Ikea Foundation and UNHCR design new flatpack shelter for refugees

By June 27, 2013 Blog, NewsBites

We’ve seen projects like the $300 House and Wikihouse try to revolutionize the concept of affordable housing for the world’s poor, and architects design alternatives to outdated tents for post-disaster scenarios left and right. Now, two years after affordable furniture giant Ikea teamed up, through the non-profit Ikea Foundation, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the duo has revealed their design for a new flatpack housing prototype for refugees that can withstand the prolonged time endured by most refugees in temporary settlements.

The 188 square foot hut can be assembled in four hours and fit five people, measuring twice the size of the regulation refugee tent and lasting 10 times as long (UN tents start to disintegrate after about six months). Solar paneled roofing generates electricity for an interior light source, and a special netting deflects solar reflection by 70%, keeping the interior cool during the day and warmer at night. While prototypes now cost about $7,000 apiece, the team believes the unit cost could be cut down to just $100.

According to  IKEA Foundation:

“The prototype of the shelter is now being tested in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. The refugee families who would be making the shelter their homes will have a direct say in how the product is developed, putting their experience at the heart of this collaborative process. Once UNHCR has gathered input from the families testing the shelter, the team will look at how they can make necessary changes and, hopefully, begin producing the new shelters.”

It would be interesting to know how they plan to slash the cost by 98%, and what methods will be used to gather feedback from families and applied to the design.

Prof. Alexander Betts, an associate professor at the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre and the director of the Humanitarian Innovation Project had this to say at Alaska Dispatch:

“We don’t know enough to [say] whether it is an ideal solution yet, but there are reasons to believe it’s exciting: The idea of moving beyond the usual tent structures … that often characterize that sort of terrain in the Horn of Africa, to provide something more durable, more sustainable. It also potentially moves the whole way in which we look at refugees from one of a logic of charity to that of a logic of sustainability.”

Betts cautions, however, of the risks of private sector partnerships in dealing with vulnerable populations such as refugees:

“If one had private sector companies working [in] camps for the wrong motives, who didn’t respect human rights or protection needs, that would be extremely problematic and would seriously undermine the UNHCR’s ability to ever work with the private sector again.”

Ikea has ventured as far as developing budget hotels and building an entire London neighborhood. At least in terms of emergency shelter itself, it does not seem so far-fetched that Swedish designers could vastly improve on the old tarp-and-poles system that has provided inadequate temporary shelter for decades. As Betts says, “It can be very exciting, it can make a contribution, but it must be done in the right way.”

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