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Refugee Shelter
Alex Steffen, 13 Feb 06

billboards8.jpg Shelter is a fundamental human need. Meeting that need is inherently a design challenge, at least in part.

Almost two years ago, we wrote about innovative housing solutions, and asked you to share other examples you'd come across. Now, we'd like to repeat the request.

We're doing a whole section in the book about refugees, the problems they face, and the potential for moving beyond merely providing relief to providing access to tools for building a better future. WC contributor Cameron Sinclair is on the job, writing about some of the brilliant designs and new approaches he's found, but we all want to make sure that we're getting the best ideas we can onto the page.

So, what ideas in refugee housing (or improvised shelter in general) have you encountered? What's inspired you? What's made you think? What would you like to see?

All ideas are welcome, as are good links to examples worth exploring.

Thanks!

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Comments

I'd like to toss off what I believe are some desireable ATTRIBUTES of emergency shelters:

Affordable.

Storable.

Easy to manufacture. (No special materials / techniques / licenses.)

Reusable. (So it can be toted to the next disaster site.)

Recyclable. (Can it be safely burned / buried / recycled, or is it an eternal durable mess, like drywall or fiberglass insultion?)

Repurposable. (Can it be used as a silo / barn / workplace?)

Easily transportable.

Easy to erect (minimum of tools required).

Sufficiently large to house typical family, OR made of segments that can be combined into a family shelter.

Suited to local climate and expected weather. (One size will likely NOT fit all!)

Amenable to infrastructure connections. (Electric, plumbing.)


Anything else?


Posted by: Stefan Jones on 13 Feb 06

After the Pakistan quake last October (wherein ~500K people may have died according to regional estimates) there was a huge flow of shelters to house the hundreds of thousands who had lost their homes. Nearly all of the donated shelters were some form of tent ranging from flimsy temperate-climate camping tents to more robust steel-girded tents.

I was part of a volunteer group in the mountains and we found that nearly 100% of the tents were inadequate to combat the snowfall that's seen in the Himalayas. China had the best tent design with steel beams and crosspieces covered by multilayer canvas - but even this design could be crushed by three feet of snow and a hard wind.

We found that, due to the particular needs of the region, the only shelter that would work was sheets of corrugated iron bent in a half-cylinder over steel poles that were driven into the ground. [example photo]

It was hard to see that quality clothes and tents were in abundance but only a $350 metal shelter could protect against the harsh elements for more than a few days.

Stefan posted an excellent list of attributes but the Pakistan structure fits only two or three of them. We knew this at the time and while we were there we occupied ourselves with trying to think up a better shelter design. Our brainstorms mostly brought up ideas that didn't seem possible with current technology:
-stackable, durable building blocks (lego-style) that transported in a deflated state but could be enlarged and combined to hold massive weight
-thin, super-light plastic sheets measuring 2 x 8 meters that could be easily folded or rolled and, once again, could hold massive weight

Aside from the main shelter design (consisting of many individual parts) we found the most valuable item in the whole of northern Pakistan was corrugated iron sheets. Homes with caved-in roofs were rebuilt simply by adding a metal sheet on top. They were impossible to carry, but highly valuable.


Posted by: Danger Stevens on 13 Feb 06

Great stuff Danger!


Posted by: Stefan Jones on 13 Feb 06

The environment in Pakistan sounds like a severe test, but one that has to be met.
It seems to me that a system for reusing local materials and debris would be useful (especially in view of what DS has just been saying). What about a means of reliably bonding debris together? The bonding material(s) could be governed by Stefan's list.

Just a thought.


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 13 Feb 06

Could you fill the lego bricks with rubble? Eg have them folded packing box style to get to the site, then assemble them and (perhaps partially) fill them with gravel / debris.

Not great for throwing up something quickly before nightfall though. The material might have to be plastic too.


Posted by: Adam Burke on 13 Feb 06

I designed a shelter in 2003, and tested a second prototype in 2005:

http://mindismoving.org/hexayurt/

The design is basically a simplified geodesic dome which can be cut from 4' x 8' panels - plywood, cardboard, polystyrene - with zero waste and no fiddly angles. Different environments would ideally use different materials - those poor folk in Pakistan would get the tough hexacomb cardboard and good waterproofing, for instance.

It's an early stage design.

Here's the rest of the picture:

1> Water filtration via a Potters for Peace Filtron
http://www.potpaz.org/pfpfilters.htm

2> Heat and cooking from a Wood Gasification Stove
http://journeytoforever.org/at_woodfire.html

So you have clean water, efficient heating and cooking, first rate shelter. Add a basic school curriculum printed on the inside of the prefab panels, and perhaps some data on medical conditions and other survival-relevant skills, and there ya go.

Other useful features: the panels can be reused in other building projects.

