• © Eric Grigorian

October 17, 2018 | Alumni Spotlight

Leon Yacoubian

AGBU Armenia was my go-to organization when we fled from Syria. It has been instrumental in providing guidance and connections to launch my project to bring the city of Gyumri back to life.

Twenty-year-old Leon Yacoubian dreams of reviving Armenian cities and villages through housing design that embodies the core values, preferences and needs of the residents themselves.  A senior at the University of Virginia, Yacoubian majors in civil engineering and heads Engineers Going Global, a student organization focusing on sustainable engineering.

In 2014, Yacoubian launched Tuff Armenia to design housing for residents of Gyumri, Armenia displaced by the devastating earthquake of 1988. Almost three decades later, approximately 2,000 families are still struggling in makeshift homes called domiks.  For the second year in a row, the Tuff Armenia interdisciplinary team of University of Virginia students visited Gyumri to do field work and collect data.

In an online interview, Yacoubian elaborated on the Tuff Armenia mission, its challenges and successes.

It’s been thirty years since the earthquake devastated the city of Gyumri. What’s taking it so long to get back on its feet?

There were NGOs that tried to help Gyumri, but they failed to adequately engage the residents in the process. In contrast, the Tuff Armenia team works directly with the people living in their makeshift homes. Community-based co-design is an approach that engineers use to better understand and illustrate the values of a group of people. This helps inform our approach to housing design and ensure sustainable development, which is at the core of the mission. The project isn’t revolutionary; just the process is different.

What does “tuff “mean in the name Tuff Armenia?

I see a city as a thriving and lively entity. But that can’t happen for any city without first assessing and tackling its seismic hazards. Tuff is a popular building and masonry material in the region that became a distinguishing feature of Armenian architecture. We sent three types of tuff for testing to identify which was strongest. Then we find methods of making the stone more earthquake resistant and energy efficient. 

Why did you gravitate toward Gyumri for your housing design project?

I was drawn to Gyumri because it relates to my personal experience back in Syria. As the war there escalated and everything around us crumbled, we had to flee. My family wound up settling in Armenia. I had the opportunity to study at the University of Virginia. But I didn’t forget what I had experienced in Syria or saw in Armenia.

What assistance have you received to get Tuff Armenia off the ground?

The unique nature of the project earned us two awards from the University of Virginia, the 2017 Jefferson Public Citizen Award for $20,000 and the Center for Global Health University Scholar Award of $10,000. Tuff Armenia will donate the housing design to the community. We hope our local partners will step in, take over the project and kick off construction in 2018.

How did AGBU Armenia get involved with Tuff Armenia?

My family always had strong ties with AGBU. In fact, I was a member of AGBU scouting groups back in Syria and in Armenia. I also took part in the AGBU Discover Armenia program. AGBU Armenia has been instrumental in providing guidance and connecting us to our partners—the Shirak Center and Gyumri Project Hope.

What else should we know about Tuff Armenia?

Leidy Klotz, an associate professor of architecture and civil and environmental engineering at the University of Virginia will transform Tuff Armenia into a course and teach it during 2017-18 academic year.  I think that speaks volumes for the encouragement and support this project has received in academic circles. Yet it’s not theoretical; we are making changes on the ground and impacting lives for the better.

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