In July, Ikea Foundation and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) will roll out this new shelter for refugees.

The tents the UN usually provides refugees start to disintegrate after six months. The new Ikea-designed shelters are built to last 10 times that long.

They take about four hours to assemble, and come just like your Ikea bookcase.

They’re twice as large as an old-school refugee tent, at 17.5 square meters (fitting five people comfortably).

The shelters are made from lightweight, Porta-Potty-style plastic mounted on a supersteel skeleton.

The shelter is made from a new type of polymer siding called Rhulite that lets light in during the day but keeps light from casting embarrassing shadows outside during the night--a privacy concern with the current UN tents that leads to many refugees extinguishing what little candle- or kerosene-lighting they can afford.

During the day, an external screen on the shelter’s roof provides 70% solar reflection and cooling, and at night it keeps heat in.

Each flat-packed kit will come with a single solar panel that powers a built-in light and a USB outlet.

Ikea and UNHCR will beta test the shelters in Ethiopia next month, then iterate to a final design for mass production.

2013-06-26

A New Ingeniously Designed Shelter For Refugees—Made By Ikea

Today, the best shelter we can usually offer the world’s tens of millions of refugees is a tent. So the folks who make your bookcase (and bed, and table) have designed a cheap, solar-powered hut that only takes four hours to assemble but offers refugees more protection and privacy.

What do you do when a flash mob of a million homeless refugees shows up to your third world country from the neighboring third world country? Make them sleep on the hot (or cold) ground and wait for the United Nations to show up with crappy tents, of course.

Until next month, that is, when you’ll be able to put them up in solar-powered huts on the cheap. In July, Ikea Foundation and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) will roll out one of the major innovations for war-torn homeless since the canvas tent: cheap, flat-packed, build-it-yourself homes with electricity-generating roofs.

More than 43 million people—globally—live as refugees or "internally displaced" (refugees within their own countries), having fled home due to "a well-founded fear of persecution" of race, religion, nationality, or socio-political membership. Right now, 3.5 million of them live in UN-provided tents, says Per Heggenes, CEO of the Ikea Foundation. "They offer little comfort, dignity, or security," he continues. "Further, the existing tents are cold in the winter and hot in the summer. They have no electricity or lighting, limiting refugee families’ ability to lead a normal life."

Eighty percent of refugees are women and children, and 80% of these end up in undeveloped countries. Many remain in limbo for more than a decade at a time, waiting for tension to cool down in their home countries and struggling to find work in new territory. (Imagine Tom Hanks in that one movie where he’s stuck in the airport, only with dirt floor, no air conditioning, and multiplied by 3,500,000 people.)

Up to this point, the best elemental protection relief workers could often provide refugees have been cheap, canvas UN tents that start to disintegrate after about six months.

The new Ikea-inspired shelters are built to last 10 times that long. They’re twice as large as an old-school refugee tent, at 17.5 square meters (fitting five people comfortably) and take about four hours to assemble, which is about how long it took my lawyer friend, Frank, and me to bolt together my giant Ikea bookshelf the other day.

Unlike my bookshelf and other standard, wood-based Ikea fare, the shelters are made from lightweight, Porta-Potty-style plastic mounted on a supersteel skeleton. To make them cost-effective to build, assemble, and ship, the Refugee Housing Unit, which is manufacturing the actual shelter components per the Ikea Foundation’s design, developed a new type of polymer siding called Rhulite that lets light in during the day but keeps light from casting embarrassing shadows outside during the night—a privacy concern with the current UN tents that leads to many refugees extinguishing what little candle- or kerosene-lighting they can afford.

"It is important that the shelter is lightweight enough so that it can be easily and cost efficiently transported, but strong enough to withstand the harsh conditions of refugee camps," says Johan Karlsson, Project Manager at Refugee Housing Unit. "The design is to balance the mechanical properties such as UV, structural strength, insulation, cost and a very specific requirement for this application: privacy."

During the day, an external screen on the shelter’s roof provides 70% solar reflection and cooling, and at night it keeps heat in. "The net is knitted from technical textile made interlaced with aluminum and polyolefin strips," Karlsson sys. "On top of the shade net is solar panel laminated on a thin plastic film, taking away the bulky panels used traditionally."

For a more permanent solution to lost housing, check out the RDM, the disaster shelter you want to live in way more than a FEMA trailer.

The Ikea Foundation (which has invested approximately 3.4 million euros in the project so far) and UNHCR will beta test the shelters in Ethiopia next month, then iterate to a final design for mass production. They currently cost $10,000 to make, but they’re hoping to get that price down to less than $1,000 when they’re in mass production. The tents cost half that, but they hope to have the cost even out, given the long life of the shelters.

The RHU is keeping an eye on the development of Organic Photo Voltaic cells (OPV) that could one day be printed directly onto the shade net and scale up enough solar power to run water purification and cooking devices. But until then, each flat-packed kit will come with a single solar panel that powers a built-in light and a USB outlet.

At first blush, the USB seems odd, but it actually speaks to at least one aspect in which high tech has brought the world together. We 7 billion Earthlings may look, speak, and worship in a thousand different ways, but we all plug our mobile phones into the same four-pin port. And soon, hopefully, we’ll all be able to take care of our unfortunate neighbors a little better, too.