I'm having early talks with a company in Chicago about them funding further R&D, but the design is in the Public Domain, so you can give it a short or even start manufacturing them yourself.

The idea here, by the way, is to create a package deal: a set of appropriate technologies which work synergetically together. The well-insulated shelter means the heat from even a small stove keeps the whole space warm. The water filter is very cheap and can be produced on site by village potters if that is better: think of how much carnage is caused by water borne diseases in refugee camps!

The only really missing feature is a good design for a simple LED reading light: a tiny solar panel, a AA NIMH batter, a simple diode charging circut - but the numbers don't quite add up yet.

Finally there's no reason to restrict these simple "Autonomous Buildings" to refugees. Add a few more features like a Composting Toilet and these become livable, simple autonomous buildings which could be erected anywhere.

http://www.compostingtoilet.org/

I can see them being sold all over the world from the back of pickup trucks.

We have to go beyond tents and beyond thinking of refugees as second class citizens. As I said before "I designed a refugee shelter that I myself could stand to live in for years at a time if needs be."


Posted by: vinay on 13 Feb 06

I designed a shelter in 2003, and tested a second prototype in 2005:

http://mindismoving.org/hexayurt/

The design is basically a simplified geodesic dome which can be cut from 4' x 8' panels - plywood, cardboard, polystyrene - with zero waste and no fiddly angles. Different environments would ideally use different materials - those poor folk in Pakistan would get the tough hexacomb cardboard and good waterproofing, for instance.

It's an early stage design.

Here's the rest of the picture:

1> Water filtration via a Potters for Peace Filtron
http://www.potpaz.org/pfpfilters.htm

2> Heat and cooking from a Wood Gasification Stove
http://journeytoforever.org/at_woodfire.html

So you have clean water, efficient heating and cooking, first rate shelter. Add a basic school curriculum printed on the inside of the prefab panels, and perhaps some data on medical conditions and other survival-relevant skills, and there ya go.

Other useful features: the panels can be reused in other building projects.

I'm having early talks with a company in Chicago about them funding further R&D, but the design is in the Public Domain, so you can give it a short or even start manufacturing them yourself.

The idea here, by the way, is to create a package deal: a set of appropriate technologies which work synergetically together. The well-insulated shelter means the heat from even a small stove keeps the whole space warm. The water filter is very cheap and can be produced on site by village potters if that is better: think of how much carnage is caused by water borne diseases in refugee camps!

The only really missing feature is a good design for a simple LED reading light: a tiny solar panel, a AA NIMH batter, a simple diode charging circut - but the numbers don't quite add up yet.

Finally there's no reason to restrict these simple "Autonomous Buildings" to refugees. Add a few more features like a Composting Toilet and these become livable, simple autonomous buildings which could be erected anywhere.

http://www.compostingtoilet.org/

I can see them being sold all over the world from the back of pickup trucks.

We have to go beyond tents and beyond thinking of refugees as second class citizens. As I said before "I designed a refugee shelter that I myself could stand to live in for years at a time if needs be."


Posted by: vinay on 13 Feb 06

I designed a shelter in 2003, and tested a second prototype in 2005:

The design is basically a simplified geodesic dome which can be cut from 4' x 8' panels - plywood, cardboard, polystyrene - with zero waste and no fiddly angles. Different environments would ideally use different materials - those poor folk in Pakistan would get the tough hexacomb cardboard and good waterproofing, for instance.

It's an early stage design.

Here's the rest of the picture:

1> Water filtration via a Potters for Peace Filtron

2> Heat and cooking from a Wood Gasification Stove

So you have clean water, efficient heating and cooking, first rate shelter. Add a basic school curriculum printed on the inside of the prefab panels, and perhaps some data on medical conditions and other survival-relevant skills, and there ya go.

Other useful features: the panels can be reused in other building projects.

I'm having early talks with a company in Chicago about them funding further R&D, but the design is in the Public Domain, so you can give it a short or even start manufacturing them yourself.

The idea here, by the way, is to create a package deal: a set of appropriate technologies which work synergetically together. The well-insulated shelter means the heat from even a small stove keeps the whole space warm. The water filter is very cheap and can be produced on site by village potters if that is better: think of how much carnage is caused by water borne diseases in refugee camps!

The only really missing feature is a good design for a simple LED reading light: a tiny solar panel, a AA NIMH batter, a simple diode charging circut - but the numbers don't quite add up yet.

Finally there's no reason to restrict these simple "Autonomous Buildings" to refugees. Add a few more features like a Composting Toilet and these become livable, simple autonomous buildings which could be erected anywhere.

I can see them being sold all over the world from the back of pickup trucks.

We have to go beyond tents and beyond thinking of refugees as second class citizens. As I said before "I designed a refugee shelter that I myself could stand to live in for years at a time if needs be."

There's a version of this post with links in the que, but the spam filter eats it. Oh well...


