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From Chaos to Dignity – The New Face of Shelter Design

March 23, 2016

Shelter is a basic human need, one that many of us barely notice because ours is seldom under threat. But for an increasing number of people, it’s becoming a scarce resource. An unstable climate is driving extreme weather and more natural disasters, or at the very least making the pattern of droughts, floods, and raging storms fundamentally less predictable. These events, in turn, are further disrupting an already unraveling geopolitical order, spawning wars and brutal chaos — sending millions fleeing from their homes. With so many displaced, design has a crucial role to play in meeting critical needs, and more and more designers are working not only to find ways to house people in the short term but explore how the systems we create to respond to disaster can be made more effective and resilient as a whole.

Inspired by the recently launched What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge, this series of brief profiles examines a diverse range of innovative solutions to the shelter needs of those displaced by disaster and conflict. From radically simplified assembly, to the use of new materials, these initiatives are pushing the bounds of what’s possible as we tackle the issue of temporary housing. These examples serve as catalysts for the role that design can play in helping to craft new futures from the rubble of crisis.



Better Shelter / Refugee Housing Unit

The Better Shelter Refugee Housing Unit, developed by the Swedish firm Better Shelter in collaboration with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the IKEA Foundation, aims to provide a safe and dignified shelter solution for displaced people in temporary settlements such as refugee camps. The unit was designed to provide a sustainable, cost-efficient, and modular product that can be easily transported, handled, and assembled. Like much of IKEA’s homewares, the unit arrives in a flat box and is complete with all of the tools necessary to assemble it, marking a great advancement in distribution and assembling processes.

Jordan Shelter Summerization Project

Originally developed as a design consultancy for UNHCR, the FAREstudio Summerization Project was an upgrade-focused project dedicated to preparing prefabricated shelters in the Zaatari refugee camp to withstand the environmental demands of Jordanian summers. After realizing that ventilation, shade, and outdoor space had been left out of the original solution, the focus became the creation of an easily replicable solution to improve comfort and privacy. A canopy made of water pipes, ropes and plastic sheeting was developed that rests on used car tires and provides shade to individual units. For the exterior, the project’s designers created a simple, lightweight veranda that can be combined with neighbors to create larger shaded outdoor spaces, freeing the residents to build communal space according to their own needs and desires.

Cash-for-Shelter Program

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is working to offer refugees in Lebanon an opportunity to live in stable housing that also serves the needs of the host nation. The NRC supports countries that accept refugees by offering a package of upgrades for unfinished buildings in exchange for hosting a displaced household in each building rent-free. This provides the refugee family with minimum-standard shelter and affords them a period of rent-free living (usually about one year), which gives them an opportunity to become financially stable in order to pay rent when the period is over. Every housing unit created eventually becomes an addition to the general rental stock, which helps the host nation avoid housing shortages and rising real estate and rental prices. The hope is that with this approach bonds between refugee and host communities can be strengthened and conflict and large-scale evictions avoided.

Nepal Shelter Project


Shigeru Ban’s shelter design uses a traditional Nepalese construction technique in order to provide a safe and flexible solution to populations affected by the earthquake. The structure is made of hollow timber which is then filled with bricks collected from the collapsed houses, essentially turning ruin into shelter. Because residents can move in directly after the roof is raised and then fill in the walls over time, this solution also allows them to get proper shelter faster, significantly reducing the time people spend homeless.


refugee shelter design - Re:BuildThe Re:Build project is a construction system developed by Pilosio Building Peace with the involvement of architects Cameron Sinclair and Pouya Khazaeli. A temporary structure realized through a basic scaffold system, Re:Build shelters can adapt according to the need, transforming into a house, school, clinic, or other structure as necessary. The community using the shelter can assemble the structure themselves with a team of ten within two weeks. The project has been implemented as schools for Syrian refugees in Jordan and now the Re:Build team is working to implement structures in a refugee camp in Somalia that include a school, market, residential area, canteen and information center.

Calais School Bus Project

Refugee shelter design - calais school bus project

The school bus project operates on the idea that school should be able to come to students, not the other way around. The aim of the School Bus Project is not simply to provide classroom-based education, but to truly answer the needs of refugees and migrants who are constantly on the move. The project fosters education that builds upon the existing skills of the camp’s residents, such as training refugees from areas with dense jungle canopy how to craft shelters from jungle materials. In this way, refugees are able to take charge of their future and develop new competencies by building upon their past.

Ibtasem Playground

Children are among the most vulnerable groups within refugee populations. Fifty-six percent of the 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon are under 18 years old, making the refugee crisis decidedly a youth issue as well. According to the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, “most Syrian refugees live in housing without sufficient space for play and in areas where they do not have space or equipment for play in their surroundings.” Thus, CatalyticAction’s Ibtasem Playground seeks to challenge and expand the notion of what is deemed necessary in emergency situations. The play spaces are developed in collaboration with the children, whose ideas are incorporated into the design process so that each one is unique to the context and imagination of those who will use them.



winterHYDE is a fully insulated, lightweight shelter that protects a family of five from the elements. Each part of the structure can be reused as either plumbing or electric coverings and blankets. After going through several iterations, winterHYDE has shifted its focus from solely serving the urban poor to meeting the needs of refugee and disaster-displaced families. The project was created by the non-profit architecture and design group billionBricks.



What’s Next …

In collaboration with the IKEA foundation and the UNHCR, What Design Can Do has crafted a contest designed to unearth innovative new approaches to shelter from “designers, artists and imaginative trouble-shooters from all countries and disciplines.” Aimed at addressing the current refugee crisis, the prize awards 10,000 euros to each of the top five entries along with advice and guidance designed to turn ideas into viable realities. Even existing ideas and concepts that are seeking further development are eligible. So whether the profiles above have inspired you or you’re already working on a project of your own, you have until May 1st to enter and help push the design world’s response to the needs of refugees forward.


Prepared by Joana Dabaj and Alberto Piccioli from CatalyticAction. Images courtesy of Better Shelter, FAREstudio, Norwegian Refugee Council, Shigeru Ban Architects, Re:Build, School Bus Project, and CatalyticAction. Photo of Za’atri refugee camp by UNHCR/ACNUR Américas


  1. maureen madden March 23, 2016 at 1:43 PM

    Dear Impact Design Hub,
    I enjoy your newsletter, and more significantly I learn and create ideas from your fascinating articles and reporting. Of note is this feature on Shelter Design, from Chaos to Dignity. Would there be anyone, affiliated w/ any of the orgnzns or your orgzn itself, that could work w/ the local chapter of AMnesty International here in Phildelphia, Pennsylvania? I’m thinking of 2 things at the moment – to sit and talk w/ us at one of our monthly meetings, informally. And/or to help us w/ our planned lobbying afternoon w/ Senator Casey, on april 1st.
    I so appreciate your work, and any consideration.
    In Solidarity

  2. Thanks for showing off re:build. Version 2 is about to open in both Amman and Za’atari with improved passive ventilation, double glazed operable windows and lower cost.

    Over the next year we will adapt the design for rural settings. Additionally we are working on micro lending libraries inside the camps, opening the first this month.

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