Better homes for refugees

How do you provide refugees in disastrous circumstances with dignified, weather-proof and cost-effective shelters? The IKEA Foundation and its partners asked themselves these questions and through innovation and funding came up with Better Shelter. This project fits in perfectly with the IKEA Foundation’s mandate to support children and families living in the world’s poorest communities.

The IKEA Foundation worked with its partner organisation, UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), and a Swedish design team to develop the homes. Most of the first order of 10,000 shelters went to northern Iraq, while 50 became medical stations for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Nepal after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the region in April 2015.

Cost effective and durable

Each Better Shelter lasts three years and costs about $1,100 USD, or about 976 euro. Previously, tents used by UNHCR cost $500 USD (about 444 euro) and lasted six months. Multiply this over decades and thousands of families, and the savings are huge.

But cost is not the only benefit. The new refugee homes are easy to ship because they are flatpacked; they can withstand extreme cold, fine sand, heat and rain. The construction consists of panels that can be combined in different ways, so the people who live there can decide where the doors and windows go. And they come with a solar panel that provides about four hours of inside light per evening.

A radical approach

The journey towards Better Shelters began in 2010. Industrial Designer Johan Karlsson, who was working in a small firm in the north of Sweden, pitched an idea for better refugee housing to IKEA Foundation. This eventually led to a collaboration with the IKEA Foundation.

“We knew this would not be a tent,” said Johan Karlsson. “A tent is too labour intensive. We needed to be more radical in our approach.”

In the  search for new materials, the design team looked to the auto industry and the packaging industry. These two sectors are experts at safety and economies of scale. A specially developed polymer is now used for the shelters.

Testing of 50 prototypes took about 16 months, starting in 2013, according to Jonathan Spampinato at  the IKEA Foundation. Families in refugee camps gave their feedback, and the developers made improvements. For example, there are no floors since wet mud floors have a cooling effect as the water evaporates. The location of  windows and doors is flexible. Families with babies wanted windows nearer the bottom of a wall panel for air circulation.

Refugee tents from outside

Positive outcomes

Johan Karlsson said the people who used the shelters took pride in the do-it-yourself nature of the shelte.r

“People said they had a sense of ownership because they built it themselves,” he said, “That made me feel like I was really making a difference.”

A second, unexpected outcome is that the UNHCR has benefited, too. “Our partnership with UNHCR showed that they have a great need for innovation,” says Jonathan Spampinato. “They now have an innovation unit of about 12 people in Geneva, who work not only with shelters, but also with renewable energy and sanitation,.”

How do you provide refugees in disastrous circumstances with dignified, weather-proof and cost-effective shelters?

Together, the IKEA Foundation’s funding, Better Shelter’s innovation and UNHCR’s needs and distribution, have made a difference in the lives of many people in dire straits.And the orders continue to come in.

“Model 1.2 of the shelter will go to refugees in Chad and Djibouti in Africa, and the Republic of Macedonia,” said Johan. “These places have different needs. There are many different cultures and you have to solve their needs in different ways.”

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