Posted by: vinay on 13 Feb 06

http://mindismoving.org/hexayurt/ - has a few pictures of the half-scale prototype.

One of the design criteria was that the building could be moved - a couple of dozen units on the back of a pickup truck or carried by hand if needs be. All kinds of reasons to do that, with resettlement being the big one.


Posted by: vinay on 13 Feb 06

By the way, here are some back of the envelope costs for these things in bulk.

1> Panel material to be hexacomb cardboard with double sided silver foil facing.
Estimated cost: $7 per 4'x8' sheet in 100,000 sheet quantities.

It could be half that.

2> 12 panels per building (low to the ground)
$84 dollars per unit. Each unit is 166 square feet, or (at 3.2 square meters per person which is, I believe, the UN recommendation) or enough for five people: a small family.

3> Wood gasification stove: $50 in small manufacture, but I think that could be got down to $5 with manufacture in India or China and a streamlined design. It's four ounces of tin at the end of the day.

4> Potters for Peace Filtron: $3

5> Composting Toilet: as far as I know there's no suitable design yet. I'm going to ballpark $25.

So for something like $125 dollars per unit, you get all basic requirements for life except:

* raw water
* food
* fuel

Fuel needs are reduced by a factor of five or ten by the gasification stoves. Being able to cook means that grains like rice can be used on an individual basis, not simply in large communal kitchens... you get the general picture.

Cheap? Certainly not: the per-head cost could easily be twenty or thirty times that of simple blue poly tarps.

But if we'd been able to get these things deployed in Pakistan (and we're probably two years of R&D away)...

That's the suck part.


Posted by: vinay on 13 Feb 06

KickStart, the Kenya/San Fran non-profit most famous for its irrigation treadle pumps, also does building technologies. Check here:

http://kickstart.org/tech/build/

Of particular interest is their latrine "Domeslab" technology. From their web site:

"In Africa the challenge of making sanitation affordable for residents of peri-urban and rural settlements can be met by small businesses making and installing the low cost KickStart ‘Domeslab’ pit latrine cover.

The ‘Domeslab’ is produced using equipment designed by KickStart for the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refuges) during the Somali refugee crisis in 1992. Circular domed concrete slabs with tight fitting lids are quickly and simply cast on site using minimal quantities of cement, and no steel reinforcement. These are easily installed by placing them over the latrine pit.

Two workers can cast 3 slabs per day. A domeslab latrine costs a fraction of a conventional reinforced concrete slab latrine or “Ventilated Improved Pit (VIP)” latrine. This technology is presently in use in refugee camps all over East & Central Africa where relief agencies have installed over 90,000 KickStart domeslabs."


Posted by: Rob on 14 Feb 06

  1. Sprayable Ceramic, i.e., lightweight styrofoam placed in aluminum channels, then covered with ceramic.
  2. Ground System Heat Pump heating and cooling by using the ambient temperature of the ground or nearby pond
  3. Micro-CHP using stoves that burn switchgrass, other marginal crops and agricultural waste


Posted by: jcwinnie on 14 Feb 06

As one who's worked in Refugee Camps, I'd have to say that you need to consider a couple of things.

*when does short term crisis become long term (& therefore when can temporary shelter become more permanent?).

*the best kind of more permanent shelter I've seen are the Afghan mudbrick homes. this is the shelter used in the old refugee villages. contact me for more info. but see my next point first...

*the best kind of shelter is always going to be culturally appropriate/adaptable shelter. e.g. Muslim women in refugee camps have a particularly difficult time protecting their purdah if they are living in tents. How can shelter solutions be adaptable to allow for the creation of family compounds? Oh & the creation of safe washing areas for women (regardless of culture!).

* Refugee Camps are not just temporary "homes", they are entire villages... And since my speciality area is schools... please think of something better than the currently used "school tents". They need to hold up to 40 children per class, be airy, bright enough to see their work (without electricity), and protective from the elements.

*Commenter Rob mentioned the VIP latrines. I've used a lot of latrines in camps & I must say that they don't really seem to get much better than a VIP. But don't forget the toilet needs of children under 5. Latrines are often built too big for them or they can't squat over them.

*remember that a refugee camp is not necessarily the same as a camp for internally displaced following a natural disaster and that needs might be different.

*if you want some reading on building community through building refugee environments, let me know... I can send you a few suggestions.

I'm not an engineer, if you can't tell, I'm just hoping that you'll tackle the answers to some of these issues in your section on refugee shelter.


Posted by: CleverGirl on 14 Feb 06

Glad to see some recognition that emergency shelter should also provide sanitary facilities. The simplest cheapest and most culturally adaptive method is the sawdust/bucket system promoted by Joe Jenkins in The Humanure Handbook: www.jenkinspublishing.com


Posted by: Larry Warnberg on 14 Feb 06

A lot of alternative solutions work on a small scale but can't cope with large scale displaced populations. This goes particularly for structures which rely on imported or non-renewable materials that can't be sourced easily. I'd be interested to see if anybody has any thoughts about that?