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25 Comments

  • Jason

    il 2013 we designed and developed a structure that is very similar to this one. Since we used foldable panels as support, our structure didn't need any pipe framework. Check out our video on YouTube. Just search for "BYU Design Exploration: Modular Home Design"
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • Alix

    Unless naysayers have a better idea why not support IKEA's effort to help improve the lives of  homeless and desperate people who find themselves forced to live in deplorable conditions?

  • Donshaifer

    As an architect, I have, over a number of years, developed a system called "Parametric Building" that can be built in the same time, but it can also be manufactured in the local community (thus providing jobs), where wood, bamboo, or other fibrous materials are or can be made available .  In addition, using the same parametric technology, we can build schools, clinics, community buildings, shops, and even green houses.  The costs are higher; however, parametric houses are much stronger, more energy efficient, and more adaptive to the culture and environment.  Importantly, parametric buildings last much longer and have a high "residual value;" that is, they have an equity component and can appreciate in value over time.  That means we can enhance the homeowners economic status (build individual wealth) and it increases the economic strength of the country as well.  When housing does not have a capacity for equity---which is what shelter lacks---what we may really be building are future slums with individuals locked into long term poverty.

  • Ray Paule Patrick

    sometimes it's the small steps in what may seem to some as a non-practical direction can be the very steps that were simply needed to be taken if only for the sake of making something actually begin to work, no matter what the cost maybe, (just as in our personal every day aspirations) & dreams ). There can b no greater cost than leaving a people behind.........as the children WE give OUR lives for, ( OUR OWN ) will have to carry what we leave for them to clean up and more over defend themselves from what looks to be a very dark looming difficult international picture of a future.... this gesture of SHELL-TER can only be a step in the right direction for the sake of future international political and cultural relations between the children WE leave behind and the rest of the very REAL AND CLOSE not far away disturbing and unsettled world of today ... 
    SOMETIMES IT'S ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE NO MATTER HOW BLINDING THE LIGHT MAY SHINE INTO YOUR EYES 

    RPP

  • ronwagn

    That is a ridiculously high price. A mud brick building could last many decades with a tin roof, and be made for a tenth the price. Low tech techniques are far better. You could still use solar as well. 

  • www.spiffysolar.com

     Industrial design and architecture students have be doing designs like this for decades. Ideas are not what's needed, it's investment, distribution, commitment, marketing, etc. that's been needed. Hopefully, IKEA can provide it.

  • Philippa

    that leaves a terrible taste in my mouth -what about local context, adaptation and some level of dealing with the problem as opposed to band aiding a solution?

  • arguethefacts

    If you're a refugee without shelter you don't mind a band aiding solution.

  • Jacks8981

    It's not an either/or choice. Ikea can't make the problems causing people to become refugees go away. They're just doing what they can to mitigate the results of those problems. Improving the shelters available to refugees should not be construed in any way as giving us permission to ignore what caused them to become refugees in the first place.

  • Charlotte Davenport

    Thanks for finding the costs in the article.  If it is $1,000 in mass production, this might be really viable in the warmer, treeless areas not subject to hurricanes.  The fact that sanitation is not considered may be a product of designing them for existing refugee camps that seem to be in place for years, not months.   

    But what are the best criteria for shelter that responses to the refugee realities of today?  I have not researched this, but this type of design by IKEA seems a good step.  

  • Mitchell Sipus

    Imagine a group of people who just wandered 200 miles from Somalia into Ethiopia,tired and hungry, all trying to share use of the same supplied allen wrench and make sense of inscrutable Ikea directions.

  • t3d

    Imagine if you were one of those people.

    I'm sure you'd be thankful, not flip.

  • SEPCO-SolarLighting

    This is kinda neat. IKEA definitely comes up with some different approaches to problems. I love the concept. The fact they added solar power to them makes it even better. 

  • Alan Cheung

    What is the name and part number of this item? I shall head to Ikea tonight.

  • Ryder7424

    I designed something similair during the Haitian crisis (that still exists) when I lived in the caribbean. The only difference was we used 20 and 40' containers that arrived ready to go and also dealt with drinking water and sewage. Also the containers are way more durable and fire proof. The cost of the containers was about $3000 plus about $1500 to retrofit. We had shipping donated. The USA (primarily as they were the biggest funder) declined the idea as they wanted to supply wood and concrete blocks to benefit their economies and shipping containers were in shorter supply in the southern states.

     The problem with these light structures is that even if they last 60 months most refugees in war areas can't return within that time period. In Hurricane areas these structures won't last the next rainy or windy season.

  • Fernando Gonzalez

    Yes, I would think the container idea would be more practical for serious housing development which is the one that was and is needed in  this country. Also you need to include the cost of transportation and location. In Haiti and similar countries the 4500 dollars is a lot of money, probably 5-10 years of income. So giving a long term lasting house would help them better than in cases of civil war where the need is temporary. Except for the Palestinian refugees which they are supposed to be 'refugees' forever. The Muslims do not want to solve that problem.
    But, yes, in the long term your solution is better for places where there has been , or will be a Natural disaster.

  • Diggreader

    What a crap article. How can you not discuss costs? This is very "hey this is cool" with no engagement with practicality.