Flat-pack alternative to tents for refugees

Sensemaking / Flat-pack alternative to tents for refugees

IKEA and the UN collaborate on the design and distribution of temporary shelters for those displaced by conflict and climate.

By Futures Centre / 21 Aug 2013

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) is partnering with the IKEA Foundation on a new temporary shelter for refugees. Twenty-five of the flat-pack shelters are currently being tested in the Dollo Ado refugee camp in Ethiopia, home to over 190,000 refugees. A further twelve shelters will also be deployed to Lebanon, which hosts 500,000 Syrian refugees.

The 188 square foot shelters are made from rigid plastic panels attached to a lightweight frame. They can be assembled in about four hours by two people, and will comfortably sleep five. A 4,28W solar panel mounted on the roof can power a light after dark or charge a mobile phone. And in true IKEA style, the shelters can be disassembled, moved, and reassembled at a different site.

As the shelters last for three years they could be a good alternative to canvas tents which, according to the UNCHR, currently house around 10% of the world’s refugee population – some of whom could be dislocated from their homes for as many as twelve years.

The IKEA Foundation is investing €3.4 million in the project, and is also offering its expertise in flat-packing and logistics. UNCHR brings 60 years of relief work experience that influences the design, the technical requirements and the choice of where to field test the prototypes.

"The IKEA Foundation provides funding and management support, UNHCR brings the know-how and field experience, while we and our private and academic partners carry out the hands-on development of the product", says Johan Karlsson, Project Manager at the Refugee Housing Unit, which is also a member of the partnership.

Trials have shown that locally-sourced PET bottles can be recycled into the plastic panels, which could bring down the price tag for each shelter – estimated to be over €5,000 – making them far more expensive than a tent. Sonia Molina Metzger, a shelter expert at the British Red Cross, believes there are also questions relating to effective living space, type of foundation, resistance to natural hazards (such as wind and heavy rain), cost, maintenance, and flexibility to adapt the shelters to certain needs or cultural contexts, adding that: “The introduction of a final prefab product with very special pieces makes it difficult to repair.”

Modifications to the design once the field tests are complete should address some of these concerns. "Now the shelters are up for testing with the most valuable feedback loop – the end user", says Karlsson. – John Eischeid

Photo credit: Ikea

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