• hannah wood

emergency shelter

housing for the age of mass displacement

today, forced displacement affects more people than any crisis or conflict. According to the UN, 65.3 million people, or one person in every 113, is now internally or externally displaced. The average time families remain in emergency accommodation is now 17 years, longer than the average US house buyer will stay in their home. No longer temporary but not yet a city, these ‘camps’ are where millions of children will grow up. In this month’s feature we speak to architects working with the concept of emergency shelter to find out how they are approaching the issue. An overview will be provided by former UNHCR official Kilian Kleinschmidt, now director of Switxboard, who will discuss where and how input from the design disciplines would be most welcomed.

“Refugee camps are becoming storage facilities for people,” Kleinschmidt explains to me over the phone. “The average camp stay is 17 years. That’s a generation.” Today, acute crises such as conflict, drought and economic instability are causing more people to leave their homes in search of respite than ever before. This, coupled with the rate at which solutions for both the internally and externally displaced falling year on year since the end of the Cold War, is leaving a growing number of communities in limbo with governments and other aid organizations often unable to supply adequate infrastructure to support them.

In part due to conflicts resulting in significant outflows of displaced people (such as the tragedy in Syria) becoming more protracted and prolific and communication technology enabling personal travel, unprecedented numbers of displaced people are now seeking assistance. Kleinschmidt has witnessed international aid organizations and the authorities on the ground stretched to breaking point. “I think we have reached a dead end where the humanitarian agencies cannot cope with the crisis,” he explains, “we’re doing humanitarian aid as we did 70 years ago after the Second World War. Nothing has changed.”

To date, various architects and designers have picked up on the issue of global mass displacement, so I went in search of projects at different stages of development. What design parameters are studios dealing with? Are their projects robust enough for real-world deployment?

Studio Suisse, a small design firm working from a top floor studio in the Merchant City District of Glasgow, were shocked by the scale of the crisis they witnessed on the news. “An unbelievable 59.9 million people, through no fault of their own, are currently displaced or in transit. Half of those are children. They need shelter and they need it quickly. As designers, we want to do something about that,” writes co-founder Paul Grey on their blog. Suisse responded by beginning to develop a prototype rapid deployment shelter — the rd-shelter — which can be flatpacked and transported to site to provide accommodation for a displaced family. Working through sketches and 1:10 models, they are developing a housing solution which prioritizes ease of transportation and speed of installation.

Another group engaged with the issue are Architects for Society, a US-based international nonprofit and designers of the Hex House, a 510 square foot dwelling for ‘long-term flexible occupation’. I asked Amro Sallam, founder of the organization, to describe their response. “The majority of the world’s population live in terrible housing stock with inadequate services, if any,” he explains, “and the recent refugee crisis has accelerated the need for equitable housing. This demand is not expected to slow, therefore the issue of human displacement is at the center of our mission.” Their vision for the Hex House is not only to build homes, but also to initiate localized manufacturing in disaster-stricken areas to encourage self-sufficiency in the construction and maintenance of the homes. One Hex House has a footprint of 51 square feet and, in the US, a unit is priced at around $35,000 — $40,000. (Amro Sallam explains pilot builds are currently underway in South Africa and Argentina with an aim to secure accurate tenders for other contexts).

Hex Houses are constructed of structural insulated panels supported by either a steel or wood structural frame — common in US homebuilding — and can last up to 50 years with sufficient maintenance. When an increased density of homes are required, Sallam suggests the buildings can be tessellated to share walls so that the footprint of each unit is minimized to 215 square feet, with kitchens and bathroom facilities outsourced into a shared communal block. “The Hex House is designed as a dignified home, not a shelter,” Amro explains, “with the understanding that people live in protracted temporary living situations. We are therefore careful to design a home that is well lit, ventilated, and guarded against flooding. The homes’ hexagonal shape allows for optimum modularity where units can be clustered to create shared exterior spaces and promote social engagement.”

For some designers, energy efficiency, efficient living and reducing the spread of disease are the most critical aspects to design into an emergency shelter. SURI shelter units, by the research and development unit at Urbana de Exteriores, develop the trend witnessed in Europe for shipping container living. In their press pack they cite a “62.6% saving in energy demand for temperature management as compared to traditional metal containers.” SURI shelters also include inbuilt solar panels and rainwater collection, which filters into drinkable water to “maintain proper hygiene standards in order to prevent the spread of disease.” Similarly, Designnobis, a product design and consultancy firm based in Turkey — now the country with the greatest number of newly displaced people, over 2.9 million according to the UN — have designed the Tentative Shelter, which utilizes space conservation to keep costs lower than many of the projects I had seen so far, around $2500 per shelter (dependent on the number of units commissioned). One shelter occupies a floor space of just 8 square meters, which can be transformed to include a bunkbed and select furniture.

