Refugee shelters have for a long time been assumed as storage facilities. And yet, refugees would prefer shelters that are more tangible and fundamentally derived from their natural and sociological sphere with an emphasis on the concerned person’s design and preference. UNHCR offered “spaces and forms” with less consideration to origin, culture, usages and habits. Sustainably rethinking the refugee shelter design has become an essential reform given the inadequate impacts of the current models.
The questions arising are fundamentally:
- To what extent are refugee shelters sustainably designed alongside the paradigm shift?
- What should be the future refugee shelter design that adapts to the perspectives of those of concern; if each hosting area requires its own design?
A typical shelter design experience
In 2011, when designing a transitional shelter for United Nations (UNHCR) in Dollo Ado in Ethiopia, the team intended to define the most appropriate transitional shelter that, unlike an emergency shelter, offered a strong, durable and load‐bearing structure. In order to incorporate refugees’ views into the shelter design regarding appropriateness, UNHCR invited three shelter agencies to produce three model prototypes paying more attention to a uniformed approach and less on the materials used.
The prototypes evaluation process was comprehensive. The criterion was based on and not limited to shelter size, cultural appropriateness, safety, replicability and maintenance. It was however noted that over time, some refugees converted their shelters into storage facilities during the night.
Lesson learnt vis-à-vis paradigm shift
Given that the refugees were not directly involved in the shelter design process, these shelters do not provide the refugees with the desirable safety and comfort required for their well-being. The uptake of these shelters as homes by refugees is very poor. The refugees also often feel vulnerable and excluded.
This calls for a paradigm shift and the need to reinvent refugee shelters into units that are “intelligent”, worthy and sustainable. Shelters should be inseparable from the environment, socio-cultural practices and “immaterial”. There is an urgency to transform refugee shelters from storage units and to consider the design process holistically.
Scalability and affordability of refugee shelter innovations in the developing world
Innovation in refugee shelters will connect the inhabitants to technical linkages such as infrastructure, water, electricity, transport and economics. The universal or near-universal access to these networks will enhance healthier and sustainable refugee houses. Shelter sustainability should challenge the validity of “human and local” in the design, as well as embed integration of technical networks into the process for resilience and equitability. Such refined design principles should also promote appropriate land management systems and minimize the depletion of natural resources while taking into account the refugees and local populations’ needs in order to promote integration.
My vision of refugee shelters in the future
Given my 10 years’ experience, there are fundamental factors that contribute to building intelligent and sustainable refugee shelters. Primarily, the design must be human-centered. Resources and technology of construction should be derived from the local perspective and refugee knowledge. Optimal use of local building materials should be a priority based on indigenous technology and architecture. Refugee shelters should also be innovative and reflective of the scholarly humanitarian architecture. With the land scarcity and climate change, the new paradigm should adopt inventive construction technologies making the future refugee shelter resilient and sustainable. The incremental principle of comfort and the changing refugee needs should be considered in the future design.
Future refugee shelters should promote an ecosystem that links mobility and creativity. At a time when Western houses dematerialize, this new thinking can be the matrix of future refugee shelters. Life in these shelters deserves to be preserved and human beings should be placed at the center of the design and construction phases.