UN places order for 1,000 next-generation flat-pack refugee shelters

The Better Shelter is a flat-pack refugee shelter that costs three times more than the traditional tent, but lasts up to 40 times longer. It was developed with a grant from the Ikea foundation.

The shelters have rigid walls, locking doors, mosquito nets, and integrated solar panels and lights; they're made of light steel and plastic and have 17.5m of floorspace. The first 1,000 (a pilot project) are destined for displaced people in Ethiopia and Iraq.

Refugee technology sucks, generally. Best practices for housing refugees were codified in the mid-forties when US military surplus materials were used to house Europe's displaced. Current refugee tech mostly consists of replica 1940s US military tents, like a kind of awful MASH ren faire. This means that it's possible to make some big improvements to refugee technology with modest investment and innovation.

The Better Shelter looks like a thoughtful, well-designed product. But it should be contrasted with other designs for housing the great masses of refugees that war and climate change (related phenomena) will send packing over the decades to come. My favorite of these is the Hexayurt, which has two enormous advantages relative to Better Shelter:

1. It is made out of minimally modified commodity parts, which are already available all over the world. There are supplies of 4x8 plywood or insulation sheets everywhere, which can be quickly mobilized to the places where refugees go (or are sent). You don't need to tool up a factory to produce shelter materials before you can start housing people.

2. It is open source. Refugees are varied, their situations are varied and their needs are varied. Refugees are skilled and thoughtful about their situation, and when it comes to shelter design, they have more skin in the game than anyone else. That means that the improvements that refugees make to their shelters can quickly spread to other camps and sites, making the whole thing better, faster. Open source shelter is something that refugees do, not something that is done to them.

In defense of the better shelter, it is more rigid, it locks, and its integrated lights and nets are hugely important. Getting those features into open source designs would be an enormous improvement.

"We have received regular feedback from families living in the structures, and we made sure we incorporated their comments in our design.”

At a cost of US$1,150 each, the shelters cost three times more than a standard UNHCR tent, but while tents are designed to last for just six months, these new shelters last for a minimum of three years in harsh conditions, and up to 20 years in more temperate climates.

“They may cost more initially, but they last a lot longer and are therefore better value,” Olivier Delarue, UNHCR Innovation lead told IRIN.

He added: “This is a real example of how the private sector and public sectors can come together to make something new. UNHCR shouldn’t be designing shelters, we should be harnessing the expertise of others, and who better to make a flat-pack shelter than IKEA.”

10,000 flat-pack IKEA shelters for Iraqi displaced
[Louise Redvers/Irin]

(Thanks, Jeff!)