I spoke to the lead designer of the Tentative Shelter, Hakan Gürsu, who has worked with temporary accommodation for over thirty years. “Obviously, there are large scale societal problems which cannot be solved by temporary housing,” he tells me, “but as we search for ways to ease these transitions, we also need safe, practical housing for short-term solutions.” The Tentative Shelter is mostly constructed from GRP (glass reinforced plastic) with perlite insulation (which has flame retardant qualities). Like Suisse’s rd-shelter, it can be flat-packed so that up to 24 units can be transported by an individual truck. Tentative Shelters have been designed for a usage period of 3–4 months, but Hakan Gürsu acknowledged the longevity of many camp situations might wholly outweigh this. “We foresee 5–10 years longevity for the shelters,” he suggests.

Elizabeth Wagemann, architect and PHD researcher at the University of Cambridge, takes a different approach, taking her starting point from vernacular structures and building methods developed from a specific context. In collaboration with researchers Ana Gatóo (specialist in natural materials and structures) and Michael H. Ramage (head of the Centre for Natural Material Innovation at Cambridge), they have developed Bahay Kawayan, for application in the Philippines. One dwelling can last two years unmaintained or up to ten years with adequate maintenance (such as preventing the bamboo getting wet, fixing the joints, and repairing the thatched roof). In the UK, a Bahay Kawayan house is costed at $4584, or $642 in a Philippine context. Wagemann began her research studying how people in mining camps adapt to extreme environments and then went on to specialize in housing for tough conditions. She explained to me her frustration with one-size-fits-all prototypes when it comes to emergency housing. “Whether permanent or transitional, [the design of a house] should reflect local culture and traditions, and therefore we are against one-size-fits-all models,” she explains, “I believe architects have an important role (…) to work with communities towards sustainable solutions, rather than producing non-contextual and pre-packaged solutions.”

I also spoke to Costa Rican architect César Oreamuno, who explored the mass migration crisis as part of his graduate thesis. His project, the Living Shelter, adapts to form a number of internal configurations. “My focus as an architect is about improving the quality of people’s lives,” he tells me, “in 2013 when hurricane Yolanda struck the Philippines, the news reported that the number of displaced people exceeded 3 million and there were thousands of people stuck in evacuation centers. Weeks after the event the news did not say any more about it. What happened to all the people affected by the hurricane?” César Oreamuno suggests the Living Shelter might have other applications beyond domestic use, such as a logistics cubicle with internet access, a health center or food storage unit. Each shelter has been designed to be installed in three hours by three people and he predicts each shelter could last up to 25 years, acknowledging the current climate. “There have been cases where, because basic needs were not addressed quickly, refugee camps have been transformed into marginal areas,” he explains.

I was curious how these shelter proposals would fit with Kilian Kleinschmidt’s extensive experience in the field working with displaced communities (he was most recently stationed in Za’atari, the world’s largest refugee camp in Jordan, and has previously worked in a multitude of conflict areas across the globe during his time at the UN). When and how is architects’ and designers’ input most useful? What are the most important aspects of a temporary shelter design to focus on, or should temporary shelters be the focus at all? Kleinschmidt put forward to me that those eager to engage with mass displacement should be conscious of the different stages of a displacement crisis. Organizations commissioning emergency housing, including the UN, operate almost entirely on these timescales. From our conversation, they could be described as:

1. first point of call In the urgent hours after a disaster, whether environmental or political, or when displaced people arrive in a new area, the first step is to get a roof over their heads — fast. Plastic sheeting, or similar, is often be the best option, and cannot cost more than $12–14 per sheet. “The logistics, supply lines and cost are the three most important factors in this stage,” suggests Kleinschmidt, “the solution must respond to a mass requirement and be adaptable for solutions all over the world.”

2. temporary solution: ‘the tent’ Kleinschmidt suggests agencies would not be interested in deploying anything which costs more than $200-$500 per family, and would again need to be available en-masse to sites with different weather and climatic conditions. “Cost effectiveness is one of, if not the main consideration for organizations on the ground commissioning the shelters,” Kleinschmidt suggests, “aid organizations such as the UN are unlikely to deploy high-cost solutions.” He told me a container company once contacted him proposing to supply shelter solutions for $10,000-$12,000 per unit, which was completely out of the question.

3. the Shelter This is the stage when ‘camps’ (or other districts of temporary housing) remain inhabited longer than predicted, for example when alternative options have not been provided by the authorities, or governments have not carried out directives to have them cleared. To gain a deeper understanding about this stage of the process, Kleinschmidt refers readers to the UNHCR Handbook for Emergencies. Here, acceptable housing solutions should be tailored to the specific cultural and environmental requirements of the region.

