Since you mentioned the impending and costly issues associated with climate change, what would you say are the most important impacts that should be considered during the rebuilding of Ukraine?      

Craig: "With respect to buildings and infrastructure, the impacts will vary by location, but the most important climate change impacts that must be considered, planned and designed for include:

  • Severe heat events

  • Severe storm events

  • Flooding from storm events

  • Smoke from forest fires

  • Severe ice and snowstorm events

  • Droughts

In addition to the above are all of the knock-on effects, including changing disease vectors (e.g. Mosquitoes that carry malaria and ticks that carry Lyme's disease).” 

Jordan: Leveraging everything you've seen and learned over the years, what makes you so convinced Ukraine needs to build with climate change in mind? 

Craig: “Ukraine is now in the throes of the existential challenge of pushing the Russian forces out of Ukraine and securing their borders. I have no doubt Ukraine will be successful in doing so. It's just a matter of time. Once they have cleared their lands of the Russian invaders, the first order of business is clearing their lands of the refuse of war and the especially difficult task of clearing out the millions of land mines left behind. Then, the rebuilding of Ukraine can commence. 

In this task, the people of Ukraine have the important job of not only redeveloping to replace lost building stock and infrastructure but also in a way that is low cost and low carbon in order to secure support from all the nations and investors. The newly built environments should be able to adapt to future climate change. 

After all, Rebuilding after the devastation of the war can be done in a way that leaves a nation more resilient to the future than any other. Furthermore, many legacy building practices have proven inefficient when compared to contemporary low-carbon building techniques, and these contemporary techniques already consider carbon footprints and climate change. This means using contemporary low-carbon building techniques in every regard would synergize the whole process.  

One key aspect of this low carbon reconstruction would be energy self-sufficiency at the building or community level. More use of local solar, wind, water and ground-source energies. That change alone may help Ukrainian communities avoid dependence on fossil fuel or uranium-fed central power stations.  

Essentially, the long-term recovery of communities devastated by this war must be the first priority. If we are going to help, we need to take care of people first and listen to what they need and how they would like to take back control of their future. Yet this isn't mutually exclusive; along with helping the Ukrainians first, we can help them develop methods that will mitigate impending hardships in the future. There is no better time to use the world's wisdom to help a wounded nation that is such an integral part of the world's food supply and heritage. 

To my mind, Ukraine now stands as a shining example of a democratic nation that is successfully meeting the terrible existential challenge of defending itself against an unprovoked invasion by its neighbour, Russia. When this terrible war is over and Ukraine begins rebuilding itself, it also has the opportunity to be a shining example for the world of how we might build communities and cities that are both adapted to the escalating impacts of climate change and are also low carbon to mitigate making the planet any worse. 

Moreover, all of the insights and innovations that Ukraine develops in doing this will make them leaders in the world and allow them to export their knowledge and expertise.”

Since both Craig and Alex stressed the importance of climate change, I wanted to get a better idea of what that means for Ukrainians. To that end, I spoke with Brandon Law; Brandon provides transitional and physical risk consulting services, builds climate assessment tools, and has completed hundreds of building-level climate resiliency assessments. 

Jordan: Could you provide specific examples of Ukrainian regions particularly vulnerable to climate change and the difficulties they will face in the following decades?  

Brandon: “Ukraine mainly has a temperate continental climate, except for the southern coast of Crimea, which has a subtropical Mediterranean climate. The western and northwestern regions have moderate humidity and are relatively moist, whereas the southern and southeastern areas exhibit less rainfall and slightly higher temperatures.

a graph representing the observed annual average mean surface temperature of Ukraine for 1901-2022. The temperature rises significantly from 2001 to 2022

Observed Annual Average Mean Surface Air Temperature of Ukraine, World Bank, free for commercial use

Climate change is making Ukraine increasingly vulnerable to storms and flooding–both riverine flooding and overland flooding from Ukraine's extensive network of rivers. It is also expected to see increased frequency and severity of droughts and wildfires, mostly as a byproduct of increasingly variable precipitation patterns and warmer temperatures.”

Jordan:  Are there any reforms taking place worldwide that could be implemented in Ukraine to combat similar issues?

Brandon: “While a warming climate may result in improved crop yields in Ukraine's colder and humid north, heat and water scarcity is anticipated to negatively impact the south. To protect Ukraine's important agriculture sector, attention should be given to identifying areas that would benefit from localized protection, crop shifting, or repurposing. Increased education and programs around water conservation and soil management will also need to be prioritized. 

As homes and buildings are rebuilt, repaired, and retrofitted, improved resiliency to local climate change vulnerabilities should be prioritized. This should include, at a minimum:

  • Wherever possible, avoid the rebuilding of homes and buildings in areas that are highly vulnerable to flooding.

  • In areas vulnerable to flooding, ensure that assessments are performed to inform the extent to which the first floor should be raised, the design of the superstructure and foundation to ensure adequate resistance to any flood-related forces, and the design, selection, and placement of all building components (e.g., electrical, HVAC, and water-resistant finishes).

  • Integration of air conditioning throughout the entire building, or at the very least, creating areas of refuge.

  • Integrating backup generators that serve at least key building systems (e.g. security systems, domestic water pumps, sump pumps, and at least one elevator).” Brandon Law

After speaking with Craig and Alex, it's clear contemporary building technology offers impressive options for the Ukrainians. Better yet, these techniques, materials, and appliances can harmonize with tradition and allow buildings to produce much of what they use for heating and cooling.

It's also comforting to hear Brandon's adaptations for climate change, particularly for Ukraine's diverse complications. Sure, many will have to rethink their current location or heavily adapt, but others will gain access to fertile soil and new opportunities. 

Yet, despite all the potential options, availability will drive most decisions. Ultimately, the Ukrainians will dig, prioritize, and build at whatever they can by any means available. However, if after the war, the world supports them as well as it did during, then they will have many more ways to build their new home, school, or community auspiciously. 

The bottom line is humanity has rebuilt before, and Ukrainians aren't short on any of the traits required for such an undertaking. Like West Germany in the 1940s, Ukraine has a massive labour force, capable land, and a history of ingenuity. As Craig stated, Ukrainians are not only in a position to halt tyranny in its tracks, but they can evolve and rebuild for a new tomorrow, becoming a beacon of hope twice over. 

By leveraging tradition, hard work, and contemporary advancements, Ukrainians can not only mitigate the effects of their changing world but also become more energy-independent and subsequently prosperous with newfound efficiencies. Their salvation may be hard to glimpse in the shroud of war, but this war will not defeat them nor deny their imminent resurrection. Ukraine will live, Ukraine will build, and Ukraine will thrive. 


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