I realise that WorldChanging is focused on alternatives, which is very valuable. Anybody who wants to know the "state of the art" in this sector should visit the Shelter Centre (http://www.sheltercentre.org/sheltercentre/index.htm)whose Shelter Library is extensive. I'd also recommend looking at the Sphere Project minimum standards on shelter, settlements and non food items, which is used widely by many agencies (pdf at the Sphere Project website at http://www.sphereproject.org/handbook/hdbkpdf/hdbk_c4.pdf).


Posted by: Paul Currion on 15 Feb 06

I would have to vote for the yurt. It is lightweight, strong and portable -- and it can withstand huge snow loads and wind. It is also easily heated, and can safely house a stove for cooking. A good example can be found over at http://www.coloradoyurt.com.


Posted by: Andrew on 15 Feb 06

An easy to use shelter I thought up was simply a very large plastic traffic cone with a door that bends open like a large plastic tab.

As with normal traffic cones you can stack em hundreds deep and burried just below ground they wont blow over.

In cold climes you can make black cones and in hot you can make white ones.


Posted by: wintermane on 15 Feb 06

Hey, Editors, could somebody mop up the extra copy of my post that went in - the one without the links? I can't seem to delete it because I'm not an admin on this thread...

Thanks!


Posted by: Vinay on 15 Feb 06

This might sound like a naive question, but, in the case of Pakistan, where coming up with a shelter design proved such a challenge, wouldn't you get a better ROI from investing in ways to move the people out of the difficult-to-shelter areas rather than trying to figure out a shelter to bring in?

I know we're talking about 10's of 1000's of people, but if we're willing to invest so much energy into bringing shelter there that ultimately don't work (see Danger Stevens' note about the robust Chinese tents collapsing under three feet of snow), wouldn't the energy be better spent on finding places for the survivors to go, and then just to move them?


Posted by: Irma on 15 Feb 06

That's a really good question Irma.

It came down to a matter of land rights. There were enormous 'shelter cities' constructed in the lowlands and everyone in the affected regions was invited to move there. There were some problems though:

- land is held by tradition and squatter's rights. If a family leaves their land it's a guarantee that another family will have moved in while they're away.

- livestock had to be left behind. This meant that the sole asset of many families would be left to die in the cold or be stolen by another family. Most chose to risk the winter and try to keep their goat(s) alive than be penniless. If a family had no livestock or land, they were destitute.

Many people did move to the refugee camps but several organizations (the Pakistani military for one) thought it important to care for the widows, the orphans, and the extreme poor by giving them shelters in-place.


Posted by: Danger Stevens on 16 Feb 06

Forgive me if this is a little off topic, but there is an interesting discussion to be had concerning differentiating between the needs of political/warfare refugees, urban homeless populations, refugees from natural disasters, squatters, and mass migrations of rural poor seeking work in urban areas. these categories are pretty arbitrary, but i think there is a tendency to universalize shelter design with a bias toward design for (temporary) disaster relief. natural disasterse tend to get a lot of attention because they are by their nature violent and cause the sudden displacement of many people. however, i'm not entirely convinced that there is a univeral solution for providing shelter for those who need it. i'm curious to know what the long term goal is of such shelter is - do we expect refugees to return (after x days, weeks, months) to an urban area, utilizing said shelter as a basic building block for a new community, etc. also, should such a shelter be purely modular or interact with other shelters in some sort of way? mind you, i'm not belittling any of excellent designs i've read about here, but i'm curious to know if anyone has come across a broader range design techniques or (arguably subversive) techniques and typological approachs learned from squatters seeking work in rapidly developing countries.

Quasi-related examples include...
David Rakowitz's paraSITE project (inflatable shelters for teh homeless) comes to mind. http://www.index2005.dk/Members/fybokunone/homeObject

From the historical perspective, the Heineken World Bottle (WoBo) - design for materials reuse.

From the adhocism file-
Kowloon Walled City
http://www.twenty4.co.uk/on-line/issue001/project02/KWC/Main.html

Also Shigeru Ban's use of cardboard tubes to design disaster relief shelters for refugees from the kobe earthquake.


Posted by: d.r.brown on 16 Feb 06

As Danger and others point out, it is amazing what ugly, non-technically advanced, prosaic materials will do. Corrugated metal is a pain to schlep around, but pretty handy for squatters all over the world. That's why it was present in all the squatter communities I lived in.

All of the goals and principles outlined here are terrific--but if we wind up designing a temporary shelter that costs a bundle in r&d and fabrication and designer fees, it'll be pointless.


Posted by: robert neuwirth on 16 Feb 06



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