4. when camp becomes home This final condition — which is becoming increasingly prevalent in many situations globally due not only to the number of displaced people but also a lack urban housing coupled with high rents — is when communities are forced to remain in temporary accommodation. Housing in this stage must prioritize longevity and consider environmental impact and community services, while acknowledging the political situation may well still be vicarious.

So what happens when clusters of emergency housing become informal cities? A design firm who has recognized that vast numbers of displaced people are currently occupying existing buildings within cities is the Canada-based Molo Design. Their response, ‘Softshelter’, forms a series of craft paper internal walls which can be adapted to give a limited amount of privacy to many families occupying the same building, cases of which were repeatedly reported in southern Europe. The Softshelter walls can expand and contract, and reach 15’ in length (4.5m). Molo have priced the 15’ Softshelter walls at $1000-$1300 (retail).

If the concept of ‘temporary settlements’ is to be extended to include informal urbanization, which currently absorbs a vast number of those displaced, the quality of the built environment in such city districts is set to affect around a third of the world’s population by 2050. “The best input architects and urban planners can offer is to help people on the ground not to make mistakes,” Kleinschmidt tells me. He believes innovation should be directed at the final stage of the process, when the camp becomes home, through developing responsive and adaptive city planning and building techniques which conserve energy and lower maintenance costs.

A key factor to consider when taking on an emergency shelter design project might therefore be somewhat simple: will it be used by people in transit, or is this the final destination? From my conversation with Killian Kleinschmidt, it seems like designers should almost entirely stay away from accommodation for transit, indeed almost any new-build solutions whatsoever, unless they have the ability to put forward something very, very cheap. Instead, to have at the forefront of one’s mind: “Can this space be adapted if people get stuck in a temporary situation?” and, “What reasons might lead to displaced people not having the ability to move on beyond the camp?” If we are to take the European situation as an example, a chronic lack of affordable urban homebuilding has been prevalent for decades, which has only exacerbated the mass displacement crisis (but that is an entire other article).

During my conversation with Kilian Kleinschmidt, he also stressed the need for those in transit to be at the forefront of the decision-making process where possible. He suggested numerous examples — too many to name here — of innovative initiatives which had fallen short as users had been factored out of initial conversations. As might be expected, innovation is still coming from the ground up. While working in Za’atari, Kleinschmidt witnessed refugees reorganizing their own living situations by reusing materials while simultaneously developing modes of entrepreneurship, which spurred his decision to develop Switxboard — an agency that facilitates resources to be distributed effectively cross-borders.

Also, after the 2006 earthquake in Pakistan, he saw camp dwellers begin to construct communal structures of bamboo around deployed canvas units, forming a basic communal shelter, which could then be adapted. He also mentioned local organizsations supporting displaced groups develop agency over their living situation, such as the German organization Refugee Open Cities.

While the part architects may play in addressing the issue of accommodating mass migration and displacement has been the focus of this feature, it does not mean to overlook the fact that other bodies, including government agencies and international organizations — not discounting the real estate industry — possess a divisive role. Infrastructure and services, such as sanitation, are fundamental for a healthy community, but they are difficult, if not impossible to install without a political will to make a temporary settlement (informal or planned) permanent.

I was interested in the view of international platform Architecture for Refugees, co-founded by architect Bence Komlosi in 2015 to collate design projects with the common thread of serving those displaced or in transit. “I am no expert in shelter design,” he admits, “but I wanted to develop a kind of ‘Wikipedia’ for the refugee situation to start to analyze different propositions.” Bence advocates a ‘just do it’ approach — that the culmination of small interventions may add up to something great. “We need to evolve from a culture of waiting to a culture of care,” he suggests, “where emergency housing projects are located and how they should be need to be topics of discussion.” When I asked how architects and designers might deal with the political insecurities surrounding the design and commissioning of emergency housing, he recommends that designers “do as good as we can,” and that the main first steps are to become involved and collaborate. “There is plenty of money in the refugee crisis,” he suggests, “but that is on the global scale and [it] is hard to get any income on the local scale. Think global and act local.”

Perhaps an alternative way to view this issue is not to consider architects as designers of individual living units but instead as professionals able to provide expertise at various timescales of temporality, carefully considering the economic suitability of proposed design solutions while helping to steer global funds more locally. Looking towards the future, to really address the issue of mass displacement, we must prepare for the next generation of ‘global cities’ and leave behind the idea of developing out of town camps — by definition unable to sustain themselves long-term — and instead look at how we might revise low-cost and collective living in our existing urban centers.


This article is from a monthly feature column for the online platform Archinect which explores architectural developments within wider cultural and political discussions. Read the original article here: https://archinect.com/features/article/150018423/emergency-shelter-housing-for-the-age-of-mass